Marshall Brain’s Robotic Nation: 50% US unemployment?
Wired carried a major story about Marshall Brain, creator of the immensely popular How Stuff Works
website. It’s a great website – I use it to teach students about how common electronic devices work. He is also responsible for the Teenager’s Guide to the Real World
– currently in its fifth printing.
However, Marshall’s new stuff at http://www.marshallbrain.com is different – his new series of essays is entitled “Robotic Nation” and attempts to predict the impact of the ‘second coming’ of robotic automation currently sweeping business. Some of the most compelling recent examples (which Brain mentioned) are the automated checkout systems at Home Depot and other “big box” retailers, along with the recent automated system being tested at McDonalds. These systems were not practical until computer power reached levels found in the late 1990s. He points out correctly that such systems encourage rises in “productivity” via a ‘race to the bottom’ as businesses (like the fast food industry) begin both automation and layoffs.
The key is their sensitivity to the environment – the rise of robots that jump. Brain mentions robotic vision as one of the drivers for this new wave of automation. Older automated machines were blind and unable to “understand” the task they were doing – therefore, a human operator could always out-perform them. New robotic machines will be able to see and interpret their task, and will become the equal of a human operator.
According to Brain, these changes cause a real net loss of jobs – unlike the Industrial Revolution which created jobs faster than it eliminated them. While the Industrial Revolution created powerful mass manufacturing, the machines used are “dumb” – they require lots of people to operate them. Services jobs were little affected – many service jobs (like taking tickets at the movies) are the same in 2003 as they were in 1950. They could not be automated because machines were too dumb to to the work and lacked the senses (vision, hearing, face recognition, understanding spoken speech) to do them as well.
This is rapidly changing as machines get vision, hearing, and enough intelligence to understand simple service jobs like those in retail. In a few years everyone will automate checkout in retail, and a lot of jobs will disappear. Looking forward 15-20 years, we will have an era when large number of service jobs in retail have disappeared.
Long-term, Brain looks at the rapid advances in robotics, specifically humanoid robotics. Development is continuing rapidly worldwide; a company called New Era in Russia just announced two new humanoids, which appear to be near the tech level of the Honda Asimo system (see http://www.plyojump.com/new_era.html for some pictures). Hmmm, still nothing in the US. The Robocup final competition in Padua, Italy attracted over 100,000 visitors.
With machines able to work in human environments (e.g. use stairs) Brain expects all low-level service jobs to be taken by machines during the next 40 years or so. To objections that people want a “human touch” he notes the popularity of ATMs versus human tellers with that most sensitive thing – money. The driver will be business “productivity” as global deflationary pressures will prevent business from raising prices.
Looking forward to 2050 he imagines a world with 50% unemployment. Like and unlike Sun’s Bill Joy, who is probably “out of his depth” preaching the evils of nanotechnology – an area he’s not involved in. I saw a picture of Joy in a magazine recently – what an old hippie he is! A great example of a “Prophet” generational archetype common in Boomers according to Strauss and Howe.
However, Brain does his analysis by keeping most factors in society constant while allowing robotics to move forward. Imaging a future where Asimo descendents run “big box” retail assumes that the “big box” retail model will continue for many years. Since energy prices will rise as cheap oil runs out in the next few decades, we may not drive much. We could move to something very different, e.g., personal manufacturing via 3-D printers. We might not need ticket-takers at the movies if we have big, wall-sized flatscreen monitors capable of showing movies at high resolution. In fact, we might not even care about movies anymore – everyone may be playing online multiplayer games, and non-interactive movies may be comparable to opera today.
But point taken – most low-paid service jobs in the US are going the way of the dodo, without obvious replacements. Just about everything seems replacable by robots. Robocup points to a future of robotic professional sports. Robots and virtual “synthespians” seem likely to replace human actors in film. Robo security guards already are on the move to replace human guards.
My own opinion is that as the jobs are lost people will become “employed” by the government. In effect, more and more people will be on government dole. It could be that their new “employment” may be pseudo-work in a shared virtual online environment. That is, people will “work” in cyberspace. They will spend more time there, and virtual posessions will replace real ones. People will have a “DVD player” as a virtual reality construct since they won’t be able to afford one built out of atoms. The huge masses of unemployed Brain envisions might live in the world already inhabited by game addicts – a small room with minimal posessions, net wealth comparable to 1850, but a huge virtual reality making up for it. Outside, robots will keep the real world running.
Brain’s article does show that the tech elite in the US is slowly waking up to the reality of robotics. The “smart vision” systems Brain mentions are very close to reality (e.g. Hans Moravec’s new company), and loss of huge number of low-paid jobs in the next two decades is bound to happen. When Wired runs articles like this one it means that the “digerati” is realizing that the Internet/web world of cyberspace is fading as the tech paradigm, and a new one where machines enter our world is at hand.