More Robot Stories

I’d like to expand on my point yesterday about the relevance of science fiction. But bear with me as it will take a while for me to get to my point. Along the way I’ll make points about other things.

The pace of technological change is every-increasing, and, just as an example, one area where it’s going to have a huge impact over the next quarter century is the labor market. Both the top and the bottom of the workforce are going to be squeezed.

The Top: there’s already a lot of buzz about high-tech jobs (like mine!) being outsourced to India, South Africa, etc. Politically, this poses a fundamental problem for the arguments previously used in favor of free trade. The idea (but not neccessarily the reality) always was that the manual labor and low-tech jobs got pushed to less-developed countries overseas, while the advanced capitalist countries continued to improve and expand the range of products, technologies, and jobs they created. So the new wrench in this argument is that plenty of countries now have workforces that are just as well educated and offer the same set of skills as the US workforce, and they’re available at a fraction of the cost. Ultimately the only jobs that will be “safe” – anywhere in the world – are the ones that require direct personal interaction, localized skills, or simply being physically present: doctors, janitors, real estate agents, cooks, construction workers, etc. But wait…many of those will get squeezed too…

The Bottom: I was just reading up on the current state of robotic technology. The current projection is that within the next 10 years or so we’ll have robots with reasonably good vision and manual dexterity. We already have robots that are pretty good at factory line work, vacuuming floors, cutting grass, etc. What does that mean? It means that once they’re mass-produced, say goodbye to migrant farm worker jobs, janitorial jobs, burger-flipping jobs, lawn mowing jobs, etc.

While this dynamic at the low-skill end of the scale is nothing new – remember the story of John Henry? – this is different because it’s going to happen at a faster pace and with a broader scope than ever before. At the same time, the high-skill jobs are spreading to numerous countries where costs and wages are lower. The US will not be able to sustain the quantity or the wages of those jobs within its borders.

So who has a safe job? The low-skill jobs will be automated. The high-skill jobs – other than those that require highly specialized skills or physically being in a particular place – will be outsourced (or have their wages reduced). It turns out that many doctors may not even fall into the “safe” category: the British now ship cataract surgery patients to India and back – even with the travel expenses it’s still a fraction of the cost of doing it in England. In the long run, so the free-trade argument goes, the countries where the jobs get outsourced will bring their living standards up to ours (assuming no environmental catastrophes due to the massive resource extraction and pollution that would entail, but that’s another story), and then there’s no need to keep outsourcing. But as John Maynard Keynes famously said “in the long run we’re all dead.”

The “ideal” idea behind technological improvement is to make people’s lives easier: to automate the boring stuff (washing machines), get us places faster (cars and planes), etc. The “sinister” idea is to make people irrelevant, except as consumers. But if they can’t work, how can they consume? One outcome is that we all live lives of leisure while the machines do the work. Another possible outcome is a deeply polarized and stratified society, with a small enriched ruling class, and everyone else in grinding poverty. A third, and probably most likely outcome, is at least limited protectionism, such as exists in Japan and France. This will happen as the pain wrought in trying to reach the “long run” I just described will be deemed too high a price to pay for low prices. At least some “inefficient” sectors of the economy will be protected, depending on the political strength of those sectors.

I should say, of course, that I could be proven wrong. When major advances happen – such as the spread of the Internet – it usually triggers a boom, as you end up with a whole new area of the economy that needs to be populated with workers. A continuous series of such booms could continue to sustain a middle class through these changes. Historically, they only happen a couple times per century though, and when the booms end there is is considerable upheaval, such as the .com crash.

Another, positive possibility is that “the long run” ends up happening in the short run: global markets grow at a pace roughly equal to the global spread of jobs. That is, outsourcing to say, India, would lead to growing demand for those same services within India, wages would go up there, and then there’s no longer a cost-basis for outsourcing. But I haven’t seen any evidence pointing to that outcome.

So what does this have to do with science fiction? Well, it seems that you have to turn to science fiction to find any kind of discussion of these kinds of futuristic concerns. I’m not saying that science fiction is about economics. I am saying that it gives you a window into thinking about the future. All the old sci-fi stories about the role of robots in society may be relevant sooner that you think. When ideas that were once only in the realm of science fiction are thrust upon society, we are generally ill-prepared to tackle them. For example, advances such as cloning don’t seem to get any kind of really thoughtful public discussion. Only fear-mongering on one side, and complacency on the other. So how we end up absorbing these changes into our society ends up being driven pretty much by whatever way the wind blows. So a little movie like Robot Stories, which illustrates the impact of technology through very personal tales, is one way to get people to start thinking about these issues.

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