Why I For One Welcome Our New Robot Overlords
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  • @ “We are going to be spending less and less time on the dull and frequently dangerous jobs that are required to produce the goods and services that we need to sustain our existence, and will spend more and more time as creators and cultivators of meaning and beauty.”

    That same argument was made back in the 1950’s, except then it was conventionally phrased in terms of “automation” and “the problem of leisuire.” I personally have a different take which, I think, takes a more “informed” account of the realities of the human material we have to work with and of the true nature of material happiness, at least for those who may be inclined to choose it.

    Trading leisure for income and small-town pleasures for the stimulation of big cities ought at least be an available option, wouldn’t you agree, Prof. Mead? After all, not everyone’s tastes are the same and it takes all kinds to make the world go round.

  • Jordan

    Yup, world being taken over by software. Said it before, will say it again. Revenge of the nerds writ large.

  • tal

    What of AIs become better than humans at all mental tasks? Lots of people in the software industry and academia think this will happen eventually.

  • Kenny

    Hasn’t all civilizations been built on slave labor?

    In the past, the slaves were human; today, they’re our machines. The extraordinary high standard of living we have in the West is due to our army of slaves — like the one I’m typing on right now and the one I’ll be soon climbing into to take me in comfort many miles from here.

    The key to all this is that our slaves need energy — especially electricity — to sustain us.

  • FredR

    I used to think like this and then I read Gregory Clark’s “Farewell to Alms.” In one passage he points out:

    “[T]here was a type of employee at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution whose job and livelihood largely vanished in the early twentieth century. This was the horse. The population of working horses actually peaked in England long after the Industrial Revolution, in 1901, when 3.25 million were at work. Though they had been replaced by rail for long-distance haulage and by steam engines for driving machinery, they still plowed fields, hauled wagons and carriages short distances, pulled boats on the canals, toiled in the pits, and carried armies into battle. But the arrival of the internal combustion engine in the late nineteenth century rapidly displaced these workers, so that by 1924 there were fewer than two million. There was always a wage at which all these horses could have remained employed. But that wage was so low that it did not pay for their feed.”

    You will say that people, unlike horses, can be retrained (and find employment in the service sector), but I see no reason why there will necessarily be worthwhile jobs in the future for large segments of the population.

    I think we’re already seeing the stress that comes from an economic system that can’t provide meaningful work (that is, work productive enough to justify some kind of living wage) to growing segments of the population. I suppose there was always a percentage that was basically unemployable, but such a category seems to be taking up a larger portion of the bottom of society than before, while at the top you have too many elite aspirants chasing too few elite positions (hence the rise in credentialization, the OWS protests, etc.)

    I think we are gradually approaching something like the (neo-Malthusian) crisis situations anatomized by historians and sociologists like Jack Goldstone, David Hackett Fischer, and Peter Turchin.

    I guess I agree that the ultimate solution is a fairly drastic reworking of our political economy, but such a task is usually fairly painful.

  • Gerald Owens

    Bah. I pursued an Artifical Intelligence PhD for the same reasons cited here: if computers were going to write programs for everyone else, then *I* was going to be the guy writing those AI programs that wrote AI programs. I left without the PhD thoroughly convinced that my Grandchildren would be able to work as programmers. The bottom dropped out of the AI market two years later.

    This is the periodic revivals in every questionable academic field perpetrated by older practitioners seeing the handwriting on the wall for their academic programs and needing the buzz to keep the funds flowing from Government and the school administration.

    Don’t get me wrong: AI expert system technology is quite mature, and all the examples cited by Mead are examples of expert systems. However, expert systems are good in narrow, highly defined fields with an existing vocabulary and set of rules of interpretation of results. The only thing new about computers interpreting X-Rays is the joining of image processing (also highly developed technology) to expert systems.

    To me, the real breakthrough will be language understanding systems, with the quality of the system being judged by its ability to perform machine translation between two different foreign languages: a good translation requires *understanding* the text, and current technologies are long on skilled contextual substitution rather than “understanding”.

    Comment #4 by Kenny is spot on: Machines have replaced human slaves.

  • Jack

    Fred’s comments are spot on.

    Real wages [i.e. accounting for inflation] have been stagnant for about forty years. If the transition from a manufacturing economy to a technological/service economy really portended a better life for all, one would have thought we would have seen an uptick in real wages by now.

    I suppose someone of WRM’s persuasion might blame this largely on the sputtering blue social model, but I have my doubts. I’m frankly a little surprised that WRM has such an apparently blind faith in progress.

  • Kenny

    Real wages may have been stagnant for many decades now but still our standard of living has increased significantly during that time, from 1971 to the present.

    And that’s due to technology with computers, data bases, medicine, robotics, and the like at the forefront.

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