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The Siren Song of the Robot

It may not be the boon we're counting on
Tuesday, January 29, 2013, 1:03 PM

The quest for cheap energy and cheap labor is a conquering human urge, one that has played out with notable ferocity starting with the Industrial Revolution. The introduction of coal into British manufacturing and the more recent outsourcing of Western manufacturing to Asia have marked key thresholds in this ongoing progression.

But despite the harvesting of additional productivity gains from the more recent revolution in information technology, the suite of macro data suggests that the rate of advancement in physical production has slowed, notably, in the past thirty years.

Seen in this light, the greatest gains to global industrial production were probably enjoyed from the late 18th century (when coal extraction and use began in earnest) into the mid-20th century (when oil reached broad distribution). In contrast, computers, the Internet, and the leveraging of developing world labor might eventually be seen as the finishing touches on this great industrial wave.

The Siren Song of the Robot

Indeed, the world now faces a double constraint to any further revolutionary gains to physical production: resource scarcity and the diminishing supply of the cheapest global labor, as wages in the Non-OECD have most likely seen their low.

That we have reached this juncture probably explains why a new idea has arisen: The advent of robots.

That fleets of more technically-proficient robots becoming ever more encompassing in their role in the economy will trigger the next Industrial Revolution, the one that does indeed deliver extraordinary productivity gains. The Rise of Machine Intelligence, it's now anticipated, will finally pull GDP back to the higher growth path seen in previous industrial advances.

The past year has been a fertile time to consider this possibility. In March of 2012, Amazon.com bought the warehouse robot company, Kiva Systems. It seems not coincidental that Amazon has also engaged in a new wave of construction, building distribution centers poised to leap into an age of next-level automation. Each one, in its vastness and architecture, seems perfectly set up to reduce the quantity of human labor required to run Amazon's business. From The New York Times article:

“Amazon has not had great margins,” Jason Helfstein, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Company. “One has to believe they looked at this and thought, ‘Why not just own it and take all the technology in house?’” The acquisition comes as Amazon aggressively adds distribution centers to service its growing consumer base. The company has heavily promoted its Prime service, which provides customers two-day shipping for $79 a year. Last year, Amazon said it planned to add 17 warehouses, bringing its total to 69.

You can see the video of Kiva robots here, acting as automated shelf and inventory movers. Note also the remark from the Oppenheimer analyst, concerning Amazon's poor margins. (Well, that's not news). However, it's a key theme to the pressures fated to drive the rise of machine intelligence (Capitalism demands it).

Accordingly, it's not surprising that even energy companies like ExxonMobil are thinking about the global shift to automated manufacturing, data centers, and, importantly to Exxon, the rise of electricity (I have been writing continually over the past year about the transition from a world running on liquid BTUs to a world running on power. Please see Rise of the Global PowerGrid, August 2012).

In its just released Annual Energy Outlook, looking ahead to the year 2040, Exxon writes:

One of the emerging drivers of demand globally relates to digital warehouses. The New York Times reports that on a worldwide basis, these data facilities use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants. Data centers in the United States are estimated to account for one-quarter to one-third of that load.

2012 was also a year in which military drones finally penetrated public awareness levels, given their widespread use by the military. WIRED magazine has declared that 2012 was the year of the drone in Afghanistan. Indeed, the military drone is increasingly carrying the weight not only of U.S. ground operations globally, but, assuming that the U.S. is in a leadership position now in the field of military drones, we can conclude that unmanned craft are creeping up to become a feature of U.S. foreign policy.

Let's pause here and consider that in just these two examples. We have one type of robot – the military drone – whose greatest contribution is to radically reduce the amount of resources required to deliver lethal strike capability. And we have the other, whose promise is to displace human labor on the shop floor (or in Amazon’s case, the inventory floor).

The replacement of human labor and its myriad, associated costs is revolutionary. The promise for robots to take energy input costs down a notch, at a time when the price level for energy has gone through a phase shift higher, is compelling. If we assume that the I.T. revolution so far has delivered only small, incremental gains to the production of physical goods, then a robot revolution could finally usher in the changes that critics correctly say has not yet been delivered by a world of bits.

The combination of robots and cheap electricity could well unleash a new phase of profitability for corporations – and, of course, the owners of the means of production. What’s less likely, however, is that any such revolution is sustainable.

Because unlike the Industrial Revolution, which added powerful BTUs in the form of coal to augment human labor, thus creating a tidal wave of profits and increased wages, a robot revolution promises to furnish the world with stuff at the expense of human employment.

Many thinkers currently writing on this subject believe that a labor force deprived even further of purchasing power, yet given greater access to cheap goods, will wind up richer on the whole. I won’t say that’s wrong, but I will say it seems unlikely.

Radical Price Shifting

Let’s engage in a thought experiment, a scenario in which robots almost totally disrupt a particular type of consumer good. I’m choosing an example that I think would be most favorable to those who are sanguine about a robot-manufactured world, in which our wealth and free time are enhanced and people “become liberated to engage in other activities.”

Given the daily drudgery of cooking and meal preparation, let’s imagine that a company is able to take high-end cooking ranges, high-end cooking equipment, and high-end refrigerators and freezers, and deliver them to market at discounts up to 50% off current prices. There is already a cultural shift underway to eat home-prepared food. Arming consumers during a time of higher food costs with the very best tools to prepare and store food dovetails nicely with current trends and household cost pressures.

White goods, such as these, are a substantial part of furnishing a home. By radically lowering the price of these high-end tools, the owners of private homes and also apartments are more easily able to buy, prepare, and freeze food, thus freeing up capital  (time) for other pursuits. Taking a look at the manufacturing locale, and input costs, of our hypothetical new company will be instructive.

We'll call our new whiteware manufacturer Man Who Fell to Earth, Inc. (MWFE).

No Need for China

Western economies burden corporations with complex labor regulations and even more onerous tax liabilities. The decision to place a human being on the payroll in France, Britain, or the United States is not taken lightly, and it represents a huge increase in costs for health care, taxes, and unemployment insurance. A person hired at a salary of $125,000 can imply total costs double that amount. This is why cheap labor in Asia has been such a draw for Western corporations. But now that China has reached the Lewis Turning Point, there is less reason to locate there.

Instead, Man Who Fell to Earth (MWFE) needs to think about shipping costs and energy input costs, because robots run on electricity. As it turns out, the United States has some of the cheapest electricity rates in the OECD. Average U.S. rates are just below 10 cents per KWh, and are stable as well. Even better, industrial and commercial rates are even lower. From the most recent data, via EIA Washington:

Robots need no healthcare and incur no payroll taxes. Indeed, as machines, they would be conveniently depreciated like other capital equipment.

Owing to U.S. hydropower and our cheap natural gas-fired powergrid, it's no longer clear that a factory making stoves, refrigerators, and cooking equipment with robots would be any cheaper in Asia. Indeed, current data suggests the price of electricity in China is roughly around 7.5 cents (or higher) per KWh.

So, where might be a good locale for MWFE and its factory?

The Columbia River: The Dalles

Within the U.S., the cheapest electricity rates are in the Pacific Northwest. For the very same reasons that Amazon and Google have chosen The Dalles to site data centers, our Man Who Fell to Earth, Inc would find access to rail and river routes would set up the operation well, not only to receive raw materials but to ship to both North American and Pacific Markets.

The Pacific Northwest is also the site of the largest smartgrid demonstration project in the U.S., operated by Battelle Labs and the Department of Energy. Microsoft and Yahoo have also chosen the Columbia River region to build enormous electricity-gulping data centers. Here is a photo of Google's complex in the Dalles:

A Clutch of Humans

As towns along the Columbia River and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest have discovered, electricity-seeking data centers employ very few people. Google's data center cost over a half billion dollars to build, but employs at best 200 people. Facebook's data center in Prineville, OR employs only 55.

Once the construction phase is over, Man Who Fell to Earth, Inc (MWFE) becomes an operation also employing few human workers.

Mostly, MWFE would engage in consumer marketing and would concern itself with the futures market for finished steel, copper, and other commodities. MWFE strikes long-term shipping agreements with railroad companies and it monitors quality control mostly through remote instrumentation. Its only need for humans is to manage relationships with raw material providers and to liaise with the robot manufacturers for maintenance and upgrades. It’s probably the case that MWFE is robot-staffed by an array of 3-D printers and various free-ranging robots. It’s probably also the case that the initial up-front investment is enormous, but while there are still the usual uncertainties about the economics of the operation itself, the company has taken the volatility of ongoing labor costs down to very low levels.

More and U.S. manufacturers are already making the choice to invest in 'intelligent machines' to guide robot production lines. Adam Davidson's excellent piece on this subject on last year's Atlantic, Making It in America, charts the course of automation as the U.S. competes against cheap developing-world labor through the use of advanced machines. Of course, this means that the U.S. economy holds some moderate ground in terms of output.

But it also means that demand for human labor collapses further:

Yet the success of American manufacturers has come at a cost. Factories have replaced millions of workers with machines. Even if you know the rough outline of this story, looking at the Bureau of Labor Statistics data is still shocking. A historical chart of U.S. manufacturing employment shows steady growth from the end of the Depression until the early 1980s, when the number of jobs drops a little. Then things stay largely flat until about 1999. After that, the numbers simply collapse. In the 10 years ending in 2009, factories shed workers so fast that they erased almost all the gains of the previous 70 years; roughly one out of every three manufacturing jobs – about 6 million in total – disappeared.

Implications

There is nothing our robot manufacturing company can do to lower the price of steel, copper, rubber, and chemicals. Likewise, it’s beholden as well to the robot and 3-D machine manufacturers. It still has to negotiate with transport companies, who themselves, in the case of the railroads, enjoy monopoly pricing. But MWFE has escaped the high cost of maintaining a human workforce and is passing on those savings to consumers.

But what happens to the economy should this trend broaden?

During the past 30 years, Americans have been treated to a flood of cheap goods and outright deflation in most foreign manufactured items. Did this make us wealthier? Because that is the standard position of many economists.

The developed world has learned over the past decade that a steady supply of cheaper, foreign-made goods does not guarantee prosperity. What impact will (perhaps only moderately) cheaper goods have if coupled with reduced employment as human labor is displaced by machines? If we are unable to find a higher use for the displaced human labor, we are actually worse off.

In Part II: Why the Robot Age May Create a Massive Deflationary Bust, we take a look at why the end of cheap energy will drive the economics of machine intelligence, as global capitalism desperately seeks its next revolution.

The efficiencies promised by robots and other intelligent machines are real and will play a critical role in our industrial future. But their hidden risks to society are high and must be addressed early on in order to enter into the 'robot age' without triggering radical levels of inequality.

For if we don't, we may well find that the solution is worse than the problem we've designed it for.

Click here to read Part II of this report (free executive summary; enrollment required for full access).

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69 Comments

Wendy S. Delmater's picture
Wendy S. Delmater
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yes, exactly

Gregor, you do not know me but I am a science fiction editor and blogger, and a futurist. I am often a speaker at genre conventions and one of the frequent questions I receive is, "Which science fiction books got it right? Which SF authors accurately predicted the future?"

I always send them to Kurt Vonnegut's 1952 novel, Player Piano. Per the wiki on the book, "The story takes place in a near-future society that is almost totally mechanized, eliminating the need for human laborers. This widespread mechanization creates conflict between the wealthy upper class—the engineers and managers who keep society running—and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines."

The book describes a dystopia, a dark future I see unfolding before my eyes. It's the "R" in futurist Raymond Kurzweil's G-N-R revolution: genetitics, nanotechnology, and robotics.

I do hope you take on the other two items of the triumverate of our faith in technology, genetics and nanotech. I once thought genetics could save us by crop tech making the deserts bloom, but that was before Monsanto and their less than ethical ways.

gillbilly's picture
gillbilly
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Finally, Thank You!

Great article! Many of us have seen the costs of how technological advances often outweigh the benefits, so it is wonderful to have a well thoughtout depiction of the process going forward. My local newspaper ran an article last friday on the driverless car that is all the rage. Miraculously the reporter asked the question (my first question when I learned of the technology)...what will happen to all the jobs in the transportation sector? I guess this question is being asked more lately in light of our unemployment. In the article it stated that some economists could envision fifty percent unemployment at sometime in the next twenty years as we shift to this new robotic economy. How come the question "should we even implement every innovation?" is never asked. The narrative and answer always seems to be... it's inevitable, it's going to happen. This is a great rebuttal to that answer.

Thank You

Gregor Macdonald's picture
Gregor Macdonald
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Wealth in an Age of Robots.

I was cautious in the writing of this piece, and was unsure as to whether I gave the subject sufficient scope. However, on reflection, I am pretty happy with the way it turned out--and the writing of the piece started to close some gaps for me, in my recent thoughts about the problem. I believe thinkers have only just begun to address the issue. Just this morning, I met with someone in the construction industry, and I was not totally surprised to learn that automation is increasingly taking place in the design and manufacture of modular parts. To the extent the world economy moves towards the powergrid, there will be a new drive to automate physcial production processes. And I think anyone who claims certainty, now, about how this all turns out is probably very off the mark. I note, in the piece, that too many are sanguine about the "upward march of wealth, created by greater availability of cheap goods." Oh yes, we have heard that one for the past two decades.

Best to all,

G

Doug's picture
Doug
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3D copier tech

Gregor, have you thought about how 3D copier technology might fit into your scenario?  I haven't really looked into it to any great extent, but some people I know who have claim it is the future of manufacturing.

Doug

Adam Taggart's picture
Adam Taggart
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In related news

Here's a related article Chris shared with me earlier today:

Millions Of Middle-Class Jobs Killed By Machines In Great Recession's Wake

Five years after the start of the Great Recession, the toll is terrifyingly clear: Millions of middle-class jobs have been lost in developed countries the world over.

And the situation is even worse than it appears.

Most of the jobs will never return, and millions more are likely to vanish as well, say experts who study the labor market. What's more, these jobs aren't just being lost to China and other developing countries, and they aren't just factory work. Increasingly, jobs are disappearing in the service sector, home to two-thirds of all workers.

They're being obliterated by technology.

Year after year, the software that runs computers and an array of other machines and devices becomes more sophisticated and powerful and capable of doing more efficiently tasks that humans have always done. For decades, science fiction warned of a future when we would be architects of our own obsolescence, replaced by our machines; an Associated Press analysis finds that the future has arrived.

It seems the risks Gregor is warning about are already expressing themselves...

MarkBahner's picture
MarkBahner
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Not an equal rate of growth. A much, much higher rate of growth.

The Rise of Machine Intelligence, it's now anticipated, will finally pull GDP back to the higher growth path seen in previous industrial advances.

No...it will make GDP grow much, much faster than ever seen.

http://markbahner.typepad.com/random_thoughts/2004/10/3rd_thoughts_on.html

http://markbahner.typepad.com/random_thoughts/2005/11/why_economic_gr.html

Within the next 1-3 decades, world per-capita GDP will routinely be growing at greater than 6 percent per year...which is faster than world per-capita GDP has ever grown in a single year.

That's because (free) human minds are what create economic growth. Within the next 1-3 decades, the human brain equivalents added each year by computers will be more than the human population of the planet. 

RJE's picture
RJE
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So, sticking ones head in the sand is a bad idea...

...and why is that? I will not contemplate any more of this after this posting with any seriousness as it has a queerness about it.

Gregor this was a truly well written essay but I just can't go there, and I use humor when I get all sick inside. Or go to music to chill but not this time. I think some serious contemplation better have begun on this whole robotics thing or take a look a Detroit. Less than 40 years and destroyed as though it was bombed out. It started with the robotic welders.

We just keep jumping from the frying pan into another frying pan. The singularity may just be near after all. Yikes!

No Thank You

BOB

mememonkey's picture
mememonkey
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6 % growth not going to happen that is a techno utopian fantasy

This is some pretty cornucopian thinking,  your assumptions completeyl discount all the obvious   limitis to growth, incluiding the mother of all limitiations, Energy.  In a net declining energy regime GDP will decline perhaps slightly delayed by impleentation of efficiencies. as will complexity,  I do howver see growth in numbers of people involved in growing food.

Assuming some breakthorugh produces unlimited energy,  we are still hitting the wall in a full spectrum of the other inputs to growth.   Humans are not going to think or compute their way out of overshoot,  they will do it the old fashioned way by dying off over time until the population is comsenurate with their degraded enviormnet and organicaly availible energy inputs.

mememonkey

gillbilly's picture
gillbilly
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I trust CM way more than Ray Kurzweil!

Mark B,

I agree with mememonkey. Kurzweil seems to think we won't hit any limits, at least, not any realistic limits, so 6% growth? Anything is possible, but I'm certainly not going to bet on it.  The same claims were made about Web 2.0 and the cloud. GDP would grow, we would all be wealthier. Jaron Lanier's book "You are Not a Gadget" gives a pretty good case that it has not lived up to the predictions. Those predictions were 15 years ago. How long do we have to wait for this renaissance? I'm alive now and have to support my family.

No I'm not a Luddite. I guess what I'm saying is that we are hitting limits in almost all directions, and the use of technology should be brought back under the control of us as a society and not us under the control of its narrative of inevitability. And yes, looking at CM and RK as individuals, I am biased in saying I see CM as a much more balanced person in his outlook on the world.

Thank You

Arthur Robey's picture
Arthur Robey
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A Terabyte of Gaffs.

Here is the 1 terabyte flashdrive. I wonder what its environmental footprint is?

One of the advantages of writing things to electronic records is that in future the technology will not be able to read it. So our most embarassing gaffs will be unrecorded. Unlike pen and paper where thoughts from Roman times are still available.

RJE's picture
RJE
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"Sufficient Scope"

Gregor, I read your essay a few times now, and I assure you, you are most certainly correct that robots will for a fact replace many millions of jobs from menial to the most gifted. This revolution is well underway. The discussion with regards to moral hazard will be slow if ever really talked about seriously. The Folks least likely then to pay their astronomical Debts will never be able to keep up. This will include all classes from the uneducated to the Rich.

I think you showed GREAT RESTRAINT in truly showing were this is headed. Personally I would like you to do a follow up with crude numbers showing what could realistically be anticipated in just the next 10 years.

I'll tell you what robotics has done to Detroit. It took a City of about 2 million Folks and reduced it to a City of $500,000 (plus or minus) and did this in 40 years. Of the 500,000 Folks still living in this Mad Max society I would guess 50% of them (AT LEAST!) are on some form of welfare. Of these 500,000 Folks maybe, maybe, 10% has any chance of a blissful life. Truth be told, they are all left for dead.

Note: I am well aware that off shoring has contributed to Detroit's demise. I am also certain that robotics is a form of off shoring because the bottom line is cheap labor paying NO BENEFITS, NO TAXES, so robotics here or labor over seas is to the benefit of the robots and not labor. My point: No jobs, no keeping up with bills, bankruptcy, and no taxes to take care of the displaced and this will be very violent. It only gets worse and it started yesterday Folks. It will be a massive negative feedback loop. Now, Detroit happened in robotics infancy so it is no stretch to think the timeline for robotics has sped things up a bit. 20 years from now and Chris will be right, "the world will not look as it has in the last 20 years" (I hope I was close enough in quoting the Professor).

Ohio? The whole of the Rust Belt? All are looking as Detroit once looked. Soooo, where exactly is this going?

Gregor, I am guessing here but I sense in you and having to have written this essay as a bit troubled, and I say this because I have seen what mechanization has done and it isn't pretty at all. I believe you see this too. Tough essay to write Gregor, it really is, just as tough to read.

I have been poo pooed for saying things like, you will be glad if the military assisted in helping with supply chains and things like that. I didn't say it to be controversial but if you displace the uneducated and the educated in the numbers that can easily be imagined from your essay, and you add to  the thought process of more fire arms purchased in the last 4 years that equals probably all the weapons still in the market then you have a very serious situation starting to smolder. The citizens of the United States has NEVER been better armed. Honestly, if you Folks have never lived during a riot, when a City goes absolutely insane on a hot summers day then you are in for one really crazy nightmare. It happens in an instant and moves out like a locus where everything is so violent and unpredictable in all corners of the City!

I tried hard to stay away from this topic but it has consumed me a bit. Always positive I am, and I am positive that robotics are a good and horrible thing. Must have balance but my experience is that GREED will win out, and that will not end well.

Last thought: 500,000 postal workers are being supported and it is a dead industry, and frankly every single one of them should get a pink slip (I haven't mailed a piece in I don't know how long. Maybe Christmas Cards. I do everything on line). 50 million welfare recipients and rising. 78 million Baby Boomers. 61 million Folks working and make $20,000 or less. Millions and Millions of jobs have been lost due to robots since the Recession began. Trillion dollar PLUS deficits since the Recession began and no end in sight. 50% unemployment rate and a Depression if the Fed stepped out. I think we are already in a Depression if you just step back and look at what robotics mean. Every dollar lost to robotics cost the treasury dollars in taxes. No! Well, the Corporates will absolutely find a way to NOT pay enough taxes to fund the displaced. Laborers just went to work, paid their taxes, and played with the kids, and at night had a couple beers when the kids went to bed. That sounds good to me but even that visual looks sketchy to me 20 years from now. This looks and feels really bad Folks and I am an optimist.

Regards

BOB

westcoastjan's picture
westcoastjan
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but what are they using to measure that GDP Mark?

While I have no doubt that increasing use of robotics in place of human labour will see short term spikes in the speed and cost savings at which some things are done, current GDP measurements are so skewed that they are virtually meaningless, at least to me. All of the numbers being put out there are manipulated by people who have lost all credibility/integrity, so why should I believe anything they say?

And quite frankly, I believe sudden, un-sustainable, short term spikes in GDP will be counter-productive to what we need to achieve. We desperately need everyone to come to the unequivocal realization that the party is winding down, a new dawn is approaching, and the new day will be different from yesterday. To add a sudden short-term surge to GDP would be like spiking the party punch-bowl for another round. I instead advocate for putting everyone in a cab and sending them home to sober up so that they will be better able to cope with the rude awakening that awaits them. We don't need to add more to what is already going to be a hum-dinger of a hang-over.

Making predictions using hard numbers is a fool's game - how can it not be when the very integrity of the data on which people are making predictions is in question? Just like those who might call for $10,000.00 gold. Good headline grabber, and it may very well happen, but they are making predictions today based on data and information that might be spun or manipulated differently next week. There is a global epidemic of lie and deceipt in this economic game of Survivor, so I take pretty much everything I read with a grain of salt, cherry picking information which I believe to be credible, and which resonates with my beliefs.

Robotics are one of those things that we will not be abe to resist following because the fabulous fantasies that play into the "what if?" part of it tugs at our curiousity too strongly. What if it can solve our problems? Can they help us keep the party going? What if they can make the world a better place?  We will not be able to resist the head-long plunge into robotics, even though there is strong evidence of the negative ramifications of going down this path. This is because our human curiousity compels us to look behind un-opened doors.

It is not robotics that can or will make the world a better place. Human thinking and subsequent decisions will be the deciding factor.

Jan

RJE's picture
RJE
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Reference material from CHS

It seems 50 to 75% of labor could be lost to ROBOTS! Can you image that! Labor is rapidly losing ground as we speak as many millions have permanently lost their jobs to machines since the Recession began.

http://www.businessinsider.com/50-percent-unemployment-robot-economy-2013-1

Not from Charles:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/business/new-wave-of-adept-robots-is-changing-global-industry.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

YIKES!

BOB

http://www.oftwominds.com/blog.html

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jturbo68
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What happens when puritanism crashes into roboticism?

Often I cross paths with people (in the US) that attribute our countries problems to a sense of laziness and entitlement.  Often I hear that people just dont want to work anymore, but if they would just dig deeper then 'we' would all be fine and America would once again rise to greatness.

It strikes me that society has a collective consciousness.  It is not a coincidence that as our collective fortunes have declined with outsourcing/automation to robotics, a larger percentage of our society has dropped out.  In truth, not overyone is seen as needed anymore.  As EROEI declines into the future, this trend will continue to grow.

I am frustrated that this country cant seem to hold an intelligent conversation of this dynamic.

MarkBahner's picture
MarkBahner
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6 % per year is going to happen...and soon

This is some pretty cornucopian thinking...

I reject the prediction of 6% per year growth as being "cornucopian"...unless you are posulating something like Terminator takeover, global thermonuclear war, or some other calamity. I admit that none of those calamities are part of my prediction.

The prediction of 6% per year (or more) economic growth is based on simple observations: 1) (free) human minds create economic growth, and 2) the number of human brain equivalents added every year will be staggeringly large in a very short amount of time. I'm predicting 1 billion human brain equilents added in the year 2025, approximately 1 trillion human brain equivalents added in 2033, and 1 quadrillion added in 2040.

your assumptions completeyl discount all the obvious   limitis to growth, incluiding the mother of all limitiations, Energy.  In a net declining energy regime GDP will decline perhaps slightly

There is no need for "net declining energy." The EROEI for thorium has been estimated at over 1000-to-1:

http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com/2008/04/thorium-eroei.html

And there is easily enough thorium on earth to provide all human energy needs for the next 500+ years. (We ought to have figured out controlled fusion by then!)

Assuming some breakthorugh produces unlimited energy,  we are still hitting the wall in a full spectrum of the other inputs to growth.

Which inputs are those?

Best wishes,

Mark

P.S. I don't want to completely minimize the potential/likely problems ahead. Wendy Delmater mentioned Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut. I agree that it's well worth reading and thinking about. But in the final analysis, if world per-capita GDP gets to be *really* high, say ten times its present level of about $10,000 per person, then it matters a lot less how that GDP is distributed.

As an example...since income is usually about 75% of GDP, if the world per-capita GDP is about $100,000 per year, then the per-capita income in that case would be $75,000. Let's say the income distribution is such that 90 percent are at $7,000 per year, and 10 percent are at $700,000 per year. Well, the 10 percent can tax the 90 percent down to $300,000 per year, and that raises the 90% up to $50,000 per year. Nobody is really hurting.

MarkBahner's picture
MarkBahner
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DNA storage never forgets

Hi Arthur,

One of the advantages of writing things to electronic records is that in future the technology will not be able to read it. So our most embarassing gaffs will be unrecorded. Unlike pen and paper where thoughts from Roman times are still available.

You're not considering new DNA storage:

http://midsizeinsider.com/en-us/article/dna-data-storage-could-data-really-live

It has a storage capacity of 2.2 petabytes (that's 2200 terabytes)...per gram. That flash drive probably weighs about 10 grams, of which maybe 2 grams(?) is the actual media (the rest is the case). So that means an equivalent DNA drive would store about 4000-5000 times as much information. And if DNA was reasonably well stored (e.g. put in a stainless steel container, and buried underground), it could easily last 10,000 years.

So be careful what you write here. wink

MarkBahner's picture
MarkBahner
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I think GDP measurements are pretty accurate

Hi Jan,

You ask,

but what are they using to measure that GDP Mark?

As I've written previously on this site, I think measurements of GDP are reasonably good indicators or how well-off people are. Here's a list of countries of the world, ranked according to purchasing power parity (PPP) GDP per capita.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(PPP)_per_capita

I think most people would agree that the countries with the highest per-capita GDP are well-off, the countries in the middle are less well-off, and the countries with the lowest per-capita GDP are very, very poor.

We desperately need everyone to come to the unequivocal realization that the party is winding down,...

I don't think it's even started. Robin Hanson (an economist formerly at UC Berkeley) has estimated that world GDP could increase by as much as 45% per year:

http://commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Hanson-Economic-growth-given-machine-intelligence-early.pdf

Even if per-capita GDP grew at "only" 7 percent per year, it would be doubling every decade. Even as late as 1800-1850, the world per capita GDP was growing at more like a doubling every century.

It is not robotics that can or will make the world a better place. Human thinking and subsequent decisions will be the deciding factor.

Even only 1-3 decades in the future, I think you'll see robots that have intelligence comparable to humans. For example, I think virtually all cars in 30 years will be computer-driven...and driving a car takes a fair amount of intelligence. They'll be able to build houses. They'll able to sort out essentially every piece of metal, plastic, and glass for recycling. They'll be able to manufacture most things humans can manufacture now. And they won't need any salary or sleep. And only electricity for food.

westcoastjan's picture
westcoastjan
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can't fault you for enthusiasm

However misguided that enthusiasm might seem to be...I won't engage you on this Mark, as your line of thinking and my line of thinking are on waaaaaaaaaaay different planes.To each unto his own though...

Jan

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Roneel
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What to do and What Not!

Well, we can see so many dimensions of this single issue. engaging robot will save our life, time and energy. But in some poor places people wont find food for this... yeah engaging robot will save our sky to a huge extent... at the end of the day, we have to do it slowly... in a balanced way. 

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Quality vs. Quantity

I think most people would agree that the countries with the highest per-capita GDP are well-off, the countries in the middle are less well-off, and the countries with the lowest per-capita GDP are very, very poor.

Mark, I admire your optimism (I'm not being condescending... so difficult to express tone of voice through blogs). My question is a quantity vs. quality? I'm sure your numbers add up within the context of your argument, but looking at the list of countries by GDP, how many countries, in your opinion, listed below the U.S. enjoy a higher quality of life on average? Even if it's a gut feeling? I can see many based on my relationsips with people from those countries.

I'm sure in the future we can have "intellegent" robots, but can we have wise and empathic robots if their experience is not rooted in the human experience?

Thank You

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DurangoKid
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Perhaps Addam Smith's "unseen

Perhaps Addam Smith's "unseen hand" works only when the growth curve is positive.

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Chris vs. Kurzweil, etc

Chris used to say that we had the tools and technologies to prevent the period of severe austerity that's comming, but we lacked the collective will power to get them into place in time. He's more recently updated his stance that it's now too late, and we are in for austerity no matter what (it's gone from "problem" to "predicament"). But he has never said that period of austerity would last forever, or that those technologies that won't come online in time won't ever come online.

I would be very curious to know Chris' thoughts/speculations about a longer timeline of, say, 50 years.

Is it likely that, during that period, we might get a safe, abundant energy source up and running on a large scale? Thorium? Fusion? Advances in solar/renewable/battery technology? 

Remember that in a previous ~50-year period in history we created a national power grid, learned how to fly, went to the moon, created antibiotics, added decades to the average human life span, split the atom... does it seem so far-fetched that in the next 50 we'll work the last few kinks out of an abundant, clean energy source? The Chinese expect to have a thorium plant up and running by 2020, and many other countries have started their own thorium programs to keep pace.

There are a lot of problems that can be solved by abundant, clean energy, and a lot of predicaments that can be softened. Take resource depletion as one example: In a cubic mile of ocean water there is over $10,000 worth of gold, and 600,000,000 lbs of bromine, a substance used in the production of anti-knock gasoline. We already have plants that gather bromine from ocean water economically. The biggest difficulty in this process? The cost of pumping; i.e. the cost of energy. Imagine what we could do with abundant, clean, virtually free energy with technology like this? And it's speculated that, even without a source of free energy, plants like this will start collecting a host of other critical minerals from the sea within a decade. So, a lot of these resources that are considered "lost" may not actually be lost at all in a world with abundant clean energy, which might just be our world sometime in the next 50 years.

And in fairness to Kurzweil, he never said that recessions don't happen, or relatively brief periods of slower technological development. He just pointed out that, on a large graph of exponential technological progress throughout centuries of human history, those periods of time are hardly visible in the overal trend. 

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dmger14
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As always, great stuff

Gregor makes a great case for a powerful deflationary effect in the future.  I wonder if awareness of the robotic trend and its impact on wages and jobs has changed Chris' overall 80/20 belief that inflation will be the stronger force in the years ahead?  Perhaps we get the inflation before the deflationary forces of robotics, nanotechnology and genetics (per Wendy) are large enough to have an impact, and deflation comes about after the great reset?  I agree 100% that anyone predicting any certain level for gold or housing or whatever even a few years into the future is merely guessing, given all of the moving parts that are at play.  This speaks volumes to the concept of diversification as it relates to investments, in addition obviously to preparing for supply disruptions.

Bob, what you say makes me need a stiff drink but I prefer red pill honesty to bs optimism!  Thanks to all for the great insight, also Arthur, Mark, jan, et al.

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Values

Technology, robotics included, is intrinsically neither bad nor good. It is the uses that humans put these tools to that, from my perspective, render them “bad” or “good.” There was a quote in the movie Jurassic Park that was spot on IMHO, I don’t remember it word for word, but it went something like – “we were so preoccupied with whether or not we could, that we didn't stop to think if we should.” The old “look before you leap” parable…

Perhaps a question that we should all be asking ourselves is – what do we value? Some serious self-reflection and soul-searching, at the individual, community, national, and global levels, might provide some clarity. What are your core values? What is important/valuable enough to you that you’d pay hard-earned money for it, vote for it, stick your neck out for it, fight for it, die for it?

Until a person has really had that conversation with themselves, it’s hard for them to define what they stand for. Actions tend to be re-active rather than pro-active. Once a person has a solid understanding of their core values, then choices become clearer. And the reasons behind the choices are understood.

I ask myself – what role does a particular technology play in my life? What role do I want that technology to play in my life? Do I value inexpensive (cheap?) goods and services over the livelihoods of people? Does this technology enhance my life –in accordance with the things that I value most? In the long-run, does this technology make my life better or worse? Once I weigh the perceived benefits of technology through the lenses of my personal values, I can decide for myself whether it is “good” or “bad” for me and act accordingly.

The kicker for me on the robot topic though is this – even if the majority of people in the US opted to not support robotics, I think that the military and the law enforcement agencies will never give them up. So, we end up with super-efficient spying/killing machines, which can be automated to operate without human interaction, and that have no conscience, no values, no ability to judge “should I do this?”.  Personally, I find that horrifying.

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RJE
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Ah, dmger14...

...you said:

"Bob, what you say makes me need a stiff drink but I prefer red pill honesty to bs optimism!"

...and my immediate reaction was the glass is still half full, as apposed to half empty. Same glass of water. Take whatever pill you want but I know lots and lots of stuff, and this world isn't going to kick me in the teeth.

The very next thing I thought was, "I am being optimistic and that offends you". Then I thought, geez I heard of people like you before but I never heard them speak. A first then, thank you.

It is true, I am an optimist but logical when serious. For instance: So many here think a Deflationary cycle is 50% unemployment and Depression. I think Hyperinflation and ruinous reserve currency looks worse. I choose Deflation then because it favors those who played by the rules and punished those who didn't, so I am happy for this.

Now, it is a great possibility that Robots could replace 50 to 75% of labor in 20-30 years. It most certainly is the future so what capital will be spent into labor intensive projects when in a few years Robots will make that industry obsolete, and the Financiers/Bankers won't get paid because the guy with the Robots win. 

Hyperinflation punishes everyone, and I mean everyone. Labor is worth nothing as from the time you get paid your money is losing value. In Deflation everything has value it just depends on who wants your stuff, needs what you have. 

I absolutely understand that life with less is more. It's a piece of cake. Hyperinflation, high inflation, not a clue ( I'm talking higher inflation than the Carter Admin) but I got Gold and Silver just in case, and that was an easy call. I know Deflation and I can and have prepared for that too so I'm optimistic about the future.

China don't want us going to Hyperinflation either, all our creditors don't because we owe them money we have no intentions of paying. I say we go serious Deflation because Robots and  DEBT are taking us there anyways if we just stop trying to prohibit it. The world would have to understand because it's business, a natural cycle in economics and not this create paper fiat out of thin air so it looks better stuff. All of Europe are their now and most others are there too if they showed the numbers properly. Including China. I guess what I am saying is hey, I'm sorry, I know I owe you lots of money. I can pay you half now or nothing in bankruptcy. Just business.

Lastly, everything I stated and supported with reference material about Robotics is how I actually see things and I wanted a drink too but I don't drink, much, Christmas, maybe. So if all of that was viewed by you as sickening optimism then you must see things as really in the toilet. I don't.

I woke up this morning with a calm, not since the Gregor article hit the news stand was I calm, I was restive frankly. and just figured that you can produce every gadget in the world you want but if no one can pay for them then the robot will sit idly by too. I believe we get balance so long as the Fed never gets the power to use Robots to replace Oil as the backing for the dollar. Make sence? Optimistic to think we'll have balance I felt because the logic is so pure. IF you can't buy what the Robot makes then what's the point. I instantly felt better and had a terrific day, thank you very much.

" To Optimistic Bullshit ", imagine that. Hmph.

Regards

BOB

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RJE
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Sirrocco

...I like your thread, it has a morality to it that I can live with, like to live with. I'll play the grey area if need be but I don't want to.

I think it will be easier to determine the outcome though. If Supply and Demand are the criteria for bartering/money/Gold then their will be balance. It will happen naturally, and Greed will play a part as it always does. Greed will hurt those who come late to the party though as it should. The better mouse trap that is cheapest wins. It will always break down to its simplest form in everything this world offers if it is allowed to correct. Just natural I think.

If the Fed stepped out today where would the economy go? Yep, it would settle down quite aways are my thoughts as over production is absorbed, as too much cash is finally destroyed, and all forms of truly malinvestments are used up, and set aside for recycling for the next great electrical economy to run them Robots.

What is going on today is that some Folks are in pretty deep with their cash, and they have put it into long range projects that haven't paid them back their initial investments. To bad I say but they spred some cash around in high places and these politicians have to make good. The dance will end but it won't be so bad. Banks, they overextended and need help but in the end it will be their Debt that buries them and it should. No different, be a Bank or individual. It's just the law of economics.

A train could be imagined a Robot right? I like trains. A better day tomorrow then, good.

BOB

MarkBahner's picture
MarkBahner
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That's unfortunate

Hi Jan,

However misguided that enthusiasm might seem to be...I won't engage you on this Mark,

Well, that's unfortunate. If you think my "enthusiasm" is "misguided," perhaps you could convince me where I'm misguided. I've been wrong before. Lots of times.

Mark

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jturbo68
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RJE wrote: ...you

RJE wrote:

...you said:

"Bob, what you say makes me need a stiff drink but I prefer red pill honesty to bs optimism!"

...and my immediate reaction was the glass is still half full, as apposed to half empty. Same glass of water. Take whatever pill you want but I know lots and lots of stuff, and this world isn't going to kick me in the teeth.

Not Half Full, Not Half Empty,

The Glass is too Big!

MarkBahner's picture
MarkBahner
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Per-capita GDP versus happiness

Hi,

...how many countries, in your opinion, listed below the U.S. enjoy a higher quality of life on average? Even if it's a gut feeling?

Well, I don't like the cold or long nights. So most of the countries of central/northern Europe (Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Iceland) that I might otherwise choose are out.

I've always wanted to visit Australia and New Zealand. About the lowest country I'd even consider possible to be better than the U.S. is Costa Rica. (Just because I've heard/read that the cost of living is so low.)  But I've unfortunately never been, so I couldn't really say.

The thing is, there are a wholllllle lot of countries below Costa Rica. So there's a pretty strong correlation between per capita GDP and desirabilty.

http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2013/01/its-time-to-bury-easterlin-paradox.html

I'm sure in the future we can have "intellegent" robots, but can we have wise and empathic robots if their experience is not rooted in the human experience?

One thing that I think the Terminator movies could very well have correct is that robots could easily have thought processes that are completely foreign to us. There's a part in Terminator 3 wherein John Connor and his future wife are laughing, and Ahnold Terminator says:

Your levity is good, it relieves tension and the fear of death.

Robots could end up being what to us is unspeakably evil. Another good line, this from Terminator 1:

It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

If the robots we build (and later start building themselves) want to do us harm, we'll be in deep, deep doo-doo.
 

Best wishes,

Mark

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RJE
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Turbo,

...as the Blue screen now fades to black, I am smiling in my own soliloquy. Nighty, night.

Note:  I did good didn't I Moderator Jason. See, I'm coachable. It takes a few times but I finally get it.

BOB

MarkBahner's picture
MarkBahner
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We are not alone

The kicker for me on the robot topic though is this – even if the majority of people in the US opted to not support robotics,..

An even more important consideration is that, if the U.S. were simply to vanish, there are plenty of other countries that will carry computer intelligence forward. The Japanese. Chinese. Western Europe. India.

The U.S. share of world GDP has been declining for decades, and likely will continue to decline. (Which is not a bad thing. It means that China, India, and other poor countries are growing very rapidly.)

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jturbo68
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RJE

RJE wrote:

...as the Blue screen now fades to black, I am smiling in my own soliloquy. Nighty, night.

Note:  I did good didn't I Moderator Jason. See, I'm coachable. It takes a few times but I finally get it.

BOB

Sleep well,  I meant you no harm, if you took it that way for some reason.

John

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gillbilly
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Money = Happiness?

Mark,

Interesting article, but IMHO it's flawed from the beginning. The article admits right from the outset that happiness is squishy (what does that imply?), but then goes on to give "empirical data," as if it's not squishy, and that money = happiness. I would be interested to see what questions exactly they asked to come to this conclusion, since they would have had to do polling to acquire this "data." Were the questions binary in nature? What assumptions were made within the questions themselves? What context was given in framing the questions? How does the data address income inequality within a country with higher GDP? Too often statisticians make faulty assumptions, compile data on those assumptions and then package the data and present them as facts. We've all seen and experienced this, which is why interpreting the facts is just as important, if not more important than the facts themselves. So you're comment below the article is well taken, but it could also be asked in reverse:

“There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.”

George Orwell.

Furthermore,

Your levity is good, it relieves tension and the fear of death.

I like this quote you used above...and it can be directly applied to Ray Kurzweil. I remember hearing him speak on death. (was it the Singularity documentary?) I could hear the desperation in his voice and the implied cry..."I don't want to die!! We should be able to live forever!!"

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate Kurzweil for a lot of things, but he is only human.

Thank You

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RNcarl
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Do you have a VHS tape? What about a player?

MarkBahner wrote:

Hi Arthur,

One of the advantages of writing things to electronic records is that in future the technology will not be able to read it. So our most embarassing gaffs will be unrecorded. Unlike pen and paper where thoughts from Roman times are still available.

You're not considering new DNA storage:

http://midsizeinsider.com/en-us/article/dna-data-storage-could-data-really-live

It has a storage capacity of 2.2 petabytes (that's 2200 terabytes)...per gram. That flash drive probably weighs about 10 grams, of which maybe 2 grams(?) is the actual media (the rest is the case). So that means an equivalent DNA drive would store about 4000-5000 times as much information. And if DNA was reasonably well stored (e.g. put in a stainless steel container, and buried underground), it could easily last 10,000 years.

So be careful what you write here. wink

Of course,

This assumes that we will still have the ability to read the data from the DNA.

Sure, I have to face my mistakes every day when I look at my DNA in the mirror... But, with luck, time will erase those thoughts from my memory.

... Now where did I put that Beta tape player...

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RNcarl
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Sorry, I don't buy it

Well,
I just can't buy it. Basically, "ya can't have it both ways!"
Where do these robots come from? Who "makes" them? How much resources does it require for their manufacture?
You just can't say on one hand that we are in an ever widening "energy gap" of EROEI and then think that somehow, a massive infrastructure of "robots" will be built and dominate.
By the opinions here on this site, there isn't enough "rare earths" to build out a fleet of electric cars much less the infrastructure to support them. So where are the "rare earths" going to come from to build these " intelligent robots?"
Where is all of the liquid fuel energy going to come from to build the amount of automation required to really make these projections of 6% growth and sloughing of human capital?

Yes, I agree that with liquid energy becoming increasingly expensive, there will be a tipping point where it is "cheaper" to manufacture a (whatever) closer to the point of sale rather than incur the costs in increased shipping. I am surprised that it isn't already happening... but perhaps it is beginning.
Large - even gigantic manufacturing plants that span many acres under one roof consuming enormous amounts of energy (electric or otherwise) simply will not be sustainable.Shipping products long distances will become too expensive. Instead, I believe that smaller, localized manufacturing could emerge in a hub and spoke fashion, where the local "robots" take their orders from a distant command and control center, or even better, decentralized command and control. The products can be delivered closer to where they will be sold to begin with. Of course, this "build out" still requires a substantial amount of liquid energy to get done. Think about this concept next time you are eating in your favorite chain restaurant. They have a centralized command and control algorithm that basically runs the restaurant. The managers, wait staff and even the folks in the kitchen take their orders from afar. Ask next time the parking lot lights don't come on at dusk, or they come on "early" why that happens. I think you will be surprised to learn. Oh, ask about the A/C or heating as well. Don't forget to ask for something "different" than what is on the programmed menu. Or, ask for a substitution.
Then of course, there is the environmental load. I don't care if you are making electricity by using Thorium reactors. Just look back at one of Chris' podcasts where he chats with Tom Murphy about there not being enough BTU's available. I also believe that if you understand the concept that no matter how much energy we release, we still live in a fishbowl. We would cook ourselves first before we reach the point where there are so many robots doing so many things that cause the collapse of human whatever...
Lastly, what is that little thing that Chris talks about complex systems? They tend to break and unravel yes? Sometimes with spectacular results.
Folks, 'ya just can't have it both ways. Something will have to give first.

RJE's picture
RJE
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RNcarl,

...I don't have the tape, I thought you did. What were we talking about again?!

BOB

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Casteel
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Robots aren't just physical

I am an Electrical Engineer, pretty much trudging around in the communications/networking industry for last 15 or so years (currently working at one of the big providers..think AT&T - not that one).  Big buzz word (there always seems to be a buzzword) is Software Defined Networking (SDN).   The term hit me last year, and now seems like everybody and their dog have gotten into the game.     Its rather hard to get your head around the term, even a veteran as myself in this business.  I mean for decades we have always looked at OSS systems that can automate this and that, generally they fail, as they aren't scalable and expensive to maintain.  Then end up costing alot more than saved in the end.  But this SDN thing is catching on and picking up steam, so much that our board members of our company have have my engineering team putting alot of resources on it.  The board members, obviously, have been showered with promises of automation and cost savings.  At first you think, will this is just some fancy OSS automation software to get info from a-z quick and easy.  But it goes much deeper than that.  There are plenty of IEEE standards flowing around it, as well TR papers written.  In other words, equipment hardware makers are adhere to a standard.  

Anyway, to relate this to your story here, this really does look more than a buzzword, and the more we dig into it and talk to the software (and hardware vendors), this stuff looks real.  My team looked at me the other day and simply said, you know, if this works and does what it says, we are all out of work.

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RNcarl
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RJE wrote:...I don't have

RJE wrote:

...I don't have the tape, I thought you did. What were we talking about again?!

BOB

Tape? The one with 43 minutes missing? Ah, er... I don't have it. 

I am still trying to find the Betamax. 

As for SDN's - yup I use them. My company uses them for network safety. Is the the SDN we are talking about? From what I hear, it's only slightly more complicated than a kid sitting in his bedroom with a laptop can hack. 

I also want to add, that those who run the corporations (like the pols and banksters) will try whatever it takes (like automation) to increase the bottom line. 

Even in my industry (medical devices) my  company is using technology to provide my customers answers to clinical questions about my products. Think call center. It isn't a far stretch to think that a well written program could evaluate the information provided by the medical device, compare that data against a set of standards and then send a canned response to the customer that requested the evaluation. 

Where all of this breaks down, is in the ever increasing complexity of a given system. It's ok as long as everything works as it is susposed to. What happens when another Sandy hits? Or an Irene?

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We are surrounded by

We are surrounded by robots.

They have not taken the form we somehow expected them to take. Oh, sure, there's the Roomba--a vacuum cleaner that runs around your ankles like a cross between a remote control car and an annoying pet--and there are those lifelike looking experimental humanoid robots in Japan. Don't have either. Not sure I want either. But there are still robots in my life. Most of them either had something to do with manufacturing what I own, or are software robots.

Software bots bring me my email and filter (or send) my spam. They constantly sample the temperature in my house and adjust the heating or cooling within a certain range, and they inject precise amounts of fuel into the combustion chambers in my car (or perhaps your furnace). They search for my cell signal. They run my power station. They try very hard to figure out my buying habits based on my browsing history, and then suggest which ads might be useful. They account for much of the volume of stock trading. Automated software system bots surround me. And you.

Physical robots--machine arms and devices. computer driven--manufacture many of our goods. We call these types of robots productivity enhancers, and lament the jobs they take even as they make our lives easier (if we can afford our easier lives without that job.) They take assembly lines an exponential step further and do things faster, safer, and better that mere humans. It makes our goods cheaper, yet somehow cheapens many of the final products. We know this, or why the ad campaign that promoted the benefits of, "turkey, not technology" ?

We have met the future, and it is odd.

MarkBahner's picture
MarkBahner
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Keynes: In the long run, we're all dead. Bahner: Or out of work.

Hi,

Anyway, to relate this to your story here, this really does look more than a buzzword, and the more we dig into it and talk to the software (and hardware vendors), this stuff looks real.  My team looked at me the other day and simply said, you know, if this works and does what it says, we are all out of work.

I don't know enough (any, really) electrical engineering to render an opinion on that. But in the article to which Chris linked in his earlier comments, there was a meter reader making $67,000 who was worried about his job. My reactions were: 1) $67,000 a year for a meter reader!, and 2) he was right to be worried, because smart meters are definitely the future of electrical meters. In fact, they are the present.

Another thing I can think of is something Ray Kurzweil wrote somewhere (I've read so much of his stuff, I couldn't say which book it was). He made the point that the number of Internet connections had been doubling every three years (or whatever, I forget and am too lazy to look up the details). But if the number of Internet connections goes from 1000 to 2000 in 3 years, nobody notices. Or even 200,000 to 400,000 in 3 years. But when they go from 10,000,000 to 20,000,000 in 3 years, or 50 million to 100 million, everyone is surprised at this "new" thing. That's the incredible power of exponential growth. All of the sudden....boom! It's a really big thing. Even though it was doubling regularly for a long time, and nobody noticed it.

In the long run (and I'm only talking 30-50 years) it seems like computers/robots will be able to do every job that a flesh-and-blood human can do. According to the separate calculations of Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec, we are only about a decade away from a computer capable of performing the same number of calculations per second (roughly 0.5 to 20 petaflops) costing $1000. I expect to see robots everywhere in the decades that follow that. 

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jessie henshaw
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the open door... central to our perfect dead end

It's astounding how our society continues to search for new systems to maintain our old premises that are not working, and never thinks to "look around" at what's happening...   It seems our environment is being perverse, as if attacking our main purposes somehow.  

If you have a glance at the natural world we live in occasionally, perhaps the most perfect certainty in nature you come across is that growth is both a totally necessary and completely natural system, of multiplying change, that invariably comes to violate its own premises.  That's its natural purpose, in its role of **getting things started**.   So... throughout nature, after its start-up phase of explosive development, done by systematically reinvesting its profits in multiplying it's processes, any new environmental system needs to look for something else to do with them.  

In nature **it's just like in business**, once growth takes you to saturating a market or inviting competitors to crowd in, **then you better spend your profits securing the niche** and NOT on a blow-out of wasteful spending trying to keep enlarging your niche by ever larger steps as before...

http://synapse9.com/signals

gillbilly's picture
gillbilly
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 22 2012
Posts: 378
Hoping for a balance.

Great comments!

Mark, I hope I don't seem completely on the other side of you opinions. My business and teaching deal a lot with technology, which in the end is what any robot is. So I appreciate it as much as I fear it. Although I've read some of Kurzweil, I'm sure I haven't done as much reading as you have. I have used some of his technologies. I'll try to read more of him in the near future.  You might read some sociologists' views on technology and its implications. There are plenty of books out there. Just a thought.

RnCarl, great posts. Lol How many times have we made that call to customer service only to get stuck in the circular pattern of the computer trying to send our question to the appropriate canned answer... only to have us throw the phone against the wall? Also enjoyed your post on putting robots into the context of energy!!

Wendy, yes!, with the rate of innovation increasing in speed, the built-in planned obsolences almost always has to be shorter to maximize profits. So our new stuff breaks down quicker forcing us to throw it on the exponentially rising global trash heap (okay some of it gets recycled). As RnCarl points out, the corporate board's main concern is maximizing profit...because it's mandated by law, well at least for publicly owned cos.

What's helpful to me in putting this into context is I try to remind myself that technology is really just a 'means to an end' as originally defined. Therefore all our 'systems' are a form of technology...the economy, government, education, hell we even look at nature as a technology, hence the term ecosystem. One of the big issues I now see in all of this is that as these systems get more complex, the implications of lock-in also become greater. For example, the binary structure of computer programs tends to isomorphically expand outward making our world and choices more binary. Many have written on this, so this not something new, but once you see it, it's hard to deny.

Funny experience I had on Thursday that relates indirectly to this. I went to a scoping meeting for the FERC (Fed. Energy Reg. Comm) relicensing of GDF Suez/First Light Generation's 5 major dam and pump storage facilities on the Connecticut River spanning from Turners Falls, MA up through Northern, VT. This is a 5 year licensing process to set regulations in the interest of the utility (notice I put them first), the public, and the environment for either the next 30 years or possibly 50 years depending on what licensure they are granted (50 YEARS??!). This is a HUGE energy company, one of the top 10 energy cos in the world, so the implications of this relicensure are huge. I had a chance to comment during the formal public comment. So little ol' me gets up there and starts asking some of the questions many of us on this site have been asking regarding the direction of energy. I asked them about EROEIs and the attempt to shift away from non-renewables, as well as many other questions. There were a lot of blank stares... not comforting. My one point that I tried to convey to FERC committee was that in a period of energy transition, where even the immediate future is up for grabs, that the license should be at the max 30 years in the interest of avoiding major system lock-in, but a shorter 20 year license would be more appropriate in light of this transition. They got my message, but the head of the committee also responded that a license less than 30 years would not be possible because of a law passed in 1934 that stated that it had to be either 30 or 50 years. I asked if the law could be changed in light of current global situation. Yes, but only an act of congress could change it, laughter erupts, so the answer is NO. The irony is that the system lock-in I was asking to avoid had already been created in 1934. Some got it, others didn't.

Peace!

jessie henshaw's picture
jessie henshaw
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Posts: 8
In case it would go unnoticed

I'm a physicist, of natural systems, and do have the bad habit of physicists of not boring my readers by filling in all the blanks between the lines.  It's more fun to just state the principles,  like in comment 41 above [http://www.peakprosperity.com/comment/146789#comment-146789] as if to leave people hanging till they fill in the blanks for themselves for homework or something.   

Here's one to fill in.   If, as a natural process, systematic growth inherently leads to a violation of its own principles, it's then important for people in a struggling growth system to... "go look"... to see how our system is making the world impossible for itself. 

One way that I've been studying for a three decades is the quite remarkable continuing divergence between US GDP and wages that began in ~1970.    In outline sketch form... what seems to be the cause is a dramatic shift in productivity from people to machines, particularly by computers that have proved to be so good at cranking out equations calculating "the bottom line", showing businesses how to eliminate people as the economy pushes into an ever tougher business environments.  fyi http://www.synapse9.com/signals/2010/12/24/complexity-too-great-to-follow/ 

The double catch is how that solution both makes the problems being addressed worse, and also "breaks the circle" of earnings and consumption.  **When technology earns the profits** the earnings don't generate incomes to pay for the products being produced, as when people earn and spend.  Computers don't eat Cheerios, only people do, but are getting paid relatively less and less for their role in making the products they consume.

Where the earnings of technology actually goes is to investors, that habitually DON'T spend it on consumption at all, but to expand their investments, creating an **entirely different circle** of growing self-defeating investment ...  !    fyi  http://www.synapse9.com/signals/2012/09/07/computers-taking-over-our-jobs/

So this shows a way our systematic investment in growth is violating its own principles, guided by computers programmed for the entirely wrong "bottom line", a real suicide mission of a sort.   Our "business information system" is guiding investors in this and several other ways, to pour the profits of the system into making the system ever more unprofitable, in a real sense.   There are better uses for the system's profits.

Wendy S. Delmater's picture
Wendy S. Delmater
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Posts: 1508
a perfect example of this

A perfect example of this is the near-total removal of the corporate "middle manager." There is a reason we no longer call people "secretaries" - instead we have administrative assistants. The reason the title changed is that their scope of work changed. Thanks to things like spread sheets, and software, the former secretaries are now doing the middle manager's jobs as well as their own. The administrative assisants get a new titile, they make a dollar or two more, and the middle manager's job is gone.

Construction, however, is an imperfect example. I am an engineer in the construction industry. l've seen limited modular things in the field like sections of brick walls assembled at the brickyard by bricklayers with embedded steel lift points, sections which were added to a building's face by steelworkers. This eliminated the need for bricklyer scaffolding - a huge expense and risk. So maybe the scaffolding guys had less work, but the bricklayers had the same amount of work and the ironworkers had more work.I've also seen a robot demolition machine that still needed a human operator, but was useful to break down a roof on a 125-year-old building that was falling apart: was I glad not to put a human out there. This sort of robot is like senfding in a bomb-sniffing dog: great for dangerous applications. Too expenisve otherwise. Can I see the demolition robot getting less expenisive? Not really. Even if the robot itslef was cheaper it usess a HUGE amount of energy.

The big news in ENR last year, to me at least, was an article on modular building of a high-rise, but all that meant was that the rooms, which are all alike (pretty much) could be built somewhere else in an assmbly-line fashion by the same workers who would have trudged to the jobsite every day.

The safety director for a very large construction firm also told me they are looking at modular hospital rooms for a design-build hospital. (Design-build basically means that the Owner tell the builder, "Here's a lump sum and here is what we want built. Within these engineering parameters, build it any way you want.") Construction sites are dangerous and chaotic, so the safety director was all excited about how modular building could make construction a more controlled environment, like a factory floor. The monetary savings were not in labor costs, though.

RJE's picture
RJE
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Joined: Aug 31 2008
Posts: 1369
Wendy,

...while the savings wasn't in labor then controlled environment allowing work to be done 24/7/ 365 and no lost productivity then, Yes? Productivity enhancement even, as site is safer, weather protected? Benefits cost saved not lost to weather down time as many business costs still must be met rain or shine.? I still see monetary savings in labor costs however. I like the visual of this quite frankly as safety was always my main concern, and a huge cost to the business in workman's comp. payments. I wonder since I have gone, with these enhancements, if that has lessened? I did home const., and understand that is different construction but same principles.

BOB

SeniorD's picture
SeniorD
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: May 29 2012
Posts: 32
You might like the Book LiftPort...

Great comment, I'm happy I saw you comment today.

You might like to find out more about LiftPort Group as they and a few other Companies are leading the way toward low cost, non-rocket access to Space and/or mining astroids for minerals and or water for future use both on Earth, the Moon and in Space itself.

Here are my favorites book on near future:

The High Frontier by Gerard K. O'Neill,
Colonies In Space by A. Heppenheim­er.
The Third Industrial Revolution by G. Harry Stine
The Space Enterprise by Philip Robert Harris
Mining the Sky by John S. Lewis 
SeniorD's picture
SeniorD
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Joined: May 29 2012
Posts: 32
Those that can interact with robots and robotics will rule!

Robots have now been developed that are "user trainable" which means that non programmers can simply start them in "learning mode" and move their "hands" as needed to do a specific job, then exit the learning mode and the robot will be able to do that job!  Also it is important to note that while most industrial robots must be separated from humans because of humans getting hurt by "dumb" robots, these new robots monitor their surroundings and can work next to humans because they can "perceive" where humans are and avoid hitting them!

Just like current smart phones can now do may things via voice, robots will become ever more useful to industry, as they phase out humans from repetitive tasks to both save money and increase production.

Remember Robots don't care about any of the things that are very important to humans, like day shift or night shift, hazardous job vs safe job or even if it is a holiday or not!  I expect to see all forms of special pay for special types of work get eliminated as those seeking work will now have to accept any kind of job and put up with low wages and or no benefits because they have no money!

Another factor is that robots don't pay Social Security Taxes (YET) so expect to see Social Security funding dwindle as time goes by.  Just like the US Government dragging its feet by not allowing hyper milage cars to be sold in the USA because that would drastically affect gasoline /road taxes; look to Industry being taxed for it's robotic workers, something which the Wealthy's Politicians will fight tooth and nail.

The poor still have one important commodity, which is their vote during public elections and in some Countries voters are being "paid" in food for their vote (and being made to use their phone to take a picture of they're "properly completed" ballot as proof of voting correctly, which happened in Mexico) so expect to see the same thing happen in the "Land of the Free"...

ALSO

The ultra wealthy families in the US (and other Countries) will rule for decades with they're only real fear of being vulnerable to a well armed poor "Class" that refuses to pay homage to them, but hey the Government is working on fixing that as we speak...

Watch the original version of Brazil to get a great glimpse of our Future...

jnerics's picture
jnerics
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 17 2012
Posts: 1
Stupid question

Great comments by all- you are all way smarter than I, a humble permaculture advocate. But no one addressed the possibility that the elite will just kill everyone no longer needed and live in their machine utopia thus bypassing the resource, social conflict and ecosystem constraints. Please respond as i may be ignorant of much here.

Arthur Robey's picture
Arthur Robey
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 4 2010
Posts: 2343
SeniorD.

At Last.

A fellow traveller. I am not sure if we can find anything to argue about SeniorD. 

A Good list of books.

"The hollow horn plays wasted words,

Proves to warn,

That he not busy being born,

Is busy dying"

Bob Dylan.

treebeard's picture
treebeard
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 18 2010
Posts: 372
Don't worry about robots

Robots work where labor is in short supply, energy is relatively cheap, and consumer demand is high.  This is old paradigm stuff, last ditch effort to make mass production work, same as GMO's in their attempt to save industrial agriculture.  Loads of unintended consequences as many here have already pointed out. I posted this on part 2, which thread has seemed to peter out:

We have become materialists through and through.  But I think this diseased form of western european thinking is about to break.  Broad thinking about the future paradigm is still bounded physical constraints, which it is, but I would like to suggest this is thought about in the wrong way.  We still judge progress in a purely material way. We have traded convenience for meaning and that way of thinking permeates everything we say and do.

Making bread with a machine is considered an improvement no, just throw in the ingredients and walk away and go do something else, watch television, for a walk, surf the internet.  Surely this is a good thing?  We can go on line and look at a thousand different kind of products that we might like to buy. Jump in our car and go to the grocer, pick from a thousand different products from all over the world.  Maybe stop off at a friends house and go for a walk in the woods.

But are we really in relationship with anything?  The clothes on our back, our friends, the food that we eat, the woods that we walk through.  Do we understand their natures, where they come form, how work.  Do we have a connection to them.  We crave stimulation, activity, fun, but do we go deeply into anything.  Do we allow ourselves even to experience ourselves in a significant way?

We are psychotically disconnected from each other and the natural world.  Shootings like Newtown are not an aberation but a symptom of a deeply disfunction system.  We cannot look at the world in a fragmented way any more, these implications are as much economic as they are cultural and spiritual.

Make your own bread, sew your own clothes, grow your own food, spend time with your own thoughts without distractions.  Robotics are the same as GMO's, application of an idea to save a dying disfunctional system that ultimately creates greater distortions, centralizes power centric rather than iimproving human information based systems.

Robotic distribution centers still depended centralized production and transportation systems which are fossil fuel based.  Centralizing of wealth and loss of meaningful work are more gas on the fire which will ultimately lead to more dramatic change.  Do robots have their place, absolutely, but there functionality will not be central to our future paradigm.  Relationship, meaning, and a deeper connection to each other and the beautiful planet we are currently destroying are the organizing principals of our sustainable future.

When we drink more deeply from the world around us, so much less is needed materially, and lives become so much more richer and worth living.  The desire of something is more meaningful and powerful than the actual having of it because it draws something from within ourselves.  We need a revolution of mind, not in technology.

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