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AI are taking jobs (economist.com)
184 points by bmahmood on Nov 6, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 154 comments

A lot of the argument on this topic seems to be "but this time it is really different!"

Perhaps. And perhaps not. Most likely it is different, just like all those other times were different.

I hate to be skeptical, but when this same pattern of people saying "it's different!" repeats over and over again without it being different, I think the onus is on those making the claim to support their argument better. If anything, I think the metrics are different, and that leads to a lot of erroneous conclusions. I see a lot of economic activity that doesn't fit into the neat little categories we have constructed.

As an example, my wife is middle-aged, middle-income, and college educated. I helped her create a site about her hamburger casserole recipes. People liked the site, so she made the site into an ebook. Every day, hundreds of people either use the free site to cook dinner, or decide to buy the ebook (shameless plug: http://hamburger-casserole-recipes.com)

And it's not just her. She has a friend (also middle-aged, college educated, and out of the official workforce) who collect semi-rare books and resells them. Another friend sells household goods by leveraging her social networks.

The list goes on. We probably know 5 or 6 people who have some sort of unique arrangement that technology has facilitated. These are folks who do not have "jobs", yet they have income. They provide value to people.

So if I had to bet, I'd say the odds are 90% that the economy is evolving, not drastically changing. I might be wrong, but I'll need to see a lot more data than this before I'm willing to change my mind.

Spot on. Nearly all of the articles I've seen of late that tackle this theme reduce to "but how can all of the X's that are now unemployed find work if the economy will never again need X's".

Its a simple failure of imagination. When 50% of the people were farmers, not many of them could imagine being airline pilots. A combine harvester must have seemed like a fearsome thing indeed.

The problem isn't that there aren't new jobs being created, it's that almost none of them can be done by the people who were displaced.

You lay off 10,000 factory workers. Do you think they can ever be airline pilots? Or programmers? Or financial analysts? Or what-have-yous?

Sure, a small (very small) percentage of these folk will successfully retrain into another field, but the vast majority of them will be left behind. They do not have the educational background to pursue the knowledge-based jobs that are the only ones hiring.

And even if they did have the necessary educational background for retraining, who would pay for it? Education in the USA is already absurdly expensive, and the employer sure as hell won't be picking up the tab.

Hear, hear.

This is the reason that we need a wage for displaced workers. People who will probably never work again, due to lack of education or ambition. It's socialism, yes, but are we going to be responsible for allowing millions of people to become beggars while we enjoy the fruits of our labors?

I started my career right out of uni by developing software which eliminated hundreds of low skill jobs. Hundreds... really, what can you say about that? That I should pat myself on the back for boosting productivity by 3000% for a junior programmer's wages? That someone else would have done it if I hadn't? That these people have been freed up from tedious, repetitive jobs to become the creative people they always wanted to be? Honestly, the excuses ring a bit hollow.

It's my belief that as a result of our efforts, our drive to untangle complexity, that there will likely be 50% unemployment in the US by the end of the next decade. Let's design for that. I wish that our mentally absent congressmen would give a damn about what is happening to our economy under their watch.

> This is the reason that we need a wage for displaced workers. People who will probably never work again, due to lack of education or ambition.

Are you sure it's a good idea to systematically reward a lack of ambition?

> It's my belief that as a result of our efforts, our drive to untangle complexity, that there will likely be 50% unemployment in the US by the end of the next decade. Let's design for that.

You proposed design will become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Putting people on a permanent wage because they will "probably never work again" will signal to those people that society considers them worthless. You will never produce anything of sufficient value for anyone to consider it worthwhile to feed you for the effort.

> Are you sure it's a good idea to systematically reward a lack of ambition? > You proposed design will become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Putting people on a permanent wage because they will "probably never work again" will signal to those people that society considers them worthless. You will never produce anything of sufficient value for anyone to consider it worthwhile to feed you for the effort.

You provide question and the answer. The idea of universal income (which this proposed wage is a limited application of) is that you give everyone a bare minimum stipend, while encouraging people to go out and earn more if they want more.

It wouldn't be event that expensive, considering what a modern social state already spends on its citizenry.

In a sense, modern government is partially already a mechanism of universal income (many government employees are unfit for being productive in private sector).

So here's where I'm coming from: Putting food on the table as a result of your work is satisfying and a source of pride. Not being able to do it is shameful. This is a fundamental dynamic.

While it's good that there's a safety net so slip-ups and bad luck won't put you in the street and kill your children, institutionalising that dynamic (effectively removing it) will have catastrophic effects on the values of society.

These concerns are not crack-pot libertarian wet dreams, they were raised even by social democrats when the Nordic social democratic welfare states were designed. Britain has talked about anti-social behaviour and broken society for years (it's not just something David Cameron invented with his good-on-paper/WTF-IRL-"Big Society") - don't have that kind of language for it in Denmark, but the same dynamics are present.

I guess to me that's not an interesting dynamic for a society that's advanced past subsistence farming. In subsistence farming, yes, you work to feed yourself. If you have modern 21st-century farming technology though, producing enough food to feed everyone takes only a few percent of GDP, not 100% of everyone's time. Why not just give it to everyone, since its cost is basically noise on modern economic scales anyway?

Then find some more advanced goals for people to work at. If they really, truly, want nothing but a bare subsistence existence, and nothing else that modern society has to offer, then fine, let them sit around eating 2000 calories/day for free; maybe in the future robots will do all the work anyway, and lazy humans can just live off the munificence of their robot benefactors (we're halfway there). But an "advanced" society in 2011 where the reason people work is because they'll starve otherwise, despite the utter un-scarcity of food, now that seems like a pretty shameful dynamic. I'd be more interested in asking, rather than setting up artificial scarcity so that people have to work for the old scarce things (e.g. food) even though they aren't scarce anymore (there's only a distribution problem, not a scarcity problem), whether we can have a society where people work for something else. Maybe the answer's no, but to me that'd be a pretty sad answer.

Putting food on the table is a metaphor that goes beyond food. Here are some statistics on Americans counted as poor: http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/09/understandi...

We have moved beyond subsistence farming and free food - "food on the table" means a lot more, including many scarce goods.

Indeed, we should make a point of not wiping anybody's fanny. What I had in mind is a type of existence where one has bare minimum provided (shelter, food, clothing, access to information), but that also as a feature provides a social stigma. This institution should be viewed by society as a temporary stop or a final refuge a safety net if you will.

You want tobacco? Go and work for it. You want booze? Go and work for it. You want PS3? Go and work for it.

You want tobacco? Go and work for it. You want booze? Go and work for it. You want PS3? Go and work for it.

Isn't this how food stamps are currently supposed to work? They only cover staples, and users aren't allowed to pay for tobacco, etc. The thing is, in the real world, food stamp recipients frequently barter their vouchers for these luxury items.

When considering such measures, we need to stop imagining what an optimal government might be able to do. Instead, look at the history of such efforts, and the incentive structures (consider Public Choice economics) to understand what is likely to transpire.

I don't think we disagree much, then. But the origin of this thread was the assertion that 50% of the population would be permanently unemployable by next decade.

>So here's where I'm coming from: Putting food on the table as a result of your work is satisfying and a source of pride. Not being able to do it is shameful. This is a fundamental dynamic.

You act like this is a fundamental feature of humanity; it's not. Its a learned response to thousands of years of scarcity. There were plenty of societies where food was plentiful and thus they never developed this sort of social conditioning.

In a world where food, shelter, necessities are plentiful people will be freed up to gain social standing through creative endeavors. Or perhaps we'll do away with our need to rank each other based on arbitrary metrics. I welcome this future.

I think this is one of the most important ideas being explored right now and could not only save families but also become a giant incubator for new research. (It may also require moving to a new form of government, such as a Direct Democracy, to implement.)

It's an idea whose time has come.

The proportion of Danish citizens on some kind of transfer income: 60% (includes student stipends all the way to pensions)

The value of new research undertaken by people on transfer income: very small, if any at all.

The reason the idea requiring direct democracy is that it involves two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner.

The second part doesn't seem correct; a huge amount of new development in Denmark is done by people on transfer income. For example, a number of research results that later were commercialized have come out of Masters theses (there's even a whole arrangement where you can do a thesis in collaboration with a company), and a number of companies were funded initially by some kind of government benefits, sometimes officially and sometimes unofficially (since you lose benefits once you're officially "working for a startup"). Even when the money doesn't go directly to the startup, it provides a backstop so people feel more free to take risks starting a company.

I guess it'd be interesting to read a study quantifying it, but I'd be surprised if it were really true that not much research comes out of people on transfer incomes, especially if you include the people who used transfer incomes to bootstrap the early stages of a startup.

So, student subsidies are the odd one out here, because they're not money you're given to survive, they're given in exchange for a specific activity. They do, however, count as transfer income, and the source I have for 60% didn't break it down.

Yes, unemployment benefits can provide a backstop that enables entrepreneurship, but Denmark has more generous benefits than most other countries, yet the levels of entrepreneurship don't follow.

Any other direct subsidy towards entrepreneurship (although often misguided) aren't transfer income in the sense being suggested by the GP.

The people who can just sit around and come up with exciting new research or who can become successful entrepreneurs are generally also the kind of people who can get a job if they want or need one.

The reason the idea requiring direct democracy is that it involves two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner.

Make that one wolf and 99 pissed-off sheep.

The thing is, it's not up to us to decide if it's a good idea: it's up to the people who would benefit -- which is the vast majority.

You can have concentrated wealth or you can have democratic principles, but you can't long maintain both.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm familiar with the idea that minimum wage laws and student loan programs increase the cost of goods and tuition as the various institutions realize that there is more money available and adjust their prices accordingly.

No, I am not advocating a cash wage, what is needed is a wage that enables the holder to claim a fixed list of goods (e.g. food stamps allow the holder to buy food, not XBOX games). Likewise, I'm sure that the statistics show that giving money to the homeless to buy food is unlikely to produce positive outcomes, but giving them food or shelter directly is a more responsible option.

I believe that a broad application of this same idea -- to provide a wage for displaced workers in the form of rights to claim an enumerated set of goods rather than indirectly via a cash stipend preserves the incentive structures present in the other areas of our economy while taking care of those left behind yet not undermining ourselves in the process.

A final thought -- consider that an educated, well-fed population with a low infant mortality rate has fewer children. Therefore, a morally acceptable form of population control is available to us: feed and educate the populace. If we can do that, then we should be able to sustain 50% unemployment.

>Are you sure it's a good idea to systematically reward a lack of ambition?

Why the assumption that if you pay someone a living wage when their services are no longer needed, they won't continue to seek meaningful work, re-educate themselves or provide valuable services to the community? I come from a working class family, all of whom have the option to not work yet choose to do one or all three of the above out of a basic need to participate in their community and be valued.

I was quoting the GP:

People who will probably never work again, due to lack of education or ambition.

There exist plenty of large areas dominated by people who are, let's call it "empowered to provide meaningful services to the community". Yet, these areas are more often examples of urban decay than they are of thriving communities.

Really? Have you ever been involved with a school or pre-school for example? All my friends who are parents give hours a week to their children's upbringing in a communal manner, as just one example. I wonder if we aren't being brainwashed by a media that chooses to label us as a lazy species who are only good for watching television - because in the wider world as I've seen it this isn't the case at all.

Our instincts for fairness and obligations in the social contract evolved when we were organized into tribes. Thus, when we see members of our own tribe (i.e., those whose children are educated with our own) we instinctively feel drawn to contribute to their well-being.

The same thing doesn't work for people outside our tribe. Evolutionarily speaking, these were rivals for our food or mates or whatever. So we don't feel the same compulsion to help outsiders.

Here's a counter-example for you: I know several people (and I'm guessing that most of us do) that have exaggerated disability claims, so they're now "retired" and living off social security, when their disability isn't great enough to, e.g., run the machinery to dig a new septic tank.

How many people do not try to minimize their tax burden? Isn't that another example demonstrating that people don't naturally contribute to the well-being of those outside their tribes?

Or perhaps as we increase efficiency things get cheaper and cheaper allowing people who once required a high wage to live to now live at a much lower wage. There is always work to be done, unfortunately a lot of it isn't profitable at the wages that are required to perform it. If we didn't have inflation like we do now, things would get cheaper in all fields.

I don't see how non-knowledge-based work is gone forever. Sure, we have roombas, but we are a long way from me being able to tell a robot to clean a messy room, or to properly lay out merchandise that has been messed up by customers. Heck, even at high-end SysAdmin rates, I can assemble servers cheaper than I can buy them from Dell.

I mean, I think a some of the barrier to unskilled employment right now is cultural. Having someone clean your personal space is seen as extremely crass. Heck, expensive software engineers are expected to clean up their own cube. Even having a secretary is kinda weird these days. Man, it's really nice to have support staff, but culturally, we seem to look at it like owning slaves.

But really, I think most of the problem is just that the economy is in the dumps. It's hard for anyone outside of the top 20% skill-wise to find a job right now, doing much of anything. It's an employer's market.

>And even if they did have the necessary educational background for retraining, who would pay for it? Education in the USA is already absurdly expensive, and the employer sure as hell won't be picking up the tab.

This is the economy again. During the dot-com boom? anyone that looked like they might be able to become qualified (including a 17 year old me) could get a job learning to become a computer programmer or a sysadmin. These days, companies don't want to take those kinds of risks; but I think that has more to do with the economy than with any structural differences in the computer industry.

I mean, do you really 'train' a SysAdmin? that's not really how I've seen it work. You get a kid who is into that sort of thing already and throw some books at them, and it sticks or it doesn't. The cost is that the kid is going to make some mistakes while learning, you don't know if the kid is even capable of becoming good, and even if you pick the right kid, the kid doesn't break anything too expensive, you get them the right books, even then, once you have built a pretty good SysAdmin, well, they might just leave for a better paying job.

Exactly, with the creation of more wealth, you can afford that kind of nice services :) like a cleaning lady :)

In Mexico and South America, it's even expected that if you're well off, you're going to have household people (gardeners, cooks, cleaning staff).

Here in Uruguay I used to have a cleaning lady (once a week) when my income was U$ 500/month ! (she made U$ 10 per visit).

Sure they could, Internet is not that expensiv and thats really all you need to learn programming.

Sure education is expensiv but self education is not!

That's kinda like saying a book and a pad of paper is all you need to learn astrophysics and work at NASA.

Well there is a diffrence between working for NASA and working as MediCore Java programmer. Its not just about programming but you can learn tons of stuff with help of the internet that is not really expensiv.

Not everybody is cut to be a programmer, just look at the percentage of college kids that fail Programming 101, even though they are in a way better position to learn than the 40 year old laid-off factory worker.

How much of this is because its much easier to learn about business or law? How much of this is because CS101 are often extremly bad (there was alot of talk at here at HN).

Im not saying everybody should learn programming. There is lots of other stuff that will not get taken ofer by mashienes and its pretty easy to learn a lot of this because of the Internet.

The problem is that often its not really about beeing good, its more about having finished the right school or having the right certification. That a hole diffrent set of problems.

>When 50% of the people were farmers

Farmers are highly entrepreneurial and work very hard, a combine is a welcome invention. It's the hired farm hands who are worried about the combine harvester. It's a very interesting question, what will happen to our society when we have less and less need for manual and rote labour.

The farmer scenario is interesting. On the one hand, (speaking as one who comes from a family of farmers) - they are amazingly early adopters of technology - to a degree that I think might shock your average denzien of HN. DGPS, Real-Time weather reports feeding into Options Plays on their Crops (I learned more about calls, puts, and commodities markets in one evening around a campfire in banff, than 2 years of economics classes and endless surfing of thestreet.com ever taught me), chemical systems for fertilizers, satellite displays on the hydration levels of their fields - these are all fairly common tools of your farmer that has more than four or five sections.

But what they lack is capital, scale, vertical integration, and access to enterprise IT systems.

The first casualties of technological advances were the manual laborers, but, as technology advances, and automation evolves further, the "independent farmer" will cease to exist in North America outside of the smaller retirement/sustenance farms (that are numerous, but don't contribute that greatly to the food supply) and niche areas that supply "Organically Grown", "Locally harvested" markets.

The Very Large Farms (that is, those farms doing > $500K sales/year) will continue to grow as a percentage of total farms, and those will increasingly become larger, and, as a result, eliminate farming jobs.

Farmers are stubborn, and resilient, so it won't happen quickly - but as those farms are lost to the mega-agricorps, they won't come back into the family. Average age of a farmer in the United States is around 57 - so, in about 10 years from now, as we see wider deployment of automated vehicles, yet another segment of the american job market will begin its permanent decline.

Speaking of farmers, I read a post about http://farmingo.com that:

"As America starts to debate farm subsidies and big ag, while college grads are starting more small farms than any time in the last 100 years, look to the power of technology to break open an unhealthy and highly inefficient food distribution system that has left the world both obese and stuck with higher food prices."

"Corbin Hill is using Farmigo and a CSA model to deliver this healthy and fresh food at prices LOWER than the local Harlem supermarkets."

http://sixkidsandafulltimejob.blogspot.com/2011/11/corbin-hi... (VC)

Change hurts. It hurts doubly so when uncertainty is mixed in.

The majority of the western population has a fairly rigid definition of job: trade your time for money. Its one thing to change how you trade your time for money: e.g. going from plowing a field a shuffling papers at a desk. It’s a whole another thing to adopt a certain level of self-responsibility (and risk) in determining how you provide value for your employer/customers. This is intrinsic to almost all new-era, tech-enabled jobs.

This is what is different now.

A cultural evolution in the western world is needed to facilitate widespread success in the evolved economy. It’s going to hurt.

What is the endpoint you have in mind?

I think he's suggesting that in the future a job will move from being "rent my body 8 hours a day on a long term contract" to "pay me to me provide a service you need".

Patio11's article from a few weeks ago "Don't call yourself a programmer" illustrates this divide for the development community, but I'd be surprised if it can't be applied to most other fields. If you call yourself "factory worker" you're expendable and outsourcable.

Sure, but how many people are going to be able to make a living on Hamburger ebooks? I don't think it's that hard to supplement your income a bit like this but I don't see this kind of thing compensating for many lost full-time jobs.

OP's scenario is further complicated by the fact that his wife is (presumably) half supported by himself who (presumably) is earning a living.

So... How many single people earn a living, pay rent, bills, feed themselves and live to an acceptable standard from selling Hamburger ebooks?

I don't know about hamburger ebooks, but the guy who runs parrotsecrets does make more than most computer programmers.

Also don't forget that you don't have to live in a rich country for you to sell ebooks. Anywhere with internet is fine.

As wealth accumulates among the masters of technology, asking what jobs might provide value to your peers is the wrong question. What value can your friends provide to big corporations?

Bertrand Gille (60s/70s historian of technology) had an interesting hypothesis, that as technical systems, and coupled technical-economic systems (e.g. large corporations built on technical advances) get complex, interdependent, and rapidly changing, at some point it becomes too difficult for humans to fully understand and control their workings and evolution, and the dependencies make even choosing which technologies you "want" to use highly constrained, all of which leads to somewhat of an inversion of control.

Rather than technology being a tool, of which humans ask, "what do I want to use this tool for?", instead there is this evolving technical-economic system that you have no choice but to interact with, and what you need to ask of yourself is, "how can I make myself useful to this system?" I.e., given the technical-economic system of your present moment, which you only understand a part of, where do you fit yourself in so you can be a tool that that system finds useful to employ towards its ends (whatever those might be)? Alternately, he hoped there was a way to re-invert the inversion of control, but no word on success on that front...

That sounds interesting. Is there a particular essay or book that would be a good starting point?

Unfortunately it's mostly all piled into Gille's magnum opus, the 1500-page History of Techniques (1978), which to make matters worse is out of print in English and sells for absurd prices online (though some university libraries have it).

I read it mostly second-hand via Bernard Stiegler's Technics and Time, which is widely available in English and summarizes Gille extensively in the beginning portions. That's an okay intro in the purely summary parts, but is tied up in Stiegler's own project of somehow re-theorizing what time means via a mixture of technical evolution and Heideggerian philosophy, which may not be what you're interested in (I found it a bit over my head, but I'm not at all versed in Heideggerian philosophy). Maybe since it's caused a bit of a revival in interest in Gille, someone will re-print an English translation, or a good secondary work.

Oddly his only work that is widely available in English, Engineers of the Renaissance, is quite good but has none of this in it; it's just a straightforward, well-researched history of Renaissance-era engineering.

I heard about stigler through the excellent documentary "Der Ister"[1] which was a very good treatment of time and heidegger's philosophy of technology. Thanks for the info on this other book.


Interesting; I'd heard about that but there weren't any screenings near me, but it looks like it's out on DVD now. Maybe I'll watch. In my day job I'm "just" a technologist, but I like to keep up on history/philosophy of technology as well, when possible.

Incidentally, it appears you can also read Stiegler via Twitter, possibly to his chagrin (he's made some skeptical comments about what Twitter does for thought/communication): https://twitter.com/TechnicsAndTime

You are exactly describing Amazon Mechanical Turk.

From what you describe that does sound like the system we have always been under. I.e if you want to advance your position, and you need money to do so, you best find somebody who has them and make yourself useful to them.

If you actually dig into the statistics, the 9% of America with persistent unemployment problems are mostly not e.g. bank underwriters who got creamed by FICO scores making them totally obsolete. That makes for a great newspaper piece, because well-educated people are not supposed to end up unemployable, but it bears little relationship to reality.

Unemployment is dominated by sectors directly connected to the real estate/financial boom (construction, real estate, finance) which are no longer booming and could not sustain historically high employment levels. We're simply seeing reversion to the mean plus a wee bit extra, which only looks cataclysmic when your recorded history began at the top of the market.

Actually, it's a slightly weird situation. Unemployment is fairly level across the economy. Job losses are concentrated in construction and manufacturing, however.

Also, finance didn't suffer so much - only about a 9% job loss. I suspect finance fared better than other bubble-related fields mainly because of their highly flexible wages. (I.e., construction or manufacturing has layoffs, finance just cuts bonuses.)

I graphed the figures a while back: http://crazybear.posterous.com/structural-shift-in-the-econo...

Unemployment is dominated by sectors directly connected to the real estate/financial boom (construction, real estate, finance) which are no longer booming...

This is the thing that makes me skeptic about all the "distribute available work", "create subsidies for displaced workers" proposals. People still need houses, food, all that. It's the demand that starts the economic cycles.

Real state, at least in some countries, has been the "engine" that fuels the economy at large. But if it's stalled, some other area must become the lead.

The author does not fully understand the totality of the work these professional do. From the two example listed.

"Radiologists, who can earn over $300,000 a year in America, after 13 years of college education and internship, are among the first to feel the heat. It is not just that the task of scanning tumour slides and X-ray pictures is being outsourced to Indian laboratories, where the job is done for a tenth of the cost. The real threat is that the latest automated pattern-recognition software can do much of the work for less than a hundredth of it."

a very naive understanding of radiologists. This only one of the many task a radiologists must handle, including interaction with patient, which is the most important task. We are far away from replace that service with Ai. Software handling one task won't eliminate the need for radiologists.

"Lawyers are in a similar boat now that smart algorithms can search case law, evaluate the issues at hand and summarise the results. Machines have already shown they can perform legal discovery for a fraction of the cost of human professionals—and do so with far greater thoroughness than lawyers and paralegals usually manage."

Case discovery is only one of the many task a Lawyer must perform, case discovery alone won't replace lawyers. It will only allow them to be more productive. Lawyers still responsible for many other task, they have to broker deals, consult clients and in the case of trial attorneys, win trials.

more thoughts at: http://techiroll.com/post/10173031897/do-not-blame-technolog...

I agree it doesn't cover everything they do, but covering just some of the more routine activities can be enough for significant disruption. For example, dermatologists are fairly worried that "upload a photo and we'll diagnose your mole", either via software or outsourcing, will cut out a significant percentage of their business. It's not by any means the hardest work a dermatologist does, but it's common, steady work that produces reliable revenue, so it hurts to lose it. It may be that we won't need as many dermatologists only to handle the actually-hard stuff.

(Though for medicine in particular, I think a mixture of "you can always do more" and humans' seemingly infinite hypochondria means that medical spending will continue to eat up as much money as we're willing to throw at it.)

If they are worried about it, why not preempt it? A simple upload form on the internet where you can upload your a picture of your mole and have a dermatologist take a quick look at it for $15 would be very attractive for a lot of people (not least because it is easier for people to do it than it is to schedule a visit.

And it would be a nice side income for some young doctor.

This sounds like a glorious future to me :-) I can't wait to have automated health checkups as well (maybe even persistent checkups).

Perhaps the number of dermatologists won't even decrease - perhaps we'll simply have an increase in quality/frequency of screening for the same number of dermatologists. Perhaps it will open things up so more people can afford to get regular screenings. I'm not poor, but that's one of those things that I classify as too much of a luxury to do regularly - there are a bunch of different screenings that people could do.

My brother happens to be a Radiologist and I know that he is not concerned regarding the "outsourcing" of image diagnosis for two reasons. One being that there is an endless amount of work to be done as more people are able to afford healthcare. Automated diagnosis will help provide the service at a manageable cost to more people. But more importantly, the service provided is just a tool in overall healthcare. In this case the best a computer could do is come up with a list of diagnoses with a confidence coefficient based on different models. It will still be up to the Radiologist to make the final determination as to treatment.

"One being that there is an endless amount of work to be done as more people are able to afford healthcare."

Yeah. Healthcare. Always getting more and more affordable!

In both cases, fewer will be needed. This will either cause unemployment in the short term or will pressure the salaries downward. If it's a significant force, that is.

What if we simplify the tax code, and sentence millions of tax consultants to the unemployment roles? Is it that OK?

> interaction with patient, which is the most important task

It's also the one radiologists and other medical professionals routinely fail at.

Sorry, but if your argument is "computers don't have a bedside manner", I have to call that a plus... for the computers.

Sure there are many in the medical profession who fail at beside manners, but it is not the vast majority. And it's not just beside manner, understanding medical terminology, prepping and positioning the patient for the X-ray, X-raying the appropriate body part, operating the machinery safely and effectively, recording keeping, etc.. It's easy for an outsider to downplay the importance of all this, but that's because they don't do the work and never considers what happens when someone messes up: important care is delayed or a patient gets too much x-ray exposure.

This only one of the many task a radiologists must handle, including interaction with patient, which is the most important task. We are far away from replace that service with Ai.

Well, yes, except that when an algorithm is doing all diagnosis and analysis, and all you need is someone with bedside manner to interact with the patient, your job requirements go from "N years at a good medical school" to "Experience as a receptionist". It is virtually guaranteed that compensation for this type of position will be driven downward.

I don't see this as a bad thing, except:

In the 1950's people wondered what the future generations would do with all their free time. They predicted, correctly, that worker productivity would rise immensely. They also assumed that people would be just as wealthy while working much less.

People are wealthier in some ways. In america, its pretty much standard issue to own at least one car (partially perhaps because a car is needed to simply get a job in most areas).

But in other ways it does not seem like the average worker is as well-off as the past had predicted.

I could say things about concentration of wealth and other reasons the productivity gains were not matched by gains in free time, but I'm not sure I know enough to make those arguments.

This is just my uninformed opinion, but I think a lot of it has fallen victim to keeping up with the Joneses, and a lot of the rest to employers not being willing to give decent terms to part timers.

People could get by with a much smaller salary (or keep the same salary but save a ton of it) by having an older car, a smaller house, less fancy food, etc. but everybody else has nicer things. I see people buying really nice cars on credit and then they don't have much time to drive it recreationally because they spend all their time working to pay for it. "Well there's your problem!"

For the other side, let's say I make $X but only need $X/2 to live. Try finding an employer who will let you work half time for $X/2. It's pretty tough, especially if you make $X at something "professional", rather than, say, digging ditches. Worse, for Americans, is the current link between employment and health care. Half-time employment generally means having to buy your own health insurance, which doesn't come cheap.

In short, it seems like it's pretty hard to work less and make less, and when you do work full time and make good money, it's very tempting to spend a larger portion of it on luxuries.

There is an interesting article on Bloomberg about this exact thing. Americans have converted the extra productivity into consumer possessions, while other countries (read Scandinavia/Northern Europe) have converted them into increased leisure time.

Have a look:


I was about to say this. Also, in Scandinavia the salaries _have_ indeed kept pace with increases in productivity. In Norway, you can earn a decent living as a checkout clerk. It seems as if the business owners here have actually passed on most of the savings to their workers. I'm pretty sure this is exclusively a cultural phenomenon - a sense of solidarity and cooperation which the larger part of US culture does not have. (I'm not meaning to bash the United States here, but this view is compounded by the fact that American employee-employer relationships seem a lot more antagonistic and imbalanced).

There are also less super-rich people here since people are overall taxed more. The oil industry also adds to the general income level, but this doesn't explain the entire effect. I'm pretty sure the same can be observed, in Sweden and Finland.

I have a better explanation. Wages have not even remotely kept pace with productivity, so most people do not see the benefits of increased overall productivity.


I'm curious.... if productivity increases rapidly in all sectors then how are wages supposed to increase as well?

The theory is that employees should be paid more for producing more value per head. However if everyone produces more then wages can't go up without a corresponding increase in prices.

The alternative is reduced prices, new improved goods and services, and a steady wage giving the misleading sentiment of "everything is getting better, but I'm still being paid the same".

Why do prices have to go up with productivity? To take a toy example, let's say that the entire economy consists of nothing but producing TVs, and that enough TVs are produced for each person to have one TV per year.

Now some massive productivity increase comes along and doubles output with the same workers. Now you're producing enough TVs for each person to have two TVs per year. Either the price of TVs will drop by 50%, or salaries will double. (Or half of the workforce will be fired....) Approximately. If everyone produces more then everyone has to be able to buy more, otherwise there's no reason to have the additional production in the first place.

If that is the case, then you would expect to be able to make more money by starting your own business, because you start to reap all the rewards (and take on more of the risk).

My theory? Well somebody has to pay for all the useless people (Washington employes a ton of them and so do nearly all large companies in the world).

For the other side, let's say I make $X but only need $X/2 to live. Try finding an employer who will let you work half time for $X/2. It's pretty tough, especially if you make $X at something "professional", rather than, say, digging ditches.

Rather than working ~20 hours a week, work ~40 hours a week, half your life.

...except nobody can tell me accurately when half of my life is over so I can retire at the right time.

Note particularly that statistics only work when applied to large enough populations. I will not be 70% dead at 70, I'll either be 100% dead or 0% dead.


...except nobody can tell me accurately when half of my life is over so I can retire at the right time.

So work 40 hours/week for until you pile up enough money to buy a lifetime annuity, and let the insurance company do the averaging over large populations.

That's certainly more viable, but requires much more discipline (to avoid spending the extra money too early) and is probably less beneficial as well, due to diminishing returns and such.

Another factor: taxes.

$60k in one year is taxed at a higher rate than $30k/yr for each of two years.

RRSPs in Canada mitigate this... But you're probably still better off with $X/2 income.

Look at it from the employer's perspective: in professional and technical occupations a half time worker isn't much cheaper than a full time worker due to benefits, training, administrative overhead, office space, PCs, etc.

it does not seem like the average worker is as well-off as the past had predicted

Well, we may not all be working 8-hour weeks and vacationing in Hawaii and Mexico, but the simple truth is that people on average are a lot better off than in the past. The only stat I have in my head right now: Infant mortality has dropped from 2.6% to 0.6% since 1960.

A hundred years ago, poor people had dirt floors. That's unheard of today, except among the utterly destitute.

There hasn't been quite the flexibility and utter non-dependence on material livelihood that techno-utopians predicted, though. By some estimates, we've had something like a 50x productivity improvement during the 20th century. If you assume that in 1900 the average person was a subsistence farmer (a conservative assumption), spending 100% of their time to earn basic shelter and 2000 calories/day, then with 50x productivity improvement, someone should be able to get basic, 1900-style food/shelter by working only 2% of a full-time job, i.e. almost negligible work, only a few days a year. Hence the widespread predictions made by early-20th-c authors that by 2000, basic needs (shelter/food) would be essentially free.

But obviously that hasn't happened: there is no real route by which I can put in 2% of full-time work, which by productivity gains is supposedly equivalent to 100% of 1900's full-time work, and live a basic 1900-era lifestyle. If there were, a lot of homeless people would take that option, working one week a year and earning themselves basic 1900-era accommodations/food.

It's just not an option you can actually pursue. Heck, even if you want to take some of the productivity gains in quality improvements: let's admit you don't have the option today to live like a 1900-era citizen, but have to, at a minimum, live 10x better. Then I should still be able to live ten times as well as the average 1900 citizen while putting in only 20% of a full-time job's worth of labor, thanks to that 50x productivity improvement. But that isn't really an option, either. Instead it seems that, if that 50x figure is indeed real, the only way to realize it is to take the dividend as material wealth, living 50x better rather than putting in less labor.

The main reason it's not an option is because virtually no-one is interested in early 1900's style living in exchange for lots of free time. Most of the system's constituants want more, and to improve the lives of their children, so the system is not designed to accomodate the 1-week-a-year worker. It's hardly intentional- I can think of very few steady jobs that don't require at least a week just to get into the swing of things!

Now, if you worked at a good job that is actually 50x as productive (a waitress is probably not 50x as productive today as she was 100 years ago) I'd wager that you could work there for 1 year and live 1900's-style for the next 49, as I'm pretty sure 1900's-style subsitence farming is far more spartan than most people imagine.

You can create an app over the course of a week that is then used by tens of thousands of people, so that is an example of a productivity multiplier.

For simple-to-digest stats I usually turn to www.gapminder.org. Always useful when arguing with someone who thinks that everything has gone to hell.

Hmm. I'd dispute that. We now have cellular phones, computers and the Internet, cars that are far safer and more efficient, 43" plasma TVs with 500 channels, iPads...

You might say "well, those are all gadgets." Fine, but if you cut all of those out of your life you'll probably save more than $3000 per year. That itself is a huge boost for the average worker.

If you cut all those out of your life, you don't have a job anymore.

Cell phones, cars, computers, internet... these aren't luxuries. These are mandatory investments that people have to make in their career. Investments they have to make out of their own pocket.

Try getting a job without a phone. Doesn't work.

If I was a retired millionaire I could cut them out.

You don't need a mobile to have a phone. On the extreme side, you could take public transportation everywhere, use the Internet at the library when you needed it and just have home phone service. This is actually sufficient for most jobs in a lot of places, though it is a lot less convenient.

If you want slightly more convenience, you can (for example) get a decent car that will take you from point A to point B for about $5000.

In the end, you really are mostly paying for convenience.


You are so out of touch. Most people I know who are having trouble either have no car or a $400 beater car. A $5000 car would be considered lavish.

You have a trust fund or something don't you?

A mobile phone is absolutely a requirement to get a job. Employers expect you to have it and expect you to answer when they call. Guess what happens if, after a job interview, you don't answer your call.

"Sorry boss, I was at the grocery store." is not an excuse.

"Sorry boss, I was on the toilet" is not even an excuse.

You either answer or you don't get the job.

Guess what happens if, at a $12/hour job, you don't answer your phone and come in for extra shifts when they are short workers? They take away your hours. They financially punish you.

You've never tried going without the internet if you think the library is a substitute. Employers require you to have email and web access from home, and they don't accept, "Sorry boss I didn't read your email yet. I haven't had a chance to get down to the library. It takes while on public transport you know" as an excuse.

My last job paid $9.10 an hour and I was expected to review my email daily as well as visit the company website occasionally to do these little quizzes and courses. The public library closes at 6pm. It wouldn't even be possible for me to get there.

Try going into a job interview and telling them you can't be reached instantly by email or phone at any time. See what happens.

You sound like Marie Antoinette. "The unemployed can just get a $5000 car! What the hell are they complaining about?"

Frankly, I think you're out of touch. I don't have a trust fund, and I acknowledge that there are people to whom my statements do not apply. I pretty explicitly said I was talking about the common case, which is not "unemployed and looking for a $10/hour job." You are talking about a very specific situation which is much poorer than average, statistically speaking.

Anyway, though, I suggested that $5000 car (which is a once-a-decade splurge) as a convenience. I explicitly said that. Many people, including me, have made do with public transportation or lousy cars (at a $10/hour job, yes — this is from experience). I still maintain that there are much cheaper options than the "plasma TV, high-speed Internet, cell service" lifestyle that was under discussion here. For example, you definitely don't need TV, and if you're looking fo a job and really need a phone, you can get a prepaid one for like $10 without committing to an expensive plan.

And it is simply not my experience, nor that of anyone I know (who range from unemployed to poorly employed to very gainfully employed) that hiring managers will not wait a few minutes for you to call back. Has that actually happened to you a lot? I believe it happens sometimes, but again, I don't believe that is the common case.

If you really work for somebody that horrible for $9.10 an hour, I would urge you to seek alternative employment at someplace like Subway, Albertsons or Starbucks, where they have similar compensation and in my experience they tend to treat people better than that.

Also — and I mean this sincerely, not to be snarky — I would suggest you look at how you approach people, because frankly you come across as rather hostile and negative. I understand you find your situation frustrating, but you need to try to stay positive. That will impact your chances of landing a job much more severely than your ability to answer an email within 30 seconds of it being sent.

Anyway, best of luck to you, whether you agree or not.

Do you realize that there is almost 20% real unemployment?

This means that employers who are actually hiring have so many applicants, if you don't answer the phone, they just go to the next applicant.

This isn't the Google hiring process. This is where there are 50 applications for a single opening at a crappy part time customer facing service job like the McDonald's drive-through.

You really have the wrong image of me. I'm not some highly paid Silicon Valley engineer, I'm a newspaper editor who happens to enjoy making software. Many of my friends work retail (e.g. cashiers) or just above (e.g. bartenders). Many people close to me have been homeless within the past several years. Believe me, I know how it is. I still think you're exaggerating the degree to which you are screwed if you don't have all the latest technology.

The point is that those items make more money than they cost and that explains why everyone has them.

It's not because they are so fun or make life worth living. It's because they give you access to a job.

Same reason a homeless guy buys a suit instead of his last dinner. The suit is an investment: it makes him money. He doesn't enjoy the suit.

The point is that most devices that would have been a luxury some time ago are merely a way to keep up with certain demands of the society today. Just because you didn't have a cell phone 15 years ago and have one now doesn't automatically mean your life quality became higher in this respect. Because life is different. (BTW, landline phones are more expensive. They are the luxury now.) That was grandparent's point, and I do not believe you've presented a convincing argument against it.

I felt that the GP's point was a little stronger than the one you're making here. If you're just saying that society has adjusted to incorporate these new technologies, yes, that's true. I don't mean to argue against that. Not having a cell phone is a greater inconvenience nowadays than it was in the '50s, but I still think you're overstating things if you say you need one, and definitely if you say you need one that costs anywhere in the ballpark most people pay (one friend of mine makes about $700 a month and pays $80 of that for her phone). If you're paying more than like $5 a month, you're paying for convenience.

And thanks for the correction on landlines. It's been forever since I had one, so I didn't know how much they cost these days. My bad on that one.

I respect the particulars of your situation but it is not standard.

I own a manufacturing company with >100 employees, a mix of manufacturing and office/service jobs, and I don't expect answers from home from anyone except a couple top execs and the sales team, who are all based out of their home anyway and have company provided smartphones.

According to benchmarking data our company is not lavish, pays competitive wages but not way over the market, and has good productivity numbers.

Your company is not standard.

Manufacturing? Are you sure you're not in China?

Most jobs available right now are customer facing service jobs. They give a typical employee 32 hours per week to avoid being legally required to treat them as a full time employee, and they change the shifts on a week to week basis. Good employees are rewarded with more hours or better shifts, while bad employees are punished by reducing their hours or giving worse shifts. They expect you to answer the cellphone and come in to do extra shifts when they are short-staffed, and you must apply online through their website and then come in for an interview where you dress well.

They expect you to get there on your own which in many cities means a car is necessary. They ask if you have a car on their website application forms, and they mention that a car is not mandatory. You are statistically more likely to be hired if you display signals on the application form that indicate you are wealthy or higher class, which gives people who don't really need the job an advantage in the hiring process (such as high school students).

If you take sick days, they will reduce your hours to punish you, but of course will never tell you that that is why because it is illegal. But all employees understand that this is the situation.

For the record, I'm not in this situation. I'm one of the wealthy people who decided to work a $9.10/hour job by choice, for fun. I don't work there anymore -- early retirement. But I have lots of friends who are in this position. Usually they are there because their parents are poor and had major issues. Many of the people in these situations suffer from mental health disorders but cannot afford treatment.

If I'm angry at the silver spoon people on hacker news it's because I was raised to believe that technology would liberate humanity and create a world with no poverty and limited human suffering. But instead I have discovered that technology has been used by an elite to enslave the vulnerable.

They live tiny compartmentalized lives dominated by oppressive faceless systems that exploit them at every turn. Every injustice is accepted with resignation to the fact that the dejected human cannot even beg the system for mercy, because robots have no feelings. The bank algorithms charge $40 non-sufficient fund fees when the rent check on Monday is withdrawn, even though the paycheck was deposited Friday, because some bank algorithm re-arranges the order of the deposits to ensure there will be a fee. The worker is told not to complain about this -- when they opened the account they accepted the agreement which indicated that this could be a possibility.

Instead of the whips of slave-masters, faceless corporate "policy" and computer algorithms are the overlords that teach them their worthlessness. They are told to cheer up by the self-absorbed on HN, and they learn that it is essential that they lift up the corners of their mouth and pretend to love their slavery in order to pay the ever expanding grocery bill.

This is your high tech society. It's a society of faceless high tech oppression, a society where the hungry have jobs and internet but cannot afford food, a society where there is abundance but corporate policy says that only rich people are allowed to eat.

A society where when the dejected and pitiful complain for help, they are told to cheer up, at least they have cell phones and internet. But they can't eat their cell phone, and they also can't trade it for food.

For the record, most of the poor people I know do not have plasma TVs or cable. They would gladly trade their cell phones and internet for more food and shelter IF they could function in society without a cell phone or internet. But you can't. They are not luxuries, they are mandatories.

Wait. I thought we lived in a world where a staggering majority of the 7 billion people now alive (an absolutely unprecedented population level) manage to have more than enough food to eat from day to day. A world that largely has forgotten what true food insecurity is like. A world that pushes the limits of the world's carrying capacity. A world that is the product of the most efficient, integrated systems mankind has ever built to extract the world's resources.

So how can this be true while we also apparently have been enslaved by computers and corporate overlords who refuse to let us eat?

My conclusion: 1) You use the word 'slavery' very loosely. 2) You ignore the ability of population increases to nullify productivity gains. 3) You have let your emotions overpower your thoughts and so instead of analysing issues you rant.

Are we better off than 1000 years ago?


Are we better off than America 40 years ago?


Are we as far ahead as we should be?


There is still food scarcity today, and there doesn't need to be. There is still environmental destruction today, and there doesn't need to be. Freedom, democracy and prosperity came about with enlightenment philosophy, but computer technology has actually caused a reduction in freedom and prosperity for Americans. This is a problem.

My rant would not have been made 40 years ago in this country. Things have gotten worse in this country.

Most people on HN are 1-3 sigmas on the right side of the IQ bell curve. They have a hard time understanding what life is like on the other side (although rampant off-shoring and H1B wage gouging might, one day, engender some horizon broadening).

Read this: http://www.isteve.com/How_to_Help_the_Left_Half_of_the_Bell_...

There are major issues with the genetic view of IQ. Proper training/environment increases IQ scores tremendously. In any case, that was a good read.

It's just a question of degree. Is height solely determined by genetics? No - we know that nutrition plays a large part. But potential height is still dominated by genetics. It doesn't matter whether or not he eats his Wheaties, the average kid is not going to grow up to be Shaq, period.

Ditto for intelligence. Things like iodine and breast feeding seem to be capable of boosting IQ by a few points each. Doubtless there are other factors. And yet, there is little reason to doubt that there is a genetic ceiling to any given person's potential IQ, at least if you accept that IQ stems from physical properties - in which case, how could it be exempt from genetic determination?

This is reality, and there is little hope of improving the lot of those who did not win the genetic lottery without first accepting that there is, in fact, such a lottery.

Just a precision. I see two questions of interest when talking about whether height and IQ come from genetic or environmental factors.

The first question is, how much of the currently observed variability in height (and IQ) is explained by genetic factors and environmental factors respectively? Meaning, how much of a lottery genes actually are?

The second question is, how could we take control of the variability? Meaning, how much could we deliberately influence height (and IQ) through genes and environment respectively?

By itself, the first question is of high academic interest, and low practical interest. The second question is just the opposite. But more important, those two questions should be treated separately, so everyone knows what we are talking about.

>My last job paid $9.10 an hour and I was expected to review my email daily as well as visit the company website occasionally to do these little quizzes and courses.

You had to do your company training on your own time? This is ridiculously exploitive. Surely there is a class action lawsuit here? Walmart got in trouble for making people work off the clock.

Imagine a world where all goods and services required for a decent life will be provided by AI and robots. Still, there will plenty of jobs for humans - those related to the humanity of humans. Life could become dedicated to enjoying art in various forms, and this art will be conceived mostly by humans. If people will have no work to do, they could hire entertainers. They could do jobs as a hobby - e.g., manually producing stuff that could as well be made by robots, but that other humans will buy just because it was hand made. They could enjoy experimenting with various lifestyles, effectively creating diverse subcultures, and these cultures will trade items that are uniquely developed within the culture.

Imagine a world where people could enjoy the variety of clothing that existed in the world 300 years ago and that has been now elliminated by the hustle of modern life and by a global trade in clothes. Even if they will be produced by robots, designing these clothes will remain mostly a human job. Virtually anyone could wear designer clothes, and many people could become such designers. The same could be applied to food, music, movies, and so on.

Education and corporal care would also become a large part of the economy that would hire humans and not robots. There will be plenty of niches, and people will have the time to invest in developing specialized skills, rediscovering skills long forgotten.

Eliberated by the stress of modern life, life will simply become more enjoyable.

The modern capitalist society is extremely unlikely to end up in this state. Companies grow larger, that is their modus operandi. Once capital can be used to buy capital that produces capital you have eliminated humans from the equation. There is a level which we are approaching where some industries will become almost entirely automated. What happens in that situation is a few people make all the money and the rest don't. We are seeing an ever increasing disparity between wealth gained through capital investment and wealth gained directly through labour. Even high-end labour produces far less money than investment does. Most high-end labour tasks are tightly coupled to capital investment.

Do you really think that the history of wealth production is somehow going to change radically to a sudden redistribution of wealth to everyone so they can relax and take it easy while living off the fruits of others investments?

yeah, standards of living will remain stagnant as the evil rich overlords accrue ever increasing wealth!

Oh wait 200-2010 was the single greatest decade in all of human history for the amount of people raised out of subsistence living to a reasonable standard of living and 2010-2020 promises to be even better.

Darn reality messing up my morality plays. Real life is not a status game.

I agree with you in part, capitalism has brought billions out of poverty and backbreaking labour. When you compare serfdom to pretty much any alternative is better. You will also notice if you read the data correctly that individual wealth has risen across the board. Everyone has more than they would have otherwise had in the 1950s. That's great but it doesn't mean that economic discussion is now over because all arguments have been won and lost.

What I was wondering about in my post was what happens when capital no longer requires much labour. This is happening now, hedgefunds are a great examples of this. They are amazingly efficient and produce very large sums of capital for the amount of labour required (revenue per employee). I'm not saying all labour is equal, I am saying capital is producing more in industries with less labour. Potentially, a financial model could get so good (or so stable) that it requires only minor updates to the system in order continue deriving a profit. You then have a situation where capital creates capital with only a statistically insignificant amount of labour. Efficiency pushes the system forward and delivers much to people while people have a valuable product to sell, their labour. When their labour is not valuable, they are unemployed. If their labour cannot generate enough value, why would they ever be employed in an ultimately efficient system?

My argument still stands, if you would like to respond to it. Why would capitalism suddenly change to give accumulated wealth back? Will the masses just rely on philanthropic whims?

productivity outpaces population, so supporting the masses takes a smaller percent of gdp as time goes on. Of course this will not happen in a democracy as the populace will vote themselves largesse until the system collapses as noted by the greeks.

The masses will end up relying on some sort of a welfare system, and would riot otherwise.

Food and wellbeing are the main things keeping civilization together. Wealthy regions are also stable regions, so it is necessary for the poor to be supported.

> What happens in that situation is a few people make all the money and the rest don't.

Or alternatively the economic force of competition kicks in and these goods become virtually free above the cost of the machinery and raw goods.

The downfall of this is where our current economic system projects us :

Developers make AI and machines capable of replacing farming, mining, power generation, resource refinement completely, except for technicians and mechanics.

It isn't far off from the same machines entering the human service workforce, replacing the cashier and drive through clerk. They replace cars and planes (already have auto pilot, google car in ~10 years).

At this point, we have crisis. Our current system has you buying a good and the company providing it making the money. If the company consists of hundreds of technicians as its only labor force because the entire production process is automated (your big Mac is farmed by robots, overseen by robots, butchered, packed, shipped by robots, cooked by robots, and served by robots) and the ~$5 you pay for it goes entirely to the company coffers.

It would not take long for everyone's wealth to trickle into the hands of the few hundreds of people positioned to rule over the production of 99% of goods. It is kind of like what OWS is doing right now, but much worse. There is no fast food job for the high school grad to do - you must learn engineering, art, or hard science to have any function to society, because any rote task or even service job has been replaced by robots.

And then they replace the mechanics and programmers with genetic algorithms. The company becomes a siphon of any money they make straight into the stock holders. And there would be no employees, because everything is automated. You don't even need an engineer to watch the top level of maintenance bots, because you have 10+ of them and they know how to fix themselves.

The end result though is that we have this situation where we pay money for what robots do, not people, and the money just goes to those that funded the robots original creation forever. That kind of situation would not last long, but it would be nice to avoid. It will require a huge reinterpretation of any viable economic system when you can make goods and provide services without any human interaction.

One thing I hope the technological advancement will bring is synthetic meat. With extremely cheap energy (both environmentally and financially) synthetic product should not be too expensive to compete with slaughtering real live animals. We are predators, yes, but that does not mean we can step up the ladder and satisfy our diet using a higher level of technology without any real animal suffering. This does exclude meat gained through hunting to keep populations in check.

Factory farmed animal meat is just something so morally repugnant to me. If there's no real need for it, why do it?

>And then they replace the mechanics and programmers with genetic algorithms.

I don't think this is logically possible. The job of a programmer is to transform human intention and desire into a computer readable input. How would you determine a heuristic for the genetic algorithm? The heuristic would have to be written by a human being on some level. There's only so far you can automate automation itself and I think you are grossly underestimating how difficult it is or will be.

Programming is a trinity between human paradigms, algorithmic mathematics and magic. The closer you bring the math and algorithms to the human paradigms and desires, the more it will resemble magic. It is an asymptotic progression. The magic will be never achieved.

What you are talking about is constructing the perfect programming language. People have been trying to do this since the start of previous century (Lambda calculus). You really think we will experience some tremendous leap in the close future?

In short: you will always have to have a way to describe what you want of the computer, and this is called a programming language.

You are saying that strong AI (with at least human-level intelligence) is impossible. We don't run on magic, though. Many tasks we do, we made machines that do them better. I see no reason why that couldn't apply to programming itself. (In principle, at least. I could understand that we're not smart enough to achieve this in practice.)

Funny that you should bring up the whole synthetic meat thing. Techdirt just recently had a post with a link to it :


You could feed the us population with income from capital gains and corporate taxes alone. Also, in western countries large percentages of workers are employed by the government, their organizations are competing in a political (as opposed to an economic) market. They are pretty good at it, I would not bet against them.

Sounds like a horrible world to me.

"Life could become dedicated to enjoying art"?? Ugh!!!!

"...could enjoy the variety of clothing..." are you kidding? That sounds horrible.

There is a basic human need to be needed. People who have everything but are not needed are miserable. People who are needed, but have little are happy.

Being needed and being appreciated aren't the same thing. What we want is appreciation, even if what we do is sort of pointless.

That opens up all kinds of possibilities to how to spend our time. For example, if you didn't need to work to meet your basic needs, you could decide to devote your time to beating videogame records. It would be completely useless, but still lead to lots of appreciation for your skill. Doing a hobby all day long could become the norm.

I have to second the culture series as good reading on this topic. It paints a believable picture of an Ai-driven post-material society where people still feel that they live full lives.

The "Culture" series of novels by Iain M. Banks explores these issues in some detail.

Sounds like a society of couch potatoes and drug addicts to me. From my perspective you have a much too optimistic view on the human race. If people are not forced to exceed, they will not. Suffering, that does not cripple, defines us. It makes us stronger, more agile, more determined. I would go so far as to say that when we have dreams and goals and we strive to achieve them, by making work towards step by step, each moment we feel better about ourself. Each success builds us and makes us more confident.

If it were not for women, I'd just sit home playing World of Warcraft, drinking energy drinks and masturbating, to put it bluntly.

Even if our basic material needs are met through automation, we are all still engaged in a very bitter competition for other resources, you do realize. There simply can not exist a state of utopia as long as we reproduce sexually (I have a very Freudian view on this). This is a catch-22 of course. The state we are in defines what we consider an utopia.

You are assuming that if we didn't have to worry about producing material resources, creativity and intellect would be the determining factor in who gets their way. Why not violence? Why not intimidation and sociopathy? As tightly knit social groups (small villages and communities) break down and we live in one global village, nobody really knows each other. Most of the people we meet are complete strangers to us. It's much easier for exploitative and cruel personalities to thrive, because they can stay hidden in plain sight. They can pretend and manipulate to their dark hearts content without the fear of retribution. If they get discovered they can just move to a different location.

As we have more material resources as welfare and a legal arm heavily protective of women and children, women don't need a protector nor a financier. They can just get the sperm they want and raise kids outside of marriage. Old institutions that were the bedrock of civilized society will all but crumble to dust. Widespread soft polygamy will replace it. Those with the most instant charm and good appearances will win, instead of those who build things to last on the long run. Short term strategies will win over the long term ones.

These are all hyperboles I use to describe my views of the modes of societal change and interaction.

It is my theory that the easier it is to meet material needs, the lazier people get and more prone to instant gratification. It's not that difficult to extrapolate from this one simple truth.

Also one of the problems I didn't touch upon, is how our natural instincts that were developed for a very different world will overtake and corrupt us: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supernormal_Stimuli. Slow seduction of irrational and unbalanced stimulus can make our behaviour very self destructive on the long run.

> the easier it is to meet material needs, the lazier people get and more prone to instant gratification. It's not that difficult to extrapolate from this one simple truth

And yet all literature (fiction and non-fiction) ever written on this topic concludes that above all humans want to feel connected and valued. I completely disagree with your theory and believe that given the opportunity to not require demeaning work for subsistence, our species will overwhelming choose to seek meaningful activities above becoming a permanent couch potato. Why else would we have such a rich culture of arts and music, if our ancestors preferred to spend their downtime watching the horizon/fireplace instead of creating. Yes, there may be some who choose a less engaging existence but given that of everyone I know, from poor cousins to independently wealthy ex-financiers prefers to do something with their time, I am confident the majority will also prefer meaning over stagnation.

>If it were not for women, I'd just sit home playing World of Warcraft, drinking energy drinks and masturbating, to put it bluntly.

This is where I think your argument falls apart. It's not because of some drive created through scarcity that encourages you to get up and be productive, its to gain social status (as communicated through wealth) to attract women.

This drive will be ever present in a society where basic needs are free. The only difference is that one will have to be more creative and intelligent to stand out and attract a mate. As society evolves, one's criteria for a mate evolves with it. But that drive to acquire status is ever present.

>It's not because of some drive created through scarcity that encourages you to get up and be productive, its to gain social status (as communicated through wealth) to attract women.

Isn't this exactly the same thing? The love of women is the scarce resource that drives me to exceed. I don't understand your point here.

>This drive will be ever present in a society where basic needs are free.

It already is. It's called sexual selection. Males protrude themselves and women choose. This is exactly my point.

>The only difference is that one will have to be more creative and intelligent to stand out and attract a mate.

You (and the OP) are making some huge assumptions here. Like that creativity and intelligence has any merit without social skill and boldness. Another assumption is that through creativity and intelligence one gains power instead of just through the skill of manipulating other people. Just look at the current situation. Are the ones with the most money and power currently adept at making great technology and art themselves, or is it instead the most daring and the most merciless? The ones who can exploit other peoples skill to the fullest.

I'm not sure we're arguing the same thing anymore.

>Isn't this exactly the same thing? The love of women is the scarce resource that drives me to exceed. I don't understand your point here.

It can certainly be viewed this way. What I was referring to when I said scarce resource was food and wealth. The point is that, even if your necessities were taken care of, you wouldn't sit in your basement playing WoW all day. Those drives that push you to go out and create now (in an environment of scarcity) would still be just as present in an environment where wealth was not scarce. What society deems as status-worthy would simply evolve.

The point is that we would NOT become a society of "couch potatoes and drug addicts", as you claimed, as the drives that push us to excel today would be just as present in the supposed robot-utopian future.

I really love the photo. :) The digital robot interfacing with the laptop through it's keyboard; seemingly the only permitted I/O in the future. Trust issues between different hardware vendors must have hit an all time low after the various standards authorities fell apart!

For those who are interested in what a world where (intelligent) robots are the source of production, and humans are the content creators, I highly recommend this short story: http://marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm

Sounds like Heaven on Earth to me. Now to make it happen during our lifetimes!

Thankfully we're nowhere near where intelligence itself is being displaced, only small subsets of work that were previously the domain of highly specialized experts [sidenote: Mathematica has been doing this for a while]. Nor will advances in statistical machine learning and computing hardware get us there. "AI" is a field we still have to make any real progress in.

I think what the current trend means though is that we're going to have to teach people to learn and re-work education to maximize the ability to adapt.

I feel a little sorry for the radiologist whose effective supply is apparently rapidly expanding, but there is still a long way to fall from a $350,000 annual income. :)

I'm scared that as we optimize test-prep and narrowly focus on passing children through school, we're potentially decreasing the likelihood that people learn on their own. We're decreasing the amount of effort it takes for a kid to learn some [probably useless] skill, like drawing force diagrams on pulley systems, where the point of the exercise [imo] in the first place was to stretch the mind and force the kid to fill in the gaps and think for himself. That same kind of stretching that might come in handy when he finds himself displaced for whatever reason, be it technology or something else.

Ancient Rome had slaves - with actual intelligence.

What can we learn from how they handled it? Our civilization already seems more similar to their's than any other.

They descended into an anarchy of self-indulgence ("bread and circus") just as they reached the escape velocity for their technology level. Eventually, their society collapsed from internal pressure to "make work" -- aka political drama.

Perhaps we can build a giant firewall to keep Illegal Intelligents out.

"The point was that any increase in productivity required a corresponding increase in the number of consumers capable of buying the product."

yeah, it's not like increases in productivity could simply create a surplus that is then directed into other sectors. I write for the economist and cannot into economics hurrdurr. This is like saying that a machine that lets me do laundry faster is bad because I don't need to do 20 loads of laundry per day.

I found Eli Dourado's take on 'Race Against The Machine' quite an interesting analysis and somewhat related to this article http://elidourado.com/blog/technologies-of-control-and-resis...

It's mainly how points of control incentivize some of these factors to move faster, or out of step with the other factors.

Every time you create a tool or process or system that lets you do more with less effort you are supposedly "taking jobs".

So stop whatever it is you are doing and instead destroy these things instead. Then stand back and watch the ground swell of prosperity that sweeps the globe.

So if you work in AI, you are safe?

The last commit you ever make will be the AI that takes over your job when all the other jobs have been fixed. It will also be the commit which brings about the singularity (which should happen at about the time when you get out of your car on the way home) so there is really no reason to fear that.

Well at first but I wouldn't work to hard. In the End you will programm something that replaces yourself. At least the people who work in AI are the last to go and then we are at Singularity and nobody knows what happens then.

The article starts by predicting that the Dilberts of the world will start losing their job in droves without being able to find another one, and then mentions as examples... radiologists and lawyers making over $300K/year.

Radiologists are no Dilberts.

Let me put it this way:

  * automation leading to increasing wealth 
    and less employment in redundant jobs
  * social safety nets freeing people up to do work 
    they LIKE to do because it gives them satisfaction
  * guaranteed housing, food, and sexbots for all (basic maslow's needs)
    with ability to get more expensive things through capitalism

  * speculation by abusing resources and cornering free markets
  * government monopolies (patents, etc) restricting 
    freedom of production in fast moving industries
  * increased risk of terrorism leading to significant 
    culture changes around security/freedom issues
these are the long term trends

just my point of view.

In which alternative world is increased productivity a problem? I don't get the logic behind that. I just don't.

I suppose it depends what the cost of said productivity is. Slave societies were pretty productive.

That is very wrong. Slave labor is extremely unproductive, that has been known by economists since Adam Smith. It turns out that forcing people to work against their will, with no hope of advancement or independence, is not a strong motivator to productivity. Fear of punishment is a stronger inducement to escape and rebellion than actual productivity, and slave societies need to spend significant resources to enforce the system in favor of the slaveowners.

See, for example, Charles Mann, 1493, on sugar plantations in Africa and the Americas.

The notion of weak artificial intelligence hurting the economy by taking away jobs is a complete misunderstanding of the situation. To understand why, you need to read and understand the parable of the broken window:


The key lies in seeing that when humans no longer have to do mundane repetitive tasks, then they are freed up to do far more powerful and interesting things. The last job to be completely automated is the programmer, engineer and designer. And that too will one day be automated. I like to believe that humans and AI will merge so that together, a human and the machine will always be more powerful/more in control than just the AI.

The books the article mentions do know about both that parable, and the Luddite episode, and analyze extensively whether they apply to the current situation; as The Economists notes, some of the books are more optimistic than others. There's a bit of a dynamic aspect to it as well in terms of how the change happens and how human work patterns adapt in response. When people are "freed up to do far more powerful and interesting things", does this result in paid work at the same rate as the freeing-up happens? Or will there be significant lags where, say, 20-30% of the population might be unable to earn income at any given time? And how long-lasting will that be? Also, to the extent that automation running on robots and computers is what produces advances that humans could perhaps symbiotically work with, will everyone have access to the same starting point (software/hardware/etc.) so they can do so, or will there be a rich-get-richer feedback loop where the tools of automation are mainly in the hands of the better-off part of the population?

I don't really have a guess myself. I think it depends pretty sensitively on some hard-to-predict parameters; change some rates 2% here and 3% there and technological transitions (and the distribution of labor/wealth that results from them) look much different.

The problem is that there are not a lot of people capable of doing engineering/programming jobs. It is one thing to make the transition from a farmer to a factory worker, but another entirely to move from a factory worker to an engineer.

The learning curve for the jobs that may be created might be too steep for those whose jobs were displaced.

True, I think creating high quality, cheap/free reeducation programs are one of the most important challenges facing us today.

But do you believe everyone is capable of that kind of work? Even with great education some things require talent at a certain level. The higher level the job the more dependent it is on talent in my view.

Not everyone, but for every type of person I can think of, there's a different type of job that makes sense for them. If they're good with their hands, there are many things that will be hard to automate the repair of due to customization. If they're very persuasive, they can probably work in sales. If they're creative or artistic, there's a large need for good visual design.

If you find a way to make the marginal cost of educating someone near 0, then many more people might discover things that they're good at that they wouldn't have had the chance to otherwise.

I think this requires some socialist-style changes to what the govt. is willing to support, though, since many people can't afford to take time off. If this was bundled with unemployment benefits or welfare, though, I think it could be very powerful.

As leverage increases, the wealth disparity will almost certainly grow, just because some people will be able to create much more wealth than others. Not sure how to deal with that.

Yes, the cotton pickers will need to be forced to go to high school and learn something that hasn't been automated. To the argument that this can't be done, take away their food, they will adapt. Mercy can be used in exceptional cases.

I don't like the argument: "This human has such an aversion to learning that they must be supported forever like a pet". I suppose you wait for them to die and the problem solves itself. They can learn, they just have been positively reinforced to not learn.

If the only reason a significant portion of society will participate in it is because they will literally die if they don't, i.e. it's a requirement for absolute minimum existence, that's a pretty sad place to have your society. That's basically "3rd-world subsistence farming" level of civilization. For some people, possibly even worse; there are some people who do badly in desk jobs who'd be perfectly capable subsistence farmers (if it were possible for them to acquire any land to farm).

>take away their food, they will adapt.

Oh, undoubtedly. But they will go down the path of least resistance which will more than likely be a life of crime. It's also important to recognize that not everyone is cut out for intellectually demanding jobs. There is a wide variety of intelligence levels throughout society.

I think the human race will reach the apex of its evolution when all the social darwinists die off.

They'll adapt alright, but remember that the goal of the adaptation is to provide for themselves a quality of life that is comparable to that of their peers, not necessarily to contribute to society in a way that you would find useful. That is, they're just as likely to kill you in a riot and take your things, as they are to commit to a few years of school in their late thirties or forties.

People are not rational actors.

In a sense libertarian ideals are quite virtuous and moral depending on your values, but they're terribly impractical. They take as many liberties with human nature as does pure communism.

Well hard core libertarians that are Anarchocapitalists maybe but in a system where you have working law (working like its working now) its more likly that people start learing to do something usefull then just going on a killing spree.

The issue is whether they will even be able to, and what to do with them if they can't. It's one thing to say to one person 'well you didn't study hard enough or just aren't smart, we don't have anything for you to do and you'll never find employment again'. It's quite another to say that to tens of millions of people in the first world, and eventually hundreds of millions worldwide. I'm not sure that's where we're headed, but if we are as this article suggests, our institutions and way of life will not survive.

I just think that even with 40 you can learn something new. That said, I am in faver of a strong social stat to help these people.

The problem here is not productive output or capacity of the economy, it is distribution of wealth. It's as if everybody was a window manufacturer, and no windows are breaking.

Not that I think we are quite at the point were machines can do everything yet...

Joe the forklift driver is never going to do powerful and interesting things when he loses his job. It's completely unrealistic.

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