Sunday, August 23, 2009

Scary cool...

Why robots are a topic for economists as well as engineers.

The conventional wisdom is that the huge leaps in productivity made possible by robotics will eliminate whole categories of jobs but create more and better jobs.  But I have seen few expalnations about how this will work or any reasonable projections - and absolutely no evidence to date.  In fact, I am growing more suspicious robots will make enormous labor demand reductions with few offsetting labor needs.  I am not saying there won't be huge economic benefits from this transformation, but our jobless recovery could simply be the first few days of a jobless economy.

Marshall Brain [insert ironic comment here] outlines his picture of a Robot Nation in fairly credible predictions.
Automated retail systems like ATMs, kiosks and self-service checkout lines marked the beginning of the robotic revolution. Over the course of fifteen years starting in 2001, these systems proliferated and evolved until nearly every retail transaction could be handled in an automated way. Five million jobs in the retail sector were lost as a result of these systems.

Decades of research and development work on autonomous robotic intelligence finally started to pay off. By 2025, the first machines that could see, hear, move and manipulate objects at a level roughly equivalent to human beings were making their way from research labs into the marketplace. These robots could not "think" creatively like human beings, but that did not matter. Massive AI systems evolved rapidly and allowed machines to perform in ways that seemed very human.
Humanoid robots soon cost less than the average car, and prices kept falling. A typical model had two arms, two legs and the normal human-type sensors like vision, hearing and touch. Power came from small, easily recharged fuel cells. The humanoid form was preferred, as opposed to something odd like R2-D2, because a humanoid shape fit easily into an environment designed around the human body. A humanoid robot could ride an escalator, climb stairs, drive a car, and so on without any trouble.
Once the humanoid robot became a commodity item, robots began to move in and replace humans in the workplace in a significant way. The first wave of replacement began around 2030, starting with jobs in the fast food industry. Robots also filled janitorial and housekeeping positions in hotels, motels, malls, airports, amusement parks and so on.
The economics of one of these humanoid robots made the decision to buy them almost automatic. In 2030 you could buy a humanoid robot for about $10,000. That robot could clean bathrooms, take out trash, wipe down tables, mop floors, sweep parking lots, mow grass and so on. One robot replaced three six-hour-a-day employees. The owner fired the three employees and in just four months the owner recovered the cost of the robot. The robot would last for many years and would happily work 24 hours a day. The robot also did a far better job -- for example, the bathrooms were absolutely spotless. It was impossible to pass up a deal like that, so corporations began buying armies of humanoid robots to replace human employees. [More]

It's a good read in total, although his economic prescriptions strike me as uninformed.   I think the tipping point for me was the robot milking.  Once you get your head around this seemingly complex task being performed without any human intervention, the next steps of service sector jobs is more easily envisioned.

[Update: Just found this video to help non-dairy types]

This view is hotly debated, but I find the arguments discounting this possibility less persuasive.
But this is silly. Why? Machine and robotic resources aren’t free; they’re resource constrained just like everything else is resource constrained. We have the tecnological know-how to replace millions of human workers with machines right now, but we don’t because the expense of building, programming, operating, and maintaining the machines is too great. It’s not worth it. As demand for human labour falls, the price of human labour will also fall making the hiring of humans more attractive. Meanwhile, as demand for robot labour increases, the price of robot labour will also increase (since the stuff robots are made of is scarce), making the use of a robot for any given task less attractive. There will then be some market equilibrium which will, in all likelihood, involve plenty of employment for low skilled workers.
Which doesn’t mean that machines can’t place downward pressure on unskilled worker wages. They clearly can; the rise of the computer destroyed the jobs of millions of semi-skilled clerks. Those people are still working today, generally competing with low skilled workers and earning less than they previously would have. On the other hand, the rise of computers has enabled them to get a lot more utility out of what they do earn.
There are multiple constraints limiting the total dominance of machine labour. One is the analytical constraint — there are some human cognitive and physical processes that we haven’t yet learned to emulated in machines. This will continue to be less binding over time, enabling workers to potentially compete with humans in a steadily broader range of fields.
Then there is the energy constraint. Machines require power to operate, and the more machines we build, the more power they’ll need. This constraint might eventually be overcome, but until then energy costs will rise with the machine share of the labour force, helping to keep humans at work. [More]

To being with, driving low-skill wages even lower strikes me as a untenable choice for most cultures, seeing as how we're pretty close to the lowest tolerable limit now. But the other factors - cost, abilities, energy consumption - for robots are all moving in directions that will allow robots to be the first choice.  Like others, I no longer assume the outcome will be like previous technological revolutions.
Of course, this is roughly the argument people made in the 19th century too: if machines can spin cotton and mine coal and harvest crops, what's left for unskilled laborers to do?  The answer, of course, turned out to be: something else.  Productivity increased so dramatically during the Industrial Revolution, and with it the quantity of goods produced, that everyone stayed employed even though population increased and the labor content of most commodities went down.  The nature of the work changed, but 10% of a thousand, it turned out, kept as many people employed as 50% of two hundred.
So is Clark just engaged in neo-Ludditeism?  Maybe.  But there really does seem to a fundamental difference between machines that take the place of muscle power and machines that take the place of brain power — though it's hard to say for sure since we haven't really seen what computers can do yet.  Probably a lot more than most people think, though.  Clark's IVR transaction with United Airlines may seem trivial — an example of automated phone hell, in fact — but Thomas Newcomen's atmospheric engine seemed barely worth the trouble too at the time. [More]

Meanwhile both Jan and I prefer on-line  banking, travel arrangement, and shopping.  We seek out self-checkouts. And we don't even need to go into the demand for auto-steer advancements.

Looking at farms decades out, the importance in being part of the ownership/management elite (and I think that term is correct) is critical to being in agriculture at all.  Too much of what we do is simply waiting for cheaper technology to move it out of the human activity realm.


Ol James said...

..well since you aren't posting on Sunday's anymore, then I'm not commenting here.
Look at the VCR. When first put on the market they were a few thousand dollars. As time and technology advanced and manufacturers saw that outsourcing overseas could raise the bottom line..viola..a VCR for under $40.00. Then TV repairmen had another source of encome..until it was cheaper to buy a new one, rather than repair the broken one, never mind if your toddler had stuffed a peanut butter/jelly sandwich in the front.
Technology seems to be gaiting toward a full gallop. Just as your auto-steer is a viable tool and time saver so will go less human input for more common task. Like I have said before you will go to the table in the morning and push a button or two on your Wi-Fi, networking laptop and run the whole place. This while you sit in your Pj's and have a cup of coffee. About thew only time you will have to go out is to meet the repairman/technician for a repair or upgrade.
...then again they may have that whole "bio-computer" thing worked out and the machines won't need us...where have I heard that??

John Phipps said...


I honestly had forgotten about that pledge. I had work to do for FJ and one thing led to another..