macroresilience

resilience, not stability

Employment In A World Where Androids Can Dream Of Electric Sheep

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If a robot could do everything that a human could, then why would any human be employed? The pragmatist would respond that robots still cannot do everything that a human being can (e.g. sensory and motor skills). Some would even argue that robots will never match the creative skills of a human being. But it is often taken for granted that if robots were equivalent to humans in an objective sense, then there would be no demand for human “work”. Is this assumption correct?

In Philip K. Dick’s novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, androids and synthetic animals are almost indistinguishable from human beings and real animals. Yet every human being wants a “real” animal despite the fact that a real animal costs much more than an artificial animal that can do everything that the “natural” animal can. A real ostrich costs $30,000 and an equivalent synthetic ostrich costs $800 but everyone wants the real thing. Real animals are prized not for their perfection but for their imperfection. The sloppiness and disorder of real life is so highly valued that fake animals have a “disease circuit” that simulates biological illness when their circuits malfunction.

Dick’s vision is a perfect analogy for the dynamics of value in the near-automated economy. Even in a world where the human contribution has little objective value, it has subjective value in the economy. And this subjective value comes not from its perfection but from its imperfection, its sloppiness, its humanness. Even in a world where androids can dream of electric sheep, technological unemployment can be avoided.

In many respects, we already live in such a world. Isn’t much of the demand for organic food simply a desire for food that has been grown by local human beings rather than distant machines? Isn’t the success of Kickstarter driven by our desire to consume goods and services from people we know rather than from bureaucratic, “robotic” corporate organisations?

However even if the human contribution is not an expert contribution, it must be a uniquely human contribution. Unfortunately our educational system is geared to produce automatons, mediocre imitations of androids rather than superior, or even average, human beings.

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Written by Ashwin Parameswaran

May 13th, 2013 at 8:51 pm

9 Responses to 'Employment In A World Where Androids Can Dream Of Electric Sheep'

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  1. The “uniquely human”-school-of-thought is just a bit of a self-aggrandizing activity that we humans love to indulge in. Nature is a far cleverer engineer than us having been able to evolve such complex self-replicating “machines” to encode, store and decode information in a universe where the ability of the universe to scramble information irretrievably increases every passing moment.

    We don’t even understand the structure of a single cell – let alone the non-Turing machine that a neuron is.

    To put it simply – as long as machines are built to transition from one state to another in a deterministic fashion given a set of stimuli – they will never be able to replicate what Life (or for that matter, a single electron) does.

    When we do build machines that replicate Life, there is no moral argument against them taking our jobs away from us (our children do that anyway and we die, don’t we?) – it’s just called passing on the baton.

    Akshay

    13 May 13 at 10:04 pm

  2. Akshay – for what its worth, I am quite skeptical that we will synthetically replicate life or the brain anytime soon. And we may never do so.

    This post is just a thought experiment that argues that even if we do, the human contribution to a product/service will have subjective economic value for what may well be completely “irrational” reasons.

    Ashwin

    13 May 13 at 10:19 pm

  3. Comparative Advantage doesn’t stop working just because the Robots have an absolute advantage in every line of work. There could still easily be a bunch of jobs where the opportunity cost of employing people is lower than using robots, and that’s where they’ll work (along with jobs where having humans is part of the appeal).

    Robot labor could also make a lot of small businesses practical. A guy could start his own business while renting/buying some robots for assistants, or run a farm with a bunch of robots.

    Brett

    14 May 13 at 6:09 am

  4. The likely scenario isn’t that robots will take ALL of the jobs – but rather that they will take most of the jobs. The result being an ever-growing population of humans left to compete for a dramatically smaller number of jobs.

    To some extent we’ve already done that by using technology as a force multiplier to reduce the need for people. A single farmer can harvest an exponentially larger area of land; a single customer service rep can service many clients, anywhere on the planet. Soon teachers will be teaching virtual classrooms of thousands of students scattered all over the world – reducing the number of teachers needed (and the number of school janitors too). Leaving aside the QUALITY of that education (which is likely to be measurably worse) the reality is that too often education is now driven by profit motives too. The idea of paying fewer teachers to teach more tuition-paying students will feed the greed for school regents.

    Already the writing is on the wall for some technologies. If you make your living driving a cab or a truck you’ll probably get to retire doing that…but you’d better be encouraging your kids to take on a different career. It’s likely that in our lifetimes we’ll see self-driving Taxi cabs and trucks.

    There will probably still be a niche market for people who want a human behind the wheel of their taxi for entertainment purposes or nostalgia, but make no mistake…that will be nothing more than a novelty.

    Automated ditch digging and construction equipment won’t be far behind – a single human foreman in the air conditioned truck will oversee a crew of robotic laborers that do the work faster and cheaper, without the need for lunch breaks, work comp insurance or unions.

    Long term employment prospects for humans, except in certain fields, are not terribly bright, I’m afraid. We might never get to the dystopian world of Wall-E where we’re totally useless and sedentary, but we likely are looking at a future where the rich are vastly richer and commanding an increasingly automated empire while the poor have to compete for fewer and fewer jobs at lower and lower pay rates.

    Sorry to be so cheerful on this Tuesday. :-)

    BenS

    14 May 13 at 2:22 pm

  5. Brett – right. So i am admittedly looking at the somewhat unrealistic situation where there are no jobs where the opportunity cost of employing people is lower than that of robots. Your second point on automation being pro-small business is an underappreciated one. We can already see economies of scale and scope coming down in many manufacturing industries due to increased automation.

    BenS – I don’t disagree with a lot of your prognosis but the real problem that you identify is concentration of capital and wealth. If wealth distribution is more even, there is no reason why these “novelties” cannot be commonplace.
    Put it another way, if robots were as good as humans and also literally free to manufacture and maintain then we will avoid the dystopian scenario.

    Ashwin

    14 May 13 at 11:24 pm

  6. Ashwin – Except that concentration of capital and wealth is an almost inevitable result of capitalism. You need only look at what’s happened in the U.S. over the last 3 decades and it shows no sign of slowing.

    Ultimately what I’m foreseeing is continued population growth along with a significant, though certainly not absolute, reduction in available jobs due to increased mechanization.

    It’s estimated that there are about 250,000 cab drivers in the U.S. Let’s say self-driving cars only replace 50% of those, which seems like a pretty low estimate, that’s still 125,000 fewer jobs for a population that continues to grow. The reality is that self-driving cars will probably replace closer to 80% of the existing cab drivers…and put significant downward wage pressure on the other 20%.

    Warehouse jobs, retail, food services, construction…all of them are in jeopardy. 3D printers and robots present a new threat to manufacturing jobs too.

    In Maryland I saw a machine the size of a small soda machine that would make your Starbucks coffee for you. Just swipe your credit card, enter your order on the touch screen and your beverage appeared moments later. No humans involved. That may be the future of Starbucks – or at the very least cap the number of humans Starbucks would need working in a particular shift.

    If you can’t dunk or sing, you’d better get a good STEM education because our grandchildren are going to face some stiff competition for increasingly fewer jobs. And yes, that will only accelerate the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few…

    I hope I’m wrong.

    BenS

    15 May 13 at 1:03 am

  7. Ashwin-

    You might be interested in J.N. Nielson’s posts on this topic. He quotes you in one of them:

    Automation and the Human Future

    Addendum on Automation and the Human Future

    Technological Unemployment and the Future of humanity

    T. Greer

    20 May 13 at 6:01 pm

  8. Thanks – i actually have him on my RSS feed.

    Ashwin

    20 May 13 at 10:40 pm

  9. […] Ashwin Parameswaran on what humans will do in the age of intelligent machines and the near-automated economy: In Philip K. Dick’s novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, androids and synthetic animals are almost indistinguishable from human beings and real animals. Yet every human being wants a “real” animal despite the fact that a real animal costs much more than an artificial animal that can do everything that the “natural” animal can. … The sloppiness and disorder of real life is so highly valued that fake animals have a “disease circuit” that simulates biological illness when their circuits malfunction. […]

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