The Obsolescence of Work

Here is a delightfully wrongheaded article
Scientific American: Not So Revolutionary
Which posits that recent advances are no third industrial revolution. It is utterly wrong because it fails to grasp that where we are now is no indication of where we will be in 50 years. We are still very much at the beginning of the impacts of computers & information technology, much like the steam engines of the greeks were simply toys for entertainment. Today's technology is hopelessly primitive.

The end point of information technology revolution is nothing less than the elimination of human labour. Robots are the logical marriage of the industrial revolution (age of mechanical machines) with the information revolution (age of mechanical brains.) Once we are able to put brains and brawn together in a package that can function in a real complex environment, such as on our highways, dealing effectively with people in human languages, or walking in hallways of a typical office building, applications for robots will be everywhere. It is not some other revolution that is coming, it is just the natural progression of increases in computing power and robotics itself that will lead to far more functional robots. As they get more functional and can be applied in a wider variety of situations, the market will explode, and spur further developments.
How can we see this dynamic today?

So far, the rule for robotics was always to go for jobs with the 3D's... Jobs which where too Dirty, Dull, and/or Dangerous for humans to do. Undersea, inspections of drilling rigs, welding & repairs are dangerous jobs for humans, and usually rather dull. The divers themselves often are quite happy to trade their suits for joysticks and warmth. Similarly, cleaning the inside of nuclear ractors, where the radiation is too high for humans to venture, is a long time application for robots. Painting or welding components of automobiles is now done cheaper by robots. Poking at suspected bombs in Iraq, or dust-motes in our houses ( shows how things have progressed. A robotic vacuum cleaner is now somewhat practical.

What's next? The American Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has asked for a large number of the military's vehicles to be self-driving by 2015. What is driving that target? Truck drivers being ambushed in towns in Iraq. If there are no truck drivers, there is no political cost to the loss of the convoy. Driving trucks in Iraq, is classic 3D work.
( ) Today, we have "predators" which patrol the sky, looking for things which are out of place. If it finds something, a human is alerted, and perhaps more humans are sent in, on the ground, to get better information. Those people sent in, today, would be infantry, perhaps a patrol driving in jeeps/humvees through a city to look at a certain house, a certain car, a certain man. Given an unfriendly population, this mission is going to be dangerous, the drive is going to be stressful and dull, and if conditions are like Iraq today, the troops will arrive dirty.

It would be very attractive for the army to be able to deploy an infantry version of the Predator. Walking, watching, talking robots to search for insurgents in villages. They could walk into people's houses, ask questions, etc... If the natives are restless and destroy a robot, it will not leave a grieving family or make the evening news, and a replacement will come off the line much more quickly than a human infantryman can be trained. The people operating this infantry patrol robot, could be in Des Moines, so there would be no need to ship in thousands of tonnes of food for tens of thousands of personnel in the battle area. Soldiers would complete their shift, and stop by Safeway on the way home to their families. A single human would likely be able to operate an entire patrol, the robots themselves would have software to perform analysis, and let the human know when they find something interesting.

Soldiers would thus become more like policemen, where hiring criteria would stress the ability to read people, think critically, and assemble realistic theories of what is actually going on. Instead of weapons technicians, the need would be for detectives. Friendly fire ceases to be much of a problem if the battlefield is automated. But full scale battles are unlikely in the future, we will see more "engagements" like Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon where the key is to patrol at street level, find the "bad" people, and deal with them and only them. A rich country could field a million robots, where it could only field 10,000 heavily trained volunteer soldiers. Hiring to work shiftwork in Des Moines will likely be a lot easier than hiring for today's infantry. The advantages are so overwhelming that, as soon as such a thing becomes even vaguely practical it will happen. Once it happens, it will become more common.

Forgetting Dangerous, lets just go to "Dull" & "Dirty". People everywhere are getting older. Would elderly people want live in orderlies who help them bathe, cook for them, remind them and guide them into taking their medications, see when they are in distress, and will never take advantage of them in any way? Basically, such robotic help would permit people to be taken care of in their own homes as an alternative to "assisted living" communities. Those communities are very expensive, and so would provide the upper bound on cost for robotic help. I suspect that the market will be absolutely huge across the entire developed world.

Take driving a cab. Please. It will no longer exist. With vehicles like Stanley (see the taxi will be automated. Not having a human to support, the cost of taxi service will plummet. With cars able to communicate with eachother, they could hook up together in trains on the highways to improve density, reduce fuel consumption, and you could work or play on the way to wherever you are trying to go. The community automobile will become far more practical since instead of reserved parking spots, the car will simply pick you up at the appointed time, and park itself somewhere or operate as a taxi until the next reservation. Private cars will drive their occupants to work. If you know your car will pick you up after work, would you mind if it acted as a taxi during the day, reducing your cost of owning the vehicle, saving you the cost of parking, and reducing the total number of vehicles on the road?

In this month's Scientific American cover story, Bill Gates posits A Robot in Every Home. The article itself is a well crafted advertisement for products which attempt to establish the same sort of rental income for robots, that has been so successful in personal computers. The examples and illustrations are about what is available now, and what will become available in the next few years. The article is a passable tour of the current ferment in robotics as a field. We are just beginning to have robots which can see, touch, understand their surroundings, understand human faces, and on, and on.

It is hard to say exactly when the technology to make robotics explode into practical life will happen, but it is virtually certain that all of the above applications will be addressed in some manner. The current trend is clear. Mechanical machines are slowly integrating with electronic brains to produce artifacts that will be able to perform virtually any sort of physical work which can be performed by a human. At the very worst it will take a century. My bet is that self-driving cars will be common within twenty years, but it may take another generation before their full potential is explored.

The end result of the Industrial revolution was for the number of workers in agriculture to drop from 90% of the population at the outset, to something under 5% today. The end result of the information revolution will be to slowly eliminate all forms of labour from our society. I cannot say whether this is desirable or not, but it is, based on clear technlogical and obvious economic grounds, inevitable. How one can conclude that this revolution is less disruptive than previous ones is to misunterstand the scope of changes underway today to a tragicomical degree.


  • The question for me is identifying which jobs will not be replaced. Good post

    By Blogger ed, At 4:34 PM  

  • It is hard to figure out what is difficult to automate and/or outsource. I do not think that there
    is anything that cannot be replaced. It is really a matter of what gets replaced last, rather than not at all.
    We are biological computers, at some point the electro-optic variety will surpass our abilities in every domain.

    Folks are working on computers that a friendly and polite. It is quite conceivable that humans come to prefer dealing with computers or robots for any mundane activity.

    We will always need to socialize, to find spouses, to determine hierarchies, but as to objectively practical work beyond our own societal needs, there is likely to be virtually nothing left for us to do.

    Hans MoravecĀ“s Mind Children is a
    great book in the same vein.

    By Blogger philobyte, At 11:54 AM  

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