Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Robot Economics

For my one reader, a quick summary of the last of Marshall Brain's articles in his robot series

Marshall is speculating 30 years out from trends present today.

Robots = Greedy Bastards

He concludes that the centralization of wealth will become extreme as automation (which he calls robots) puts people out of work. So he comes up with a number of taxation schemes to generate a welfare state when this happens, without wanting to call it a welfare state. Well enough. He doesn't take it further than that.

He is probably right about the unemployment issue, because unlike other technologies, robots will create robots. We are making things that are as good or better than we are at most things. We are not making tools anymore that require lots of humans to operate. That's really the fundamental point, most of us will not be needed in this industrial revolution, and why this is worth reading and thinking about.

Orwell is looking smart right about now

It is an interesting read, because it puts you in the mindset of considering 50+ percent unemployment. It is very hard to imagine a way to transition to that level of unemployment from 10 percent unemployment, without generating much more tax revenue. Any other state is a war zone. A fiscally conservative state with few social services would be immediately crushed by internal forces. We do have to consider a very high level of taxation ( aka collective control aka socialism ) in a future that rapidly adopts a high level of automation ( aka robotic workforce), or we have to move to an Orwellian model to repress our citizenry (which is where we are going).

It is, of course, implied that the same or higher level of productivity will be obtained with only half the human workforce, and that our governments are not configured to act in advance of rapidly decreasing employment. We will be in a real pickle. It sounds reasonable as you read it. Over fifty percent unemployment never ends well.

So Brain throws out some plans for socialism (although he picks a narrow definition of socialism to escape this much maligned word). He doesn't take it too far, just covers some possible methods for collecting taxes.

There may also be principles involved when constructing a capitalist-socialist-robot utopia.

For one thing, you want to keep incentives aligned toward innovation. Take only the amount required from the captains of industry to provide a reasonable quality of life for the unemployed. Arguably, you want the unemployed to be innovators, and to be free to innovate and create jobs for themselves and others, but you also want them to be somewhat hungry - their lives not full of stress, but lacking highly desirable comforts. So you would start with the need, and work backwards - the captains of industry need to raise enough money to support the unemployed at a reasonable quality of life, after that point, they can make their lives as ridiculously good as they like with any extra earnings. Taxation methods can then be derived from this principle.

Taking that to the extreme, you have to consider what happens when this morphs into a society in which all work required to maintain the basic necessities human life is done by robots, including maintenance of the robots, generation of energy required, etc. This will raise the bar of social welfare to a fairly high level. It's a long way out, and quite a speculative story, but possible at some point. A lot of fundamental industries will run themselves, and the captains of industry themselves will be outmoded. Every human will be focused on innovation and new industries, as the old ones become, basically, part of nature. O.k. well, maybe I'm an optimist.

Overall, I found Brains robot articles a good way to encourage a geek like myself to think about the future of economics. What would you do for a living if you had your basic needs met for life, but still had the opportunity to make anything of yourself if you worked hard at it? The answer is, ultimately, you would seek your potential (metamotivation as per Maslow). I know I am metamotivated and I find others in the same state to be more fun to hang out with than those who are not. What model makes that world possible? Not the one we have when unemployment hits 50 percent.

And what about those whose metamotivation tends toward evil? The more things change, the more they stay the same. Hopefully our robot overlords won't have time for that shit, and I'm definitely not risking my exoskeleton for their greedy asses.

Marshall also wrote the following two articles on the same topic:


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