I, for one, welcome our new robotic everythings

robot-2Panera Bread is the latest chain to introduce automated service, announcing earlier this year that it plans to bring self-service ordering kiosks as well as a mobile ordering option to all its locations in 2016. All McDonald’s in France have shifted to kiosk-ordering and Chili’s and Applebee’s place tablets on their tables, allowing diners to order and pay without interacting with human wait staff at all. In a widely cited paper released last year, University of Oxford researchers estimated that there is a 92% chance that fast-food preparation and serving will be automated in the coming decades.

These robotic replacements and more are covered in the video by CGP Grey called “Humans Need Not Apply” which describes structural unemployment caused by robotics and AI (and other automation). You should go watch it right now if you haven’t seen it already.  I’ll wait.

According to the video, robotic replacement of human workers in every employment sector is about to accelerate rapidly, and “safe” sectors look to be the ones requiring a high level of education without a high level of specialization, like intelligence analysis.  By “safe” I mean “from robots,” because when AIs like Watson come fully online analysts are done too.  Sorry.

Even programming robots won’t be a sinecure, as the Robo Brain is going to teach robots everything from the internet. Sure, we haven’t figured out how to leverage YouTube to teach our folks job skills, but the robots have.

So I guess that leaves pretty much politics, comedy, and drug-dealing. Actually we could probably replace drug dealers with fast-food kiosk robots and politicians with Amazon.

Will it happen?  Futurists have been predicting these kind of trends resulting from automation for many decades, but so far they’ve always been wrong, and consumer demand has always risen as fast as productivity. Of course, economists are as unified on this topic as they are on anything else, with excellent citations on both sides.

I think that even if Our New Robot Overlords aren’t as numerous or pervasive as feared, other trends like population growth, longer healthy life, and cheaper goods all get us to the same place: how do people have an economy without earning goods or money by working? Are we looking at a disruption event?  Does my son get to enjoy a paid permanent vacation?

So what now?

Most countries have pretty firm income-for-labor-based economies.  What do economics look like when there’s no more need for labor? The link between jobs and income is breaking down due to the declining value of most paid human labor relative to capital investments in automation and better design. In some professions, the value of paid human labor is declining relative to the output of free competition (for example, journalism vs. voluntary social networks for digital content production…like, oh, blogging).

Nations will need to fundamentally reevaluate economic theories and practices to adjust to these new realities emerging from exponential trends in technology and society. US policymakers will have to adjust our foreign policy, so this becomes an intelligence issue at the same time it’s a domestic politics issue.

Possible answers

Universal basic income: I’m seeing a lot of internet chatter about implementing a universal basic income, which is a possible solution. The Swiss are voting on implementing one later this year, and some countries already provide it (Iran and Macau are a couple examples, and there are two programs currently underway in India). The basic concept of a universal income dates from Thomas Paine’s work in 1795, and is a system in which all citizens regularly receive an unconditional sum of money from their government or another public institution. Think Alaska’s oil fund.

A sharing economy: Another wrinkle in the economic fabric is the potential that part of the world (the WEIRD world) is nearing a post-scarcity economy. Most of the WEIRD countries are capitalist, and capitalism relies on scarcity. When you can easily order or fabricate whatever you need or want easily and cheaply, a large percentage of the population may shift to a sharing or gift economy.  We’re already seeing signs of that with crowdfunding services like Kickstarter and with share-services like Lyft, Uber, AirBnB, and TaskRabbit. A sharing economy is similar to income-for-labor, but a lot more fluid and a lot less easy to predict and model.

Farmville: In places that don’t benefit from a post-scarcity economy or the internet backbone needed for a sharing economy, the answer might be strong local subsistence economies (the swadeshi or ecovillage model). These don’t lend themselves to governance by the large modern nation-state, so this “answer” might never be achieved.  I may just be too cynical for this particular utopian vision, but I feel that increased competition for resources like clean potable water and arable land will get in the way.

Escapism: With virtual reality looking like it might actually finally happen, people with nothing to do and no money to buy stuff could jack in to a virtual world and live off 3D-printed pap. Right now, this means incessant micropayments to the game developers, but when those are robots maybe it will be cheaper.

War: Always a good way to deal with a bored and broke population, some countries may look to war as a solution.

1. Beyond a Jobless Recovery

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2 Comments

  1. Briliant analysis. I vidied “Humans Need Not Apply” earlier today with an audible rush of air escaping from my lungs as my hope for a Jeffersonian agrarian democracy disappeared in the glare off the titanium skinned robot army. Depending on the degree of control from the corporatocracy and their political lackeys, this future will most likely lead to a further hyper-polarization of society into an Elysium-like 99.999%/.001% split in society. War is the next most likely, or concurrent, outcome as traditional models and their stakeholders are disrupted and pissed off.

    The other aspect which you brush in your conclusion is that the payment mechanisms to support the P2P sharing economy is reaching an unmistakable and impossible to ignore groundswell. Mpesa and Mpaisa and yes, Bitcoin, are enabling the marginalized and unbanked and semi-banked to move money domestically and globally. What they will have to send after Sarah Conner fails and McSkynet wins is another matter entirely.

    1. I think hyper-polarization is the likeliest outcome. P2P payments are a key part of the sharing economy and also of other options like new currency options for labor/service (Ithaca Hours, for ex). But they are a whole other blog post. Or two.

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