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Foxconn is an interesting mega-beast. It has a campus that houses 500k people and employees 1 million.

Just think about that... when was the last time you heard of a company employing more than like 200k people world wide and this company employees 1 million at it's production facility in China.

Apparently living and working conditions aren't great, we all read the followups to the original suicides. From what I gathered they were extremely barren, but better than the alternative of sleeping on the street in that city. They made it sound like if you try and get by in the city on your own, and you are low-income, it is incredibly vicious (mugging, etc.)

What I find interesting is that as these people fight for better conditions and increased wages, Foxconn's reply is "Whatevs, we are getting robots to replace you".

In the next 3 years they are looking at rolling out 1 million robots to replace workers, I imagine slowly firing 50-70% of their workforce. The only way I see these people not getting fired is the Chinese govt, in an attempt to stem riots[1], requires Foxconn to keep most of them employed.

This is an interesting twist of the future... I suppose some part of me assumed that by 2020+ machines would be making most of what I use, but when I look at the scale of jobless people as a result of it, it really makes me scratch my head to figure out where we fit in the future.

Our only salvation seems, at least for now, to expand ourselves in creative professions that cannot be performed by machines (yet).

When AI finally becomes mature enough to model a human (I don't really expect that to be very far off. Our compute power is getting ridiculous) I imagine that won't be off-limits for robots either and our job as humans will be just to exist and experience... nothing more.

tl;dr - assume robots and AI get sufficiently advanced to do most everything physical and most things that are deemed creative... what IS our purpose here then?

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPILhiTJv7E

It always makes me scratch my head when people brush off the coming automation revolution by saying "they'll just get other jobs". The point is, eventually, there will be no jobs at all. This is going to require a major rethinking of our social structure. Even the process of getting to that point will be slow and cause severe economic and social upheaval. We need to be thinking about this now before we have 10 million rioting in the streets because there are no jobs left.

The point isn't that there'll be no jobs, because ten jobs building a hundred widgets an hour can be replaced by ten jobs maintaining a hundred robots that build ten thousand widgets per hour, thus making everybody significantly richer.

The real problem is that increasing automation only creates jobs for smart people, while destroying jobs for dumb people. Not everybody capable of building widgets is capable of maintaining a widget-building robot. We're replacing manual labour jobs with jobs that require a brain, but half the population still has below-average intelligence.

You're still stuck in the thinking that hackinthebochs is saying we have to get away from, just one level deeper.

If we have robots that can make widgets, how much longer from that until there are robots that are maintaining the other robots? Robots that are DESIGNING the next generation of robots?

The intelligence line which measures who can be replaced by automation is steadily rising and eventually (within our lifetimes, if you believe the singularity nutters -- I think they are wildly optimistic) it'll be higher than all of us. The riots will start a long time before then in either case.

The important thing to remember is that we have always been afraid of jobs disappearing due to machines. Textile workers in France in the 18th century were afraid to be replaced by automated spinning machines. Switchboard operators got mad when then the automated switchboards arrived.

New jobs keep appearing as we gain more wealth, who would have predicted jobs such as web designer or WoW gold farmer 20 years ago?

Just like the western world has moved to automated production, China will be able to do the same.

Good point, but does it have a conclusion?

I think Kurzweil refers to it as the Singularity... but basically what happens when AI reaches the point where it can manage itself or advance itself?

This is certainly in the realm of "what if" because we haven't established if sheer compute power CAN get us AI that eventually becomes self-aware.

I sort of assume it can, but I don't like to make sweeping statements based on my assumptions. We might find some missing "human" link in the intelligence chain that stops computers and AIs from making that final leap once we get to that precipice.

Here's an interesting article on that:


"A common misnomer about the Singularity and the idea of greater-than-human AI is that it will involve a conscious, self-reflective, and even morally accountable agent. This has led some people to believe that it will have deep and profound thoughts, quote Satre, and resultantly act in a quasi-human manner. This will not be the case. We are not talking about artificial consciousness or even human-like cognition. Rather, we are talking about super-expert systems that are capable of executing tasks that exceed human capacities. It will stem from a multiplicity of systems that are individually singular in purpose, or at the very least, very limited in terms of functional scope. And in virtually all cases, these systems won’t reflect on the consequences of their actions unless they are programmed to do so."

I figure we will either:

A: Be eliminated by our robot masters

B: Be kept around by our robot masters/colleagues because we are useful/equal

C: Have already integrated the machines into ourselves, or integrated ourselves into the machines

D: Laze about doing nothing of consequence, because robots do everything for us, and aren't self-aware enough to care

I'm rooting for C, with B as my fallback.

For some extra dialog, this was touched on in the latest Planet Money podcast:


That's the Luddite argument to a T. I mean the historic, literal Luddites, not the modern figurative use. They were hand-weavers, worried that mechanical looms would put them out of business. They were right, and they were subject to severe financial hardship. No force on earth could have stopped the change taking place, though.

The difference is the pace and the scale. When its not just hand-weavers, but large swaths of society being made obsolete in a matter of years, we can't expect it to play out the same way as in the past.

What do you propose? We cannot stop it, nor should we even try to. The best you can do is to be aware of what is happening, and surf the wave rather than get creamed by it. Some people are going to come out poorly, but that is just the nature of the beast that is life. Don't waste calories worrying about them.

I don't think we should try to stop it. But I think the process of transitioning our society will be extremely painful. We can help mitigate a disaster by planning for it. It begins by first accepting that there will likely be huge social unrest as the process unfolds.

As automation takes over, there will be huge segments of society unable to maintain their standard of living. We need to begin to rethink our ideas of ownership of wealth and resources.

I think it's wrong looking at this as a "disaster". There's nothing good about a natural disaster, while history has proven again and again that paradigm shifts, while also having a negative side effect in the short term, have a much larger positive effect in the long term.

Take a look in the mobile industry. Is Nokia crumbling down and laying off a lot of people? Is RIM doing the same? Both former leaders in this market. Yes they are, but wouldn't you agree that what has come out of this is much better for everyone?

People need to stop looking at "saving jobs" in a time like this. The focus should be on "creating jobs". Let the jobs that need to disappear in order to have progress, disappear. If you're arguing against that, then you're arguing against the very nature of progress and evolution, whether it's biological, economical or technological.

For example in a time of "economic crisis", which happens about every 10 years or so, you should let that crisis kill the inefficiencies in the system! And then focus on taking advantage of it to create new businesses that are much more efficient and can deal with the new conditions, and from that you'll also have more jobs.

isn't this a simplistic view?

The industrial revolution was effectively covering the whole society, making a host of jobs obsolete in a matter of years, not only hand weaving. The same happened for the second industrial revolution, or the "green revolution".

Why should we expect this time to be different?

Previous revolutions didn't make people obsolete because it still required human labor to drive the increased production, and because the growth in productive capacity mostly equaled the growth in population and demand.

The automation revolution will be different because supply can suddenly outstrip demand by orders of magnitude. Wealth as we currently view it will essentially be limited by availability of natural resources rather than human productive capacity.

People can just sit around going to restaurants, doing art, doing exercise, travelling, sitting in cafes, surfing youtube. Lots of jobs today are of dubious utility, and lots of people with jobs waste a lot of their time surfing the internet and doing other marginally productive work.

I agree with all that. The point is the current social structure isn't set up for that. We still distribute resources based on how much money you can earn. When there's no money to earn, we need an entirely new framework.


I've been reading your replies and thought this summed up what you've been saying in other replies. Exactly spot on that the framework for society we have no is not capable of handling/supporting what I'll call the artistic/spiritual re-revolution that may occur after machines take over all (for the purposes of this argument) jobs.

That being said we still need to be mining and creating raw resources to make the robots for the automation and the devices, so someone at the top will be holding a giant leash around that process and they will, in reality, have the power to exert whatever reality they decide on down onto all of us if we want our robots, automation and gadgets.

It sort of is, a little bit. No one in Europe has to die without work, they don’t even have to starve. It’s not a pleasant life, certainly, but it shows that a massive change of our social structures wouldn’t be necessary, we would just have to extend what we are currently doing.

I very much agree that this point will eventually be reached. We won't suddenly stop automating tasks and making those automations more and more functional.

It'll be interesting.

I've spoken to people that feel our role will be to move back to an intellectual time of philosophy and cultural advancement while our mechanical counterparts take care of everything else.

As a side-note, part of the Animatrix compilation was an anime short by a famous animator that portrayed the future where we have throngs of robot slave labor. Just abusing, destroying, crushing and pushing them harder and harder, throwing them away as they are "injured".

It was a perverse vision to be sure and only made more perverse by the need to make the robots human-like and then eventually given them AI (in the anime at least).

All of these things will be unexpected challenges.

Will you cringe in 2040 when you see a humanoid robot fall from a skyscraper or accidentally have a tractor drive over it while moving something big?

These are the strange/unexpected/unprepared scenarios I think will catch us off guard.

Not at all. There will be different types of jobs. For example: massage, hair dresser, more beauty salons, personal assistants etc

This has happened before, to the 90% of humanity involved in hunting and gathering whose jobs were displaced by Agriculture. It happened again when agriculture and textile production became mechanized.

It was accompanied by massive social upheaval, but it didn't lead to either a crapsack post-apocalyptic unemployscape nor a prefect utopian leisure world. Not from our point of view anyway; you'd have to pluck a 7000 or 300 year old man from his world into ours to find out what he makes of our progress.

"I suppose some part of me assumed that by 2020+ machines would be making most of what I use, but when I look at the scale of jobless people as a result of it, it really makes me scratch my head to figure out where we fit in the future."

This is a common economic misconception. If, by some lucky twist of fate, machines can make everything we may ever want, it'd be great! We can just all lie around and enjoy utopia.

The downside of the utopia is the sheer amount of things that the robots can produce. Then what do you do with all that stuff?? That is a theme of the story "Midas Plague" by Frederik Pohl.

"The Midas Plague" (originally published in Galaxy in 1954). In this new world of cheap energy, robots are overproducing the commodities enjoyed by mankind. So now the "poor" are forced to spend their lives in frantic consumption, trying to keep up with the robots' extravagant production, so that the "rich" can live lives of simplicity. This story deals with the life of a man named Morey Fry, who marries a girl from a higher class. She is unused to a life of consumption and it wears at their marriage. Morey eventually hits on the idea of having the robots help him to consume his quotas. At first he fears punishment when he is discovered, but instead the Ration Board quickly implements his idea across the world."


Somehow, I can't imagine a bored and aimless population of billions building utopia. Bored people tend to be troublesome people, so if there isn't enough Farmville, we might be in trouble.

Good point, I wonder if we will need to create virtual realities for ourselves just to stay "occupied"

... here is a meta though... what if that is what we live in NOW, hence all the talk about "is our reality a hologram?" recently.

Inceptioned! :)

I'm not sure how excited and fulfilled one can be by doing a simple and repetitive task several hundred times a day.

I can't tell...are you talking about the jobs the robots will be doing, or playing Farmville?

Farmville is a good example of the kind of drudgery which robots should relieve us from.

I thought this was going to be a joke but, just like WoW and EVE mining, I see that it is actually happening: http://farmvillebot.net/ http://www.femfarmville.com/

funny you mention farmville, as actually working on a farm is one thing that the robots have yet to master.

Farming has benefited massively from automation and will continue to do so:


One thing that everyone is missing in all of this is the incoming demographic crash. Western Europe, the US, Japan, and China will be heavily affected by this. Automation will allow the remaining workers to produce the goods and services necessary for the wealthy countries as populations age. The real losers will be the countries that have not climbed the industrialization curve by the time that the cost of producing goods locally falls below the cost of transporting them from countries that have cheap labor. Once this happens, those countries that are not advanced enough to have local production will have to find some other way to reach a modern, consumer-oriented lifestyle. I might be willing to bet on Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia that have the advantage of being close to current manufacturing centers both culturally and physically, but I would not bet that modernization will provide any alleviation of the suffering experienced by Africans in the same way that it is improving living standards in China. Difficult for me to say how India will fare since I have little experience there and the depth of its democratic tradition makes it difficult for centralized decision making to drive the economy forward at the same rate that East Asians have achieved.

> but when I look at the scale of jobless people as a result of it, it really makes me scratch my head to figure out where we fit in the future.

Read "Manna" by Marshall Brain for a vision of the caste system that may happen


Thank you for the recommendation, 3 chapters in and this is fascinating (horrifying/thought-provoking)

"Our only salvation seems, at least for now, to expand ourselves in creative professions that cannot be performed by machines (yet)."

Yes. We have to move "up-market" in the job market, just like the disruptive innovation theory says. But this will also create many more opportunities for us. Automation of work is not new. And in the few last decades that we've used it intensively, it has only led to the growth of country economies and to a more advanced society, with more opportunities for non-physical work.

Now, what happens when robots become "smarter" than us at everything we can do and can think for themselves? That's harder to predict right now. But it doesn't necessarily mean we'll become their slaves. We might still use them as our "tools", or worst case scenario we'll literally merge with technology to keep pace with them, but I don't think that will happen until nano-technology is mature enough (http://www.nanofuture2030.com is an interesting blog on this).

In a way we're already starting to merge with technology, just not physically yet. If we watch the trends in computing since the birth of the mainframe, computers have become ever more "mobile", smaller and more "personal", from Mainframe > Mini-computer > PC > Notebook > Smartphone.

Whatever the next big computing paradigm will be, I know that "device" will be more mobile, smaller and more intimate with the human being.

>Yes. We have to move "up-market" in the job market, just like the disruptive innovation theory says

You seem to have a lot of faith in the average person's ability to move "up market". Personally I don't see this becoming a reality. Furthermore, the creative and knowledge jobs needed are orders of magnitude fewer than manual jobs to provide for the same amount of production in society. The welfare state will have to become the norm and getting to that point will require major social upheaval.

I didn't say we have a choice. It is what it is. We could try to slow it down by not embracing it and making laws against it, but unless the whole planet agrees on this, then it's pointless and will only end up making the country that writes such laws to fall behind the others.

But I have faith in humanity's ability to adapt. It's not that hard to learn a new job. And I think automation throughout the society helps everyone's job become easier.

The way I see tools are becoming easier and easier, and the barrier to entry is lowered so more people can create websites, or do marketing, and so on.

>I think automation throughout the society helps everyone's job become easier.

I don't think your considering the situation where the tools can do the job completely. The major difference now between past production revolutions was that the limiting factor was still human labor. The tools made the jobs vastly easier, but it still required a human operator. When you can take the human operator out of the equation completely, you're on entirely new ground.

>the barrier to entry is lowered so more people can create websites, or do marketing

These are all jobs that depend on orders of magnitude larger industries to survive (marketers need a thriving economy to create added value to justify their cost).

It seems like we're doing the same thing the finance industry did with the housing market: past history showed that housing prices always go up, so we'll assume they'll keep finding a way to go up. This completely ignores the fact that this time is vastly different than past situations. There has to be some upper limit here. If we want to assume we'll just keep going up and up (the knowledge work ladder), you need an argument that explains why there is effectively no upper limit.

Still though - someone will have to design, make and maintain the robots? Its still pretty gloomy, but until the time that robots can make better robots, there will still be a place for us.

True, but you are still loosing a significant number of human workers. You don't need 1000 humans to maintain 1000 robots, and those jobs won't be attainable by most people - especially the people the robots were designed to replace.

Regarding automation, I allways keep in mind Knuth's writting on the subject[1]:

The field of "automatic programming" is one of the major areas of artificial intelligence research today.

In this sense we should continually be striving to transform every art into a science: in the process, we advance the art.

[1] http://www.paulgraham.com/knuth.html

I am afraid AI will soon claim creative jobs too. So I am afraid of my designer job.

As soon as AI can accurately express the human condition as well as Bob Dylan I'll be worried. Meanwhile, we've got this: http://video.nytimes.com/video/2010/06/24/science/1247468035...

This will only happen, when robots will be able to dream. Feel safe!

one point..

FOxconn views moving to using robots as ideal because the costs of recruitment of workers went up not increases in wages. In other words despite increasing wages they have a hard time finding workers to fill the factories. So not the 'replacing workers' like you claim.

Thank you for the correction; I tried to edit the story but it looks like I'm past the time limit.

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