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Confessions of A Job Destroyer (decomplecting.org)
244 points by lkrubner on Mar 12, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 295 comments

The first job I automated out of existence was by incorporating a "print all" button into an existing application. We had to hire someone, full time, to open each document and print it.

I don't think anyone really knows what the future will look like in thirty years. All we know is the genie is out of the bottle and nobody is going to put it back in.

Maybe we're headed for a dystopic corporatist future where everything is monitored, calculated and automated to such a degree that people are simply told what to buy at regular intervals. Mass acceptance will lead to computers dictating through goal posting, achievements and leaderboards the vast majority of each individual's lives.

Maybe we'll simply have 80% unemployment; towering concrete skyscrapers that would rival the soviet era Paneláks with automated trains sending food in and taking waste out. Like a human powered coal plant. The vast numbers of unemployed will churn daily riots and huge sections of the country will be under military control. There will be an unspoken but utterly clear separation between the decision makers and those in the bread lines.

Maybe we'll come up with entirely new sectors in biology, space and automation which will usher in the real space-age of humanity.

My hope: We'll make some breakthroughs in science, mathematics, medicine and technology. New sectors will be created that nobody ever thought of, a few new billionaires will be added to the pile, our quality of life will improve and the threat of our complete and utter demise will have been greatly exaggerated.

> Maybe we'll simply have 80% unemployment;

We already do depending on how you look at it. 150 years ago 95% percent of the population worked on providing basic needs, like food, shelter, clothing, etc. In modern economies like the US, less than 3% of the population works in agriculture. We already live in this so called dystopia where people work on making social networks, inventing treatments for obscure diseases, or making triple soy lattes. All of these things are pointless for survival.

The "dystopia" you describe is already here, and it is a wonderful place to live.

That's more than a wee bit different than the parent's scenario.

It's about interaction with the formal economy. Making a complicated camera or the social network to share its photos might not be necessary for survival, but it is the result of a series of conscious economic decisions to satisfy some human desires by all parties involved.

Unemployment simply means someone providing nothing in that sphere.

Interestingly, it's happening even now. Much of the apparent decline in unemployment seems to be coming from people dropping outside of the workforce permanently, not people having their desire to participate in the economy satisfied. What happens if/when this trend continues to 60%? 50%? 40%?

My ideal solution would be a basic income guarantee and a cultural acceptance of people working only in the gray or uncompensated sectors, but we'll see if the political impetus for that ever occurs.

Edited to add: well, apparently author leads up to the same suggested solution I do. A thousand jackass points for me =)

> My ideal solution would be a basic income guarantee

A bit of Econ 101. Structural unemployment is caused by income guarantees and minimum wages. This is why we don't do that, and instead use programs like EITC (a wage multiplier for low income people).

Your ideal solution has been tried. It sucks, and we have moved on to better solutions to income allocation.

I sincerely hope we move forward with larger income leveling policies, but I am grateful you are not designing them.

Denmark has a $20/hr minimum wage, and a nearly impossible to fall out of last-resort welfare payment (the kontanthjælp, "cash assistance") which provides a minimum income. And yet, it has quite low structural unemployment.

What those policies did do is destroy the low end of the labor market, the poorly paid dishwasher jobs supporting cheap restaurants. So what? That forced them to move upmarket. Denmark doesn't have $6 hamburger joints; instead, it has $12 hamburger joints. But it doesn't matter. The people who might be most impacted by that are precisely the people who now make the higher minimum incomes: when your income as a burger-joint dishwasher is triple what it is in the USA ($20/hr vs. $7/hr minimum wage, not to mention healthcare), you can certainly afford a doubling of the prices, and still come out ahead.

Now as a middle-class professional, it's probably bad for me: in the U.S. I could make a bunch of money and buy $6 hamburgers, while in Denmark I make a bunch of money and buy $12 hamburgers. But I can easily afford them either way, so I don't think social policy should be based on what benefits me.

The devil's advocate in me will tell you the truth as only I see it, not as the up/down votes in this board of mostly libertarian social darwinist and would-be technocrats will indicate:

The reason Denmark's system (or Australia's, or Canada's or S. Korea's, etc.) works is simply this: They have mostly one type of people there, and sometimes have a little bitty number of other types of people there, and mostly that little bitty number of people keep to themselves and open up exotic restaurants and try really, really hard to assimilate to the dominant culture and pay their taxes; and if they can't completely be as successful as the dominant culture, they will leave well enough alone.

In contrast, Americans will look at the person sitting next to them, see them as lazy, and refuse to pay taxes to support who they think is taking all of it. That person next to them may be poor, black, old, sick, hispanic, have down syndrome, is a teacher or a cop or a union steel worker or liberal or English major or hippie... ad nauseum. Whatever the reason, that person looking over at that "other" person flat-out refuses to allow "my hard earned money" to go to whoever the hell that is sitting next to them. It just won't happen.

Another thing, our poor and elderly are heavily, and I mean absolutely, unmistakeably, and incorrigibly self-effacing, self-hating, and in flat out denial over their station in life. They are told through attack ads during elections, through cable news, and through the water cooler, that blood-thirsty communists are alive and well and have a donkey replacing their hammer/sickle emblem. They're gonna take your guns, your religion, your money, your children and your property, give it to white trash and Mexicans and Godless welfare queens who drive better cars than you on the way to the food stamp office, and you'll be left with nothing but their hospital bills that you now have to pay because they bought a flat screen and new spinning rims for their car.

No one will ever admit that the heterogeneous society that is America collectively feels this way, because we didn't have a raw sore like the Economic downturn in 2008 for us to really see how much hate we have for one another. No one cares about each other when the bill comes.

I do think there is some notion of relatedness that ties in and leads to the system generally being supported. I'm not myself ethnically Danish, so I'm not sure it's purely ethnicity, but it's... something (and ethnicity probably does play a role in encouraging cohesion, if not the sole one).

Even in extreme cases, there's this general feeling of: yeah, so that person is an irresponsible alcoholic, but he's your irresponsible alcoholic, so you can't exactly let him die in the street. You've got to give him some basic shelter/food. I've run into that in other countries also, but only from closely related people: southern Europeans are very family-oriented, so if someone in their family is in danger of being a homeless alcoholic, they'll find a room for the person to sleep in, etc., since it's considered the family's responsibility to do something about them. Denmark doesn't emphasize family ties as much, though. Instead things tend to be done on a wider scale: it's sort of everyone's responsibility to take care of the proverbial crazy old uncle, rather than laying the responsibility on the handful of people who happen to be his nephews/nieces through accident of birth.

How does Denmark keep people out? There must be a million Poles banging on the doors for $20/hr dishwashing jobs. I suppose those jobs are only open to those that have the right blood line. How is there not a massive black-market for labor?

The teamsters, carpenters and a few food sectors are crying over cheap Polish labor every time they can, but hamburger joints can't hire people who can't speak Danish (because the place is essentially automated except with customer interaction).

Lego is moving some of the production of Lego out of the country.

There are indeed a number of people moving to Denmark. For well-educated people, the job market is particularly lucrative: Maersk can't find qualified office workers fast enough. For blue-collar jobs, though, language can be a significant barrier: many minimum-wage jobs require fluency in Danish, or at least in a related language such as Swedish. You can have any blood you want, but you've got to speak fluent Danish, which most foreigners don't...

Interesting. The language barrier seems to be higher than our fence.

The Danish economy is heavily subsidized by abundant oil revenue, surprisingly wisely managed. What works there won't necessarily work elsewhere.

(That said, I do not see a problem with a guaranteed basic income..when people can make more easily.)

Denmark does not have significant oil reserves; you may be thinking of Norway. The Danish economy is based on some weird mixture of: shipping (Maersk), entertainment (Lego), brewing (Carlsberg), and banking (Danske Bank et al.). There is a goal of making wind turbines a major industrial sector as well.

My bad, I was thinking Norway.

Though it is worth noting that Denmark is one of Europe's top oil producers, and is a net exporter. So Denmark does have economically significant reserves.

It's a net exporter, but a fairly small one. From what I can find, oil-related royalties contribute about 3% of the state budget. I can believe that still results in a fairly high ranking, but it's not exactly funding the country with that. The Texas state government gets more like 5% from oil, and hasn't succeeded in setting up a social-democratic system...

Maersk's container shipping division is mostly a money-loser. They're lucky to break even on it.

Maersk is a major player in the oil and gas industry, and that's where the majority of their profits come from.

As somebody who biked from Copenhagen to Skagen to Amsterdam: I wish you had $12 burger joints! Outside of the big cities, restaurants of any type are very hard to find in Denmark, and the ones you do find often are often very bad ethnic restaurants. If you can actually get Danish food it's incredible, but you generally need an invitation into somebody's home to get it. The exception is breakfast; Hostels generally put on a great spread.

>the kontanthjælp, "cash assistance"

It's nice to see that your government is respectful towards those in need. In the UK, they call it "jobseeker's allowance" - like the type of allowance a parent gives a child.

A bit of civility, please? I'm sure you're sure you're the smartest man in the room, but don't go around spewing insults about topics you seem to have only a passing familiarity with.

For one, it's not ever been really tried to my knowledge. Some limited versions have been, and they were actually relatively successful, but hardly dispositive.

For two, basic income guarantees have plenty of theoretical benefits over EITC. The EITC creates some steep disincentives to work at certain points in the income spectrum, at some points topping a 100% marginal tax rate combined with other benefits, effectively trapping people in a low-income trough they can't escape from.

The unconditional basic income guarantee doesn't face this issue: you don't have drastic marginal tax rates anywhere, as it's actually one of the only proposals that make a flat income tax consistent with a humane welfare state.

Overall, though, you comment betrays a lack of understanding about what can cause unemployment. It's deeply lacking in theoretical backing. Just to stretch your mind a bit: one way to think about horses in the economy is that eventually they became mostly unemployed. Your statement is incapable of explaining that. At some point, the costs of employing and managing the worst employees in any sector will be greater than the capital costs of replacing them. And then they will be. Might be in a decade, might be in a century, but at some point that has to happen, unless you consider human labor inherently magical. And after that every advance of technology will make that group of too-expensive-to-employ workers ever larger.

> A bit of civility, please?

Sure. I'll let you start:

> I'm sure you're sure you're the smartest man in the room

> don't go around spewing insults about topics you seem to have only a passing familiarity with.

> you comment betrays a lack of understanding about what can cause unemployment.

Nice to meet you Pot.

> Your ideal solution has been tried.

Who has tried basic income and failed?

Canada tried it in a single town once.

On the one hand, the Mincome experiment ran vastly over its budget. On the other hand, it monumentally decreased the symptoms of poverty and improved living conditions, while turning out to only reduce people's "practiced work-ethic" (ie: real work-hours) by 5%.

Mincome in Manitoba. I don't read too much into it and think it's pretty debatable that it failed, but one thing it certainly did show is that people wouldn't all suddenly stop working. IIRC only one group of people actually decreased how much they worked significantly: teenage mothers. The modal response was continuing to work and using the extra money for extra consumption.

The Mincome experiment only failed in the sense that despite proving the benefits of a minimum income, it hasn't caught on very quickly elsewhere.

What happens when automation completes all tasks more efficiently than humans?

At that point, it will be obvious that coming up with ever-more-difficult tasks for the robots to complete, just for the sake of them having something to do, would be ridiculous.

Then, time will stand still, as this 'obvious' fact becomes a mirror for human society, in which we'll see the destruction and pain we've wrought for basically no reason, and weep.

And hopefully, at that point, we'll use the knowledge in automation we've gained to dramatically downsize civilization, and hopefully spend a lot more time swimming, because by the time all this happens it will be fucking hot outside most of the year.

> we'll use the knowledge in automation we've gained to dramatically downsize civilization,

I'm pretty sure that's where the kill-bots come in. And we can always make more kill-bots.

While that's an interesting question for sci-fi, I don't find it useful to ask it as a policy matter in the next century.

I am somewhat bemused by Dresden Codak's answer: self-sabotage: http://dresdencodak.com/2008/06/07/eloi/

If that's too far in the future to contemplate, then what about when it reaches a tipping point? We don't have to get all the way down that road for it to be a serious problem.

Given the nature of technology, it's more likely to come in the form of large bursts of disruption than a gradual slide. Once robots reach a certain level of sophistication, they take over a large number of tasks all at once. Same with more knowledge oriented systems.

Even if complete human replacement is far off, what happens when 200 million jobs are made obsolete in a matter of years?

I dunno. The horror of this confuses me: I don't derive a huge amount of meaning from my job, and I'd find as much enjoyment from life just from a life made mostly from thought and casual socialization. I imagine we'd carve ourselves niches where we'd intentionally do things ourselves for the enjoyment of using our hands and our minds for funsies. We'd probably transition to a purely attention-based economy or something. /shrug

Then, society will be a zero-sum game, because every resource someone else's robots are using is a resource your robots aren't using. There will probably be a lot of bloodshed.

There is always Calvinball. http://www.xkcd.com/1002/

It's also worth pointing out that sometimes automation helps create an increase in production of things with no commercial potential but potentially high artistic or social potential.

I worked for a nonprofit that was in the business of not paying people to manually complete a bunch of tasks, and barely staying afloat even then. I spent about 8 months helping them automate a bunch of processes, so that they're now able to provide more social services with fewer people.

Someone might have "lost a job", theoretically, but nobody was paying them anyway. Now the organization gets to spend more money paying talented people to come up with and implement interesting programming, instead of, say, manually reconciling a checkbook.

for those contemplating a dystopian future, it's good to remember that great comic from http://www.recombinantrecords.net/2009/05/24/amusing-ourselv...

unfortunately, they had to take it down, but here's the punchline: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_kt5pgoInM81qaoem1o1_r1_500...

I think in the west, we're mainly controlled by entertainment, not violence. (I guess you could call it intellectual/emotional violence.) http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_kt5pgoInM81qaoem1o1_r1_500...

I found the full version of the comic http://fatpita.net/?i=1952

I can also recommend the book that the comic is taken from. (Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman)

I think we probably will get back to having a lot of service jobs. Computers can do the job but they aren't all that understanding, with a large portion of the world aging and not dying, we are going to have a lot of need for assistance, care, entertainment services. Maybe not more construction (cept the areas where the folks flooded out of the coasts go) but probably a lot of repair and reconstruction because we have let a lot of our transportation/utility infrastructure go to pot.

Current barrier is the mentality those jobs are lame, lack of affordable vocational training, and the uncertain pay for those jobs. A lot of our society is geared for "toss it and get a new one," not fix what you already got.

The guy doing the "print all" job spent months looking for a new "print" related job, worked a McD's for a while and eventually went back to school to be retrained and is now employed as filterer for 'inappropriate' images on a social network. So, don't feel too bad.

Who will build the concrete skyscrapers?

Why not machines?

In the idle moments of any day my brainpower eventually leads to these sort of questions that we will have to ask ourselves about the future of societies. (this CS + Philosophy degree I "purchased" has been a very expensive anti-sleep aid...)

The anthropological world has gone through several ages as far as I can see it, from an Agricultural to Industrial to Mechanized (post WWII) to Digital (post 1990). I made up the names, but I'm sure the paradigms are obvious.

I want to make it clear that this "crisis of abundance" is not exactly a new question. Even moving to agrarian living had growing pains. The best example philosophically detailing this, I think, is the work by Thomas Paine called Agrarian Justice. (that's the same Paine as Common Sense, Rights of Man, and Age of Reason)

Agrarian Justice is a short pamphlet that I think everyone should read. It details in simple terms how civilized society is different from those who live off the land (such as some Native Americans of the time). Civilization clearly makes some people much better off, but others in civilization seem to be much worse off, condemned to lives of destitution, pollution, etc.

Land ownership and development is a clear plus, but in agrarian societies people "lose" their natural inheritance of the land because of this ownership, and land taxes should be levied to make up for the loss of a natural inheritance.

In effect Paine advocates for a guaranteed minimum income, way back in 1795. That, to him, restored justice to agrarian society.

Nothing was done in 1795, and little to the same effect is being done today, though ownership has become a lot more pronounced (we are no longer largely farmers after all). Unfortunately, I think society today would think the idea far more radical than those of Paine's generation, not least of which we owe to certain political elements.

A copy of the pamphlet is hosted on - where else - the official US Social Security website. I really do recommend you give it a read, it isn't long!


(If we want to discuss the pamplet itself in depth, we might want to do so on another thread: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5360056)

> In effect Paine advocates for a guaranteed minimum income, way back in 1795. That, to him, restored justice to agrarian society.

Another Marxist philosopher, eh?

Forced contribution backed up by violence of the state doesn't sound like justice to me, and is fundamentally incompatible with the liberty envisioned by America's founding fathers. If only we'd listen to them, we'd all be better off.

Edit: my delivery is either a bit too deadpan, or HN readers have encountered enough would-be libertarians who are completely unaware that Paine is arguably a founding father and Marx wasn't borne until 1818 that my attempt at satire has already been beaten by reality. I'll hope it's the former.

Oh bull.

Failure to pay taxes due is theft from the rest of society. And don't claim any ownership of founding fathers in your ideology - Old Ben Franklin has been sticking it to "all taxation is theft" Libertarians since 1783, in absolute and direct contradiction of your sentiment:

> "The Remissness of our People in Paying Taxes is highly blameable; the Unwillingness to pay them is still more so. I see, in some Resolutions of Town Meetings, a Remonstrance against giving Congress a Power to take, as they call it, the People's Money out of their Pockets, tho' only to pay the Interest and Principal of Debts duly contracted. They seem to mistake the Point. Money, justly due from the People, is their Creditors' Money, and no longer the Money of the People, who, if they withold it, should be compell'd to pay by some Law.

> "All Property, indeed, except the Savage's temporary Cabin, his Bow, his Matchcoat, and other little Acquisitions, absolutely necessary for his Subsistence, seems to me to be the Creature of public Convention. Hence the Public has the Right of Regulating Descents, and all other Conveyances of Property, and even of limiting the Quantity and the Uses of it. All the Property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other Laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition. He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it."

That second quote is very interesting to read. Do you have the source for it?

I'm gonna give you the benefit of the doubt and say I think your sarcasm matrix is miscalibrated. You need to add a little more bite to the snark to make this batch correct.

Milton Friedman also advocated a universal minimum income.

The thing is, he advocates a minimum income, not a minimum set of social services. There's a huge difference in the economics between goods or services that are (ideally) competitively purchased on an open market and good and services that are delivered by a monopoly (whether the monopoly is in the market or is government itself) or monopsony (in the case of some govn't welfare programs, which can be thought of as single entities that negotiate pricing for arrays of goods and services).

A hybrid between Milton Friedman-style minimum income and more socialist notions of welfare is something like the US food stamps program, where you have to spend the money on food-related goods, but where you can shop at a larger set of providers and still deliver the benefits of competitive purchasing to the food market.

I think you'd need a combination of both minimum income and minimum services that goes beyond your food stamps example to be successful. If you only have a minimum income, then monopoly/oligopoly providers will raise their prices to absorb the entire minimum income. This is already happening in the form of healthcare prices rising significantly faster than inflation.

You're quite correct about them raising their prices, but then again, healthcare is competitively purchased only the loosest and least meaningful way. There really aren't strong competitive forces emanating from the demand side - it's more like a demand-side oligopoly of buyers setting prices. In healthcare, we are arguably seeing the expected outcome of a lack of meaningful price competition.

The government could take action to enable competitive individual purchasing of care instead of monopsony or group buying. It could provide cash incentives for people who shop around for basic, easy-to-understand care. It could fund patient education for more complex care. And if this model proves successful, it could be expanded to harder-to-understand care gradually and with caution to see how consumers react.

In other words, competition can only work if it's allowed to. Today, food prices are raised for various reasons, but I am not aware of a school of economics that faults this on a demand-side government-funded competitive individual purchasing program (not that you said that either).

> If you only have a minimum income, then monopoly/oligopoly providers will raise their prices to absorb the entire minimum income.

Uncompetitive markets are a different animal. Even if you had the government making the purchasing decisions, non-competing suppliers could still just charge monopoly prices that increase as additional dollars become available. The only real solution to that is to make the market more competitive, e.g. busting up the cartels and adopting policies that inhibit them from forming.

But you're almost onto something. The issue is that when your goal is to increase the number of transactions in a market (e.g. the number of people who can buy a home), increasing the demand by increasing the cash in peoples' pockets is only an indirect method to accomplish that. In order for more people to be able to own a home, there have to actually be more homes. If you give people money then they bid up housing prices, which causes new home construction to be more profitable and so more new homes are constructed. The trouble is that the large bulk of the money doesn't make it to the people constructing new homes, it goes primarily to the sellers of existing homes (who comprise the bulk of the market), and so only a small fraction of the tax dollars expended go toward promoting new home construction and therefore to increasing the number of people who can buy a home. Directly subsidizing supply is a much more effective way to accomplish specific goals like that, e.g. by providing money when a newly constructed home is purchased. Then the subsidy is distributed between the buyers (making the purchase more affordable) and the new home builders (increasing the incentive to build more new homes) and cuts the existing home owners you didn't intend to subsidize out of the subsidy.

This is basic supply side economics. The key is to recognize how this sort of thing has been corrupted into not accomplishing its goals in the past: If the market being subsidized is uncompetitive then the suppliers can fix prices so as to take most or all of the subsidy as profit and cause little or no increase in supply at all. In other words, you should never, ever subsidize a cartel. Subsidies for oil exploration come to mind as a good example of this sort of preposterous stupidity. But again, the solution in those cases is to make the market competitive. Either bust them up or, if you can't (e.g. because OPEC is outside your jurisdiction), promote new competition like alternative energy.

TL;DR: You don't have to have the government supply the services, you just have to have the government make sure the market stays competitive.

The problem being that services are never competitively purchased in current society. Just look at healthcare.

Unfortunately, you invoked Poe's Law:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of ~~Fundamentalism~~ Proprietarianism that SOMEONE won't mistake for the real thing.

Does Thomas Paine himself not qualify as a 'founding father'? "Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” --John Adams [1]

Whenever I see arguments rooted in the founder's intent, I always wonder exactly which founding fathers the arguer will choose.

In truth the people who might qualify as 'founding fathers' had a wide variety of political opinions. Perhaps the only unifying trait was that they were able to compromise to get things done.

I'm hoping your comment was purposeful hyperbole...

[1]: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/10/16/061016crbo_books (via Wikipedia)

I hope you're joking, I really can't tell. In case you're not, Marx wasn't even born until 1818. Marxism as an ideology wasn't really a thing until at least the very late 19th century. Thomas Paine was most definitely not a Marxist philosopher.

I agree. We must take into account, however, that changing zeitgeists often make it more difficult to go it alone; legally, its probably harder to be a subsistence farmer today than it was in 1750. Perhaps you want to grow some corn and sell the rest; but perhaps it is now required that all corn sold meet some minimum standard, requiring a certain fertilizer only sold in 1000-acre doses. This is fine for the agribusinesses that corn farms had become by the time the standards were set, but not so great for the guy who decides to become a small-time farmer 200 years too late.

So I agree that the state mandating your charity is a bad thing, but the yearning for freedom from such must be coupled with an alternative.

Small solar, small-garden farming techniques: we figure these out, and no one will be mad at the computer guys for automating their backyard garden.

It's not so much that you're too deadpan, it's just that it's Poe's Law for anything Marx related around here.

lolo Marx railed against the commodification of labor and the implications of making it a commodity (one of which happened to be how a wage was no longer just a worker's time put into something he could just 'do')

I can't tell if you're serious or not...

Perfectly hit the sweet spot. 9/10.

Bertrand Russell is another person who's written on that subject. His question was more or less: if we reach the point where our basic needs can be taken care of by robots, will that mean everyone starts with their basic needs taken care of... or will it instead mean that whoever owns the robots, and claims their labor, will be in a very strong position?

Or you can take natural law thinkers like Grotius - in essence, their thinking derived from religion thus: you are owned by God -> you cannot kill yourself -> in times of hardship (an in extremis condition) you must take what you need in order to live. Very interesting, as he also defined property in terms of his religious beliefs...

I guess what I'm getting at is either you have the people breaking into the grain stores (in Grotius' day, anyway) or you provide some means of subsistence.

You may be aware, but for the edification of others I would point out that these ideas find their roots much earlier than Grotius. For example Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica, "In cases of need all things are common property." [1]

[1] http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3066.htm#article7

I think our concept of basic needs is highly flawed. The moment some of our basic needs get taken care of, the new ones replace them.

In general any thing given away for free, will always be perceived as worthless. That is how it works!

I disagree. I believe that among the things given for free some would be missed less or more than others, like free water compared to free tv if one happened to live in the sahara. Things we are dependent on for daily subsistance are more basic than the ones we easily get used to their absence.

> The moment some of our basic needs get taken care of, the new ones replace them.

No, the new ones add up to them. The basic needs are still there and it is a priority to take care of them first and before the "new ones".

And what would be wrong with a society that would be able to provide basic sustenance to every citizens AND a free internet/tv/car etc. ?

In the USA as of 2013, everyone already has their basic needs taken care of--or at least what Bertrand Russel would consider the basic needs, of course we have redefined them since to mean things which in his time would have been considered luxuries.

It depends on whether the people without robots can kill the people who own the robots.

They can't, because the people who own the robots also own a robotic police force.

Two years ago when Mubarak told the Egyptian army to spray protestors with bullets, and the soldiers refused. That's because he didn't have a robotic force. The future is probably going to be horrible.

You think a robotic police force is going to help a dictator? Maybe for a couple of days, until someone with a conscience and a brain realizes that Robocop is running a vulnerable version of Java and suddenly "your" robotic police force is my robotic police force.

There's no reason though that the person who pays for the vulnerability to be exploited, or performs the exploit, can't be a [malevolent] dictator though.

Except that most people are good, especially among hackers. If this wasn't the case the world would already have exploded -- you don't think those drones they fly around with missiles attached to them have exactly zero vulnerabilities, do you?

The most dangerous thing for the future is the opaque systems and "dangerous information" prohibitions that deprive the public of the knowledge necessary to fight the bad guys. Reminds me of this: http://xkcd.com/504/

Here is a more modern argument for a guaranteed basic income. http://www.amazon.com/Whats-Wrong-Lunch-Democracy-Forum/dp/0...

Paine's 10% tax rate would be welcomed by even the most ardent Tea Partier.

Isn't his tax rate on all wealth, so 10% of the value of your home and possessions too? Or was it only on income?

What you have written looks really interesting... but I am curious as to why you think this is not already in effect? Just thinking about Ireland, UK, Germany, Canada, Australia... the minimum income concept is firmly ingrained in unemployment benefits and means-tested social welfare. It needs a lot more to really restore equality, because equality of opportunity requires investment in education and rules against monopoly and nepotism/cronyism, but they are there too!

As a german who grew up in Eastern Germany i can tell you that the only thing stopping a full base income is influence from american politics. I say full, because we do have a de-facto base income with the unemployment payments labeled "Arbeitslosengeld II". Read up on it. :)

Certainly in the UK there is no base benefit, no right to an amount to support continued life.

I want to zoom in from the big picture and look at something more local. Let's say you're like me and you're a well-paid knowledge worker in, say, San Francisco, and lets further suppose that your industry is creating an incredible stratification of wealth in a very small, volatile space.

And let's say you're like the OP, and you're feeling a little bit guilty that you're putting people out of work, and making it harder for people to meet their own basic needs in other ways.

Instead of arguing that we should all pay more taxes, tax yourself. Tip heavier. Shop local (and pay local taxes, and the local markup for the local minimum wage) instead of using your Amazon Prime membership. Consider taking on roommates and paying a higher proportion of the rent.

It's called Noblesse Oblige. It used to be a thing. It ought to be again.

why are geographically proximate people of more moral worth? It gets worse when you take the marginal utility of money into account. Capitalism has this wonderful feature where industry goes and sets up shop wherever people have it worst off because their labor is the cheapest. This infrastructure improves the crappy areas until it is no longer the worst, repeat. The world has thus been ratcheting itself out of extreme poverty since the industrial revolution.

> why are geographically proximate people of more moral worth?

This seems to be the implicit assumption whenever certain segments of the political class bemoan jobs being "shipped overseas". On a local/national scale, inequality does increase as unskilled workers face international competition. But on a global scale, inequality actually decreases as those living in the world's poorest countries see their incomes go up.

In this case at least, a likely explanation for why geographically proximate workers are deemed more worthy is that they are part of the relevant political constituency and the foreign workers are not.

The idea of politics at a local level, rather than having a single top down international government is that assuming everyone has good government then everyone's needs are advocated for equally.

So it's not so much that other workers are less worthy, it is that they should have their own representative to argue for them. If my representative is spending his/her time advocating for someone else then I am getting an unfair deal.

This is apparent in Britain over the EU debate as many believe that membership of the EU is preventing British politicians from considering the best interests of Britain whilst others advocate that EU membership is necessary for Britain to have any say at all.

our representatives and their representatives are much more concerned with watching each other's backs than either us or them.

But you miss the important point. It's easy to do what you think is right (at least when it comes to spending money that you have), but what's the use of it if others keep behaving in the ways you consider wrong? The whole point of it is to control other people so that they would behave right too! And if you don't have to persuade them but actually can force them to comply using the threat of violence - even better! What enlightened and liberal person wouldn't want everybody to act as he likes under the threat of violence?

I guess you're being sarcastic? I'm not really sure. What you're describing is the reason I'm not a "liberal", but I also think it's bullshit that so many of San Francisco's service workers have to live on the other side of the Bay when there's so much money in this city.

Why is it "bullshit"?

Due to space constraints, someone needs to commute for an hour. What's wrong with the person having a lower hourly productivity being the one stuck with the commute?

> What's wrong with the person having a lower hourly productivity being the one stuck with the commute?

The productivity of labor is not determined by wages. Period.

What is right with the person having a lower hourly wage being the one stuck with the commute? What is wrong with the person with the higher hourly wage being the one stuck with the commute?

Due to space constraints, what argument is there for preferential treatment of those already economically better off? It is far less of a hit on your pocketbook to shoulder the expensive commute than it is on someone making 50% of your wages. Perhaps the social expectation should be that the more money an agent makes, the greater his social responsibility to give up conveniences to those making less to better balance the equation?

There is far more reason to be found in those with higher wages being 'stuck with the commute' and living in less convenient areas than there is in an elitist notion that one ought to have the benefit of both higher wages and maximum convenience. Unless, of course, higher hourly wages also bestow upon the bearer an inherent right to misanthropy and rejection of a social obligation to produce greater equality across humankind.

Who's to say that a teacher, policeman or civil administrator has a lower hourly productivity than some rails coder working on a social mobile startup? Heck, dishwashers work harder than we do.

That opens up a debate about skills scarcity, which I can see, but calling public service jobs 'less productive' just because we get to vote (indirectly) on their paychecks seems a bit circular to me.

Not sure what this has to do with San Francisco service workers. I personally wouldn't want to live in SF, even though I visit from time to time - I think the city government should be committed to the mental hospital, but SF people are apparently fine with it, so who I am to tell them.

And yes, I was sarcastic and I meant the topicstarting post which exhibits classic liberal cliche of "why don't we just take all the wealth and redistribute it and everybody would have enough money". If the author is under 20, it's completely excusable, he just needs to do some reading and thinking, but if it's not - it's a problem. Unfortunately, quite a common one.

You're quite severely strawmanning the original poster and 99% of liberals who don't have dreadlocks and punctuate every sentence with ",man".

I'd add that this strawmanning and the assumption that it's true by ~~35% of the country is the reason no reform has happened for the last 3 years.

No I am not - the poster explicitly cited confiscatory taxes and redistribution as his proposed solution to the perceived problems. I don't care about what grows on the outside of his head, but on the inside it's exactly as I described, I didn't invent it - he told it himself by his own words (all while he did strawman the political opponents by falsely claiming Republicans did not oppose raising his taxes, which many of them did).

The person you replied to didn't mention taxes except as a metaphor 'tax yourself', talking about tipping well.

The rush to portray anybody to the economic left of Ayn Rand as a communist is the reason we won't see reasonable tax reform cleaning up deductions and all that, something that both Obama and Republicans say they support. The second Obama proposes something, it's communism, and there's no possibility for working with him.

The commenter did. I, however, highlighted the difference in his (commenters) approach with the approach of the author of the topic article, who advocates confiscatory taxes - because he's not content with doing something he thinks is right, he wants everybody to be forced to do the same.

As it often happens, first thing you do protesting stigmatization is stigmatize and paint me, protesting confiscatory taxes, as somebody who rushes "to portray anybody to the economic left of Ayn Rand as a communist" - despite the fact that I never said or implied anything of the sort.

The reason, however, why we don't see reasonable tax reform is, first, that current situation is hugely profitable for people in power - if you have power to grant tax exemptions, you will soon have a lot of friends who need tax exemptions, and these people tend to have a lot of money. If you make tax code simple and logical, you lose the power to regulate people's behavior (see how it comes back to where we started?) and you lose the influence and the friends with money. That's why we have hundreds of "deductions", "credits", etc. - because the government wants to control people, and when it can't do it by force of direct coercion, it does it by force of taxation. See the recent example of Obamacare - the fix to mandate the participation in the scheme is to do it through punitive taxation.

The second reason why we don't see reasonable tax reform is that for certain part of US political spectrum, "reasonable" means applying punitive and confiscatory tax levels on people that they do not like. You can not approach reasonable solution if you come in with hidden agenda and try to enact social-engineering agenda under the guise of economic policy.

The third reason why we don't see reasonable tax reform is that many view "tax reform" as a magic bullet that would allow us to get a free ride out of over-commitment on welfare obligations that our economy is unable to support. There's a widespread view that there's a huge amounts of "wealth" hidden by capitalists somewhere and if only we could tap into that hidden treasure all nearly broke welfare programs would suddenly become viable and sustainable in the long term. Unfortunately, this magic stash does not exist and tax reform would not fix the problem of welfare overcommitment.

>>>> The second Obama proposes something, it's communism, and there's no possibility for working with him.

This is pure organic bullshit. The problem with so many Obama proposals it's not that it is "communism" but that it stems from misguided idea that the economy needs more government-driven redistribution and that such redistribution makes everybody better off. Communists shared that idea too, but the problem is not in the communists, nobody cares too much what they think as they are largely irrelevant by now, the problem is that the idea is wrong.

Do you think you would fare well under an anarchy?

I have no idea, why would you ask?

Because if your whole idea of what civilization is, is a bunch of bullshit rules enforced under the threat of violence, then I find it hard to imagine you're anything but an anarchist. Or a petulant child. Or both.


I upvoted this. Yes, if :-)

I'm working on a longer answer to satisfy the people who think there's a zero-sum game between whether my neighbors get evicted or whether there are enough mosquito nets for African children, but I want to take a stab at it:

I care more about the immediate social fabric I live in than the relative poverty of people in other places. It's because I think that other social problems are merely symptoms of a mindset that allows people to think of themselves as seperate from the social fabric where they live.

I believe the way we solve the problem laid out in the OP is by creating resilient local communities that can take care of their own needs with minimal resource input, and I believe that geographic arbitrage and global division of labor have created many of the problems that responses to this post have suggested my money is better spent alleviating.

I further believe that when we solve social problems in our own commuities, we create templates for action that can be used by others, and that this is more efficient than using charity to impose solutions for social problems from without.

Lastly, I think anybody who thinks of themselves as an island, disconnected from the people and place immediately surrounding them, is delusional.

    Tip heavier. Shop local (and pay local taxes, and the
    local markup for the local minimum wage) instead of
    using your Amazon Prime membership. Consider taking on
    roommates and paying a higher proportion of the rent.
These are all ways that you can spend money to help people, and as someone who is rich (globally speaking) this is a good approach. But if you care about how far your giving goes [1] then you can do better via carefully evaluated charities like GiveDirectly [2] or the AMF [3].

[1] and you should: http://lesswrong.com/lw/3gj/efficient_charity_do_unto_others...

[2] http://www.givewell.org/international/top-charities/give-dir...

[3] http://www.givewell.org/international/top-charities/AMF

IMO the "self-taxation" ideas you mention would be much less welfare-enhancing than donating to givewell-approved charities, I like the spirit though!

Details: http://www.givewell.org/giving101/Your-dollar-goes-further-o...

Why would you shop local? That just biases in favour of people who already live in high wage San Francisco vs, say, poor labourers in China or Vietnam.

Similar to the roommate. That's just helping one random guy.

That's all fine. But there are better uses for your money to help humanity. Give to Doctors without Borders, or so.

OP here. I am intrigued by your ideas and wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

Idea on the roommate thing that I've always found works well: add everyone's income in the house together, determine Each's percentage of the household income, and divvy up bills accordingly.

That's sort of socialist, isn't it?


It's un-American.

"It used to be a thing"

More like blatant PR by aristocratic nobility.

This is a facile take on the economics of technology. Productivity increased steadily throughout the 20th century and while in the short term that may have eliminated certain (mostly unskilled) functions, it didn't lead to widespread unemployment. Improvements in technology move the world forward, there's no reason to feel guilty about it.

You're ignoring the social and governmental factors.

Technological improvement actually did lead to widespread unemployment once: the Great Depression. There was simply no need for so much farm labor after it turned out that unlimited and leveraged stock-market investment wouldn't make returns on every last penny and bushel.

(Everyone in those days, no matter their political slant, knew what overproduction was.)

The eventual solution was to raise wages, shorten working hours, allow unionization and go to war. I'm only partially joking.

On some level, widespread technological unemployment is a sign that our productivity is too high for our designated amount of work that constitutes a "real job" or "full time".


"Technological improvement actually did lead to widespread unemployment once: the Great Depression."

Economists argue about the causes of the Great Depression, but the idea that the Great Depression was caused by improvements in technology is not one I've ever heard.

If I recall correctly, Einstein himself said it. (I know, wrong area of expertise. But he is famous.) And now, productivity (as measured by the GDP per employee —I know it's a flawed measure) literally shot through the roof since the 1970s.

When production rises for whatever reason, either demand rises with it or we eventually have unemployment. I understand you never heard the argument, but why would production rise? I only see two reason: population growth (no problem, demand will rise as well), and technological advancement.

Now, technology also increase demand. We all want more modern gadgets and all. But it is not clear this growth in demand outpaces the growth in production.

But it's more efficient to hire 1 worker for 8 hours than 2 workers for 4 hours. The latter has more overhead in terms of training, etc. Why would an employer choose to do that?

By the same token, it's more efficient to hire one worker for 16 hours than two workers for 8 hours. Why do employers do that?

(Also, the fixed-costs of hiring workers can be somewhat decreased through various means. For example, if you're in the United States, the American employer-sponsored insurance system is so appallingly inefficient that it's obvious low-hanging fruit for reduction of fixed costs. Get rid of it and go universal!)

>By the same token, it's more efficient to hire one worker for 16 hours than two workers for 8 hours.

Not necessarily. Being tired reduces efficiency.

Which also applies to the 1 man, 8 hours versus 2 men, 4 hours.

There's presumably a sweet spot in between fixed costs and tiredness, and I suspect it's closer to 8 hours than to 4.

The concept we can keep consuming to keep ourselves out of trouble is naive.

We can not sustain the growth required to replace lost jobs, it's just not mathematically possible, the world is finite.

Concepts around consumption composing of the arts(Attempting to loophole limited resources) are also misplaced, already we are seeing computer generated actors and artists.

Sincerely, Adam Smith

It just doesn't work that way anymore, especially as we approach the robotics age. I'm pretty sure the jobs everyone's freaking out about are never coming back: 6% unemployment is a vestige of a former world.

My concern with OP's idea of a minimum income and the requisite tax that it would require is the very real possibility that a person would rather do nothing than sacrifice 91% of the pay for their hard work. I mean, logisitically, how do you even determine such a tax structure? And if there becomes a generation of people who can sufficiently live with doing no work at all, how do future generations ever bridge that gap, as it inexorably becomes even more gaping.

Here's an arrangement:

Tax everyone a flat percentage X%. Collect all the money, and distribute it in living stipends of T/N, where T is the total money and N is the size of the population paying in. Thus everyone gets a stipend of X% of the mean income. Rises and falls in total income will naturally be reflected by the stipend (with a short time-delay for tax collection and stipend distribution to occur), and various markets will eventually balance out between those who just live off the stipend, those who have jobs to earn more, and the owners of the means of production who were taking in all the big money anyway.

"I'm pretty sure the jobs everyone's freaking out about are never coming back"

There's nothing wrong with that. In 1900 something like 40% of all employment was in agriculture, but improvements in technology have reduced that to 2-3% now (all the while increasing crop yields), but we don't have 40% unemployment because of all those jobs that never came back.

> Productivity increased steadily throughout the 20th century and while in the short term that may have eliminated certain (mostly unskilled) functions, it didn't lead to widespread unemployment

It certainly has lead to widespread unemployment especially among younger people.

Look at eg. ILO's outlook summary: http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_1...

There is no reason the 30th century will repeat the same patterns as the 20th. It's certainly true that raw employment numbers in the US haven't dipped significantly since the dawn of industrialization, and they've gotten better around the globe as a whole. But that doesn't mean we'll continue to be able to come up with jobs for people to do as fast as we can come up with ways to make them obsolete. Technological improvement tends to be geometric if I'm not mistaken, and I doubt the same can be said for the creation of meatware-only, service-industry duties.

It's also important to keep in mind that real wages for the majority of American workers hasn't risen in the past 40-odd years [citation needed]. Of course, they can buy cooler shit now than they could in the 70's, but that doesn't mean there's no cause for pause when we look at the benefits of technological improvement.

Looking at real wages versus employment suggests that Labor is taking a beating from Capital in the marketplace.


"...We (programmers) all are, on some level or another; we’re taking mundane repetitive tasks and automating them with code..."

Yes, and no. I have been programming or improving things all my life. That means, if you don't look too deeply, yes, I am a jobs destroyer.

But if you're not going to look too deeply, just don't bother looking at all.

We programmers take inefficient things and make them efficient. Old, bloated code gets streamlined. What used to take a person an hour takes five minutes.

You'd think -- if you kind of squinted your eyes the right way -- that eventually we'd just make the entire universe efficient and there would be no more jobs. You'd think something and it would come into existence. Many people are able to think this far ahead, and it scares them. Along, presumably, with many other things.

The problem is that such simple-minded projections of the future never pan out that way. Over and over again we make something more efficient, take away entire categories of jobs, and still people have more to do than ever. Why? There's a book in that response, but let's just say in deference to Jurassic Park, "jobs find a way". An economy is a complex system where people are always wanting something -- even when they're fed, clothed, housed, and taken care of -- and other people are always providing it. They trade, and it's this species-programmed pattern of trading that led us out of the Savannah and onto the moon.

This is the nth article along the same lines -- the future is devoid of jobs. I'm very sorry that our educational system in many western countries is ill-preparing many for work, and they face long periods of unemployment made worse by debt. It's a travesty and a scandal and we need to fix it. But don't extrapolate current unfortunate structural unemployment with the end of life, the universe, and everything. Don't flatter yourself. You are not a jobs destroyer. You're just some schmuck doing his job like the rest of us.

That's because we haven't yet produced a general-purpose quality AI which can do everything humans can do and more cost effectively than they do it. But when this happens, pretty much everything, even creative work like graphical design - everything will be cloudsourced.

You are confusing things with value.

Most commenters seem to confuse needs with value. They think that once we are all fed and housed there will be no more jobs.

At least you've taken it to the next step -- tangible things. Congrats.

You need to ask yourself a question: why do rich people create things for each other? A millionaire grandmother may make a scarf for her grandchild. A middle-aged man may take time to create a scrapbook for a friend that is retiring. A billionaire may go to yard sales and haggle over the price of a toaster.

It's not about needs, and it's not about things. It's about trade, creation, giving, social interaction. These things are not going anywhere, no matter how many AIs there are. In another 100 years we're just all going to be the equivalent of today's billionaires. That means having purpose and creating things, ie, continuing in some form of semi-structured creation and trade process.

Look at it this way. Describe the life of an early 21st century person to somebody from 1000BC. They will have no idea why you work. Guaranteed meals every now and then? Communicate with anybody on the planet? Water, sewage, and light for the dark -- all without effort? We live in an incredible far-fetched place beyond dreams. There's no point in working. From their perspective.

But that's not the way things panned out.

Giving and social interaction (of at least some kinds) are not immediately at risk. What's at risk is the participation of some large groups of people in trade. Ultimately the value of a person's labor depends on scarcity, just as the trade value of things or experiences do, and we've seen how lack of scarcity makes trade value crash. (The value of the Humble Bundle and Cory Doctorow's books depends on "giving" more than "trade", and the latter at all only due to information asymmetry.)

The storm coming is that when we have duplicable, cheap, general AI, the value of any act of production will plummet to the cost of copying a mind and running it. Actually, that's already the case, but the cost of producing a new mind is quite high, now. :)

When people talk about automating everything we now do (or can do), pro-automation people often say "well, comparative advantage means that there will always be something for humans to do to live", but comparative advantage depends on scarcity of productive agents. If copying and running an AI to solve a problem is cheaper than employing an already existing human, humans are in trouble, economically.

Dunno what to do about it, though.

The actual storm coming is most probably very different.

When we have a general AI, it is likely it will start to optimize the world according to its programming. One such optimization would be to code an even more efficient AI (we assume the AI is a better programmer than its human fathers and mothers). And so on, until FOOM, we have a super-intelligence, capable of taking over computers, convincing humans, build companies, take over means of production, inventing means of productions, and basically take over the world.

And of course, it will be unstoppable.

Now let's just hope that the original such AI have no bug, especially in its goal system, and let's hope further that it's initial goals are exactly in line with humanity's. We wouldn't want clippy to tile the solar system with paper clips. Or Smiley to do the same with molecular smileys (as a proxy for human happiness). Or Hal9000 to do the same with ultra-efficient computing devices so it can solve the Riemann Hypothesis… Which would have the unfortunate side effect of killing us all.

To the extent you don't believe in intelligence explosion, Robin Hanson describe the kind of world we could have. I dare say, it's not pretty.

I'm more-or-less in agreement with this (Hanson's ems are the kind of mind I was imagining, above), but I was assuming something of a best case, where it turns out that there are hard limits to mindlike complexity. If it turns out that there aren't, none of this will matter. I don't have any particular hope that Eliezer, et al, will construct a bugfree, airtight Greater Wish.

I'd say hard limit isn't the real criterion for rejecting the Intelligence Explosion hypothesis: there is a hard limit, but most likely well above human level: a human-made substrate could most certainly think way faster than evolution-made neurons, and the software could probably at least get rid of biases.

What really matters is whether intelligence is likely to explode or not. I think it would be really foolish to count on it not exploding, unless we're positive it won't. The stakes are too high.

As for MIRI (as it is called now) actually pulling it off, especially as they are now, I don't have high hopes either. However, they do look like the current best bet. And they do plan to grow (they need money). And maybe, maybe they will convince the other AI scientists to be wary of new powerful magic. For once. If not them, maybe the Future of Humanity Institute.

> there is a hard limit, but most likely well above human level

I suppose you're thinking of the speed of light, but I meant a somewhat more prosaic limit of having nowhere to go. If at some point an intelligence of level n can't do much better than chance at finding an improvement to n, intelligence growth might be very slow. I was wrong to refer to this limit as "hard", but it seems like a pretty plausible scenario to me. Our current software industry suffers from this problem. In this future, the most intelligent agents might be only a few standard deviations above the brightest current humans.

> a human-made substrate could most certainly think way faster than evolution-made neurons, and the software could probably at least get rid of biases.

I don't expect either of those to produce much effective increase in intelligence.

Speed increases aren't really the same as intelligence. Speeding up a dog's brain by a million times will not produce a more intelligent dog, only a faster one. (I'm not knocking faster thinking, by the way; it's just not the same as being able to think more complex thoughts).

The most intelligent things people do tend not to be the product of conscious, rational thought, but of loading up your mind with a lot of details about the problem you want to solve and waiting for systems below conscious thought deliver answers. Therefore, learning how to be more rational will help only incrementally if you're already fairly rational.

Ah, that hard limit. Eurisko did flatten out…

> In this future, the most intelligent agents might be only a few standard deviations above the brightest current humans.

Current methods of doing software are reaching their limits. That doesn't mean we have reached the limit yet. See Squeak, and more recently the Viewpoint Research Institute's work: <http://vpri.org/html/work/ifnct.htm>. When I see Frank (basically a personal computing suite in 20K lines, compilers included), I see a proof that we just do software wrong. The actual limit of what humans can program is probably still far.

Fast intelligence isn't a panacea, but still: imagine an Em thinking 10 times faster than meatware, on a personal computer, capable of copying itself over the network. That alone would be pretty dangerous. Now give it perfect dedication, and enough common sense to avoid most obvious mistakes… Now we could stop it… With another such Em. And then Hanson is back.

Eurisko is more legend than history, at this point. As far as I know, the source code was never available to anyone except Lenat, and most of the claims about how effective it was at the beginning were sourced directly from Lenat, as well. The fact that we've never seen anything similarly small and effective (and that Lenat abandoned the entire approach in favor of Cyc) makes me wonder how much of what Eurisko is reported to have done is exaggeration.

Your scenario with the Em that's copiable and ten times faster than a human is exactly what I started this with. :)

>let's hope further that it's initial goals are exactly in line with humanity's

And those would be…

I believe technologists continue to make the mistake of assuming everything is digital. Perhaps it's a part of the job.

"comparative advantage depends on scarcity of productive agents"

People buy things (trade) based on perceived value. That perception can be based on perceived scarcity, sentiment, anger, fear, love, happiness -- the list is very long. The scarcity argument only holds true across large industries and populations, and that's only because of the fungibility of money and the fact that material goods are (rather) easily categorized. It's not going to continue working. Money will stay fungible, but we're going to see an explosion in the kinds of things that have perceived value that the world has never seen.

Which makes sense if you think about it: as mankind has progressed, the diversity of the things he trades has increased. This trend will continue.

You guys are confusing theory and reality. Macro-economics fails us here. That's a shame. Looks like some folks have more work to do :)

It doesn't matter if everything is digital, if the creators of everything can be.

> The scarcity argument only holds true across large industries and populations

I don't think this is so, unless you're talking about handcrafted-by-genuine-Ukranian-American underwater-woven baskets. For anything that can be copied (and that segment is growing way faster than any other), the price will fall at least to just above the cost, which is low indeed. This is true for services as well, once minds to do the service can be copied.

> Ultimately the value of a person's labor depends on scarcity, just as the trade value of things or experiences do, and we've seen how lack of scarcity makes trade value crash.

Apologies for being pedantic, but you're confusing cost--i.e., market price--with value. These are two different things that are not dependent entirely upon scarcity (I assume you mean supply/demand balances of both commodities and labor itself) alone. There are many factors beyond scarcity that are inputs to determining the value of a commodity (including the commodity of labor) to both society and economy, which may or may not be included in determining the cost of said commodity--and the calculations of both are not guaranteed to be equal.

From almost any perspective--economic, historical, philosophical, psychological, etc.--the cost and value of an item are rarely equal. This is especially critical in analyzing and theorizing on trade relations, as the value of a commodity to one agent is often an independent determining factor in calculating the cost of that commodity by another agent.

Scarcity creates a lower bound to cost. If the lower bound for every good and service drops such that no human can afford to live between material cost and the finished cost, then humans will be out of work except for charity. There might well be boutique human-crafted items, but counting on that for the survival of 7-15 billion humans seems premature. :)

This may well be true, but this is still only a matter of cost, not value. Again, I apologize for being pedantic on the matter, but my point was that the value of a commodity, including labor, is a very different thing from the cost of that commodity.

I don't think that I am confusing things with value, but perhaps I did not explain my meaning well enough.

The problem with cheap AI and robots is not that people will not want to create things for each other and do stuff - sure they will still want to make stuff.

The problem is that hardly anyone will pay them for doing stuff, and therefore it will be impossible for them to make a living. So, the non-rich people (who don't own the robot corporations) would not be able to afford food and shelter.. (and they'll die as a consequence)

Unless government or benevolent fellows decide to help the destitute population and provide for them, which I don't really see happening as the plutocrats would probably treat the poor just like white slave owners in the US used to treat their black slaves, or like people treat cows. Even though resources will be abundant and it won't take much effort or sacrifice to help us, they would rather spend their resources on building faster spaceships or go ride space slides or ski on Mars or something.

You're looking at things from the viewpoint of society. There your argument makes sense -- of course "people" will continue to work. But that argument, that we'll just continue to work on things higher up Maslow's hierarchy, doesn't hold for individuals who don't hold an ownership stake in these technological advances. Robot Mega Corp and it's owners have no need for your grandmother's scarf, so what is she going to provide in trade for her more basic needs? Not having a job could be a real problem for her.

Incidentally, minimums, where earnings less than $X are increased to $X, are terrible and break incentives near the minimum. Much better are base incomes, guaranteed uniformly to even the wealthy.

> Robot Mega Corp and it's owners have no need for your grandmother's scarf, so what is she going to provide in trade for her more basic needs?

This is assuming that the robots are owned by a monopoly or a cartel. Such a case is an obvious candidate for government to step in and break them up.

On the other hand, if the robots are owned by companies that aggressively compete with each other, how much do goods cost when they're made by robots using robot-produced raw materials? The more humans we replace by robots, the lower the cost of goods will be and the easier it is for charity or government to provide them gratis to the public.

Yes, I don't think I phrased it well, but I didn't intend to assume that there is a single Robot Mega Corp.

> The more humans we replace by robots, the lower the cost of goods will be

Most physical goods have two parts: materials and labor. Even if robots were to bring the labor cost to approximately zero, we still have the material cost. So you're right that you don't necessarily have to own the robots to successful, but you do have to own resources.

Even "resources" primarily only cost money because of the labor it takes to discover them and then remove them from the ground and refine them. In theory there are some things that are genuinely scarce (e.g. energy or specific elements) but so what? Most of them have substitutes, and the fewer labor costs have to be paid the more substitutes become viable. Have the robots mass produce wind turbines or solar panels out of low-scarcity materials, or mine space, etc.

Even in the most pessimistic case where you have a valuable scarce resource with no substitutes then you have something to tax which will produce revenue that can be used to supply necessities to the public.

I agree overall, but I don't think the basic mechanism of why we have more work than ever is "jobs finding a way." That characterizes the process as jobs self-replicating, mutating, and adapting.

It's more that improvements in information processing generally (over the long-term) raise all boats, and do not fundamentally alter capitalism's competitive essence. Increasingly complex information processing can be automated, but that just moves the competition to a different playing field (er, boat pond). Until computers can create optimal, marketable solutions to novel problems, competition will always provide jobs for humans. They will just be different jobs.

Laudable for its social concern. A call for basic income, dare-I-say it... a socialist ideal. Will socialism emerge from our globally, militarily exported democratocapitalismywayorthehighway technocracy? Perhaps, but decentralization of political and mass-media control needs to be won back first.

Where does the western world want to go today? The government surveillance dyastopia and endless drone-wars of Assange's Cypherpunks introduction (http://cryptome.org/2012/12/assange-crypto-arms.htm) or some kind of free education, basic income guaranteed, relative socialist utopia? A false dichotomy, for sure, but extremely worrisome in its validity nonetheless.

In short, it is fantastic and timely (as always) to see programmers thinking about social impact of their actions. More of this!

> More of this!

Then you'll want to read "Four Futures."[1] It isn't by a programmer, but it has sci-fi references and the author talks about 3d printing. It's so brilliant I can never recommend it enough.

   [1]: http://jacobinmag.com/2011/12/four-futures/

Another interesting and relevant read: http://marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm

There seems to be a good bit of "if you are in the unemployment camp, you aren't contributing to society and are effectively worthless" that I get from some comments in this thread.

I know for a fact if a basic income surfaced I would jump immediately into solving a long-run "big problem" like learning robotics, brain-computer interfaces, etc. Without the burden of having to seek someone to pay me for my time to eat, I'd go tackle what I cared about more than what people with money to feed me cared about. I think that would have pervasive implications on everyone, and with a necessary cultural shift away from consumption towards conceptualization and self actualization, we might be able to get a majority of people taking up creative endeavors to improve the world in ways our current economic engine doesn't come close to promoting.

Why is making a job obsolete destroying a job? I see it as progress. It frees up a human resource to find a more rewarding opportunity. Any worker(s) made redundant certainly don't feel that way at the time of impact because they get the opportunity to evolve by trial. One observation I've made regarding replacing people with technology is the inherent brain drain: all the details get abstracted away into the new technology or system and no one remembers or thinks about them anymore. When something goes wrong, those details matter. That creates a different demand and the cycle continues.

Let's start by pulling this discussion apart into three questions:

1. What effect will technology-based efficiency gains have on total wealth? 2. What effect will technology-based efficiency gains have on the distribution of total wealth? 3. What should we do about #1 and #2, especially #2?

The answer to #1, IMO, remains very favorable. And I think that's obvious so long as you measure wealth by the value and owner-/consumer-perceived quality of what is owned and consumed, rather than by market prices.

As for #2 -- a rising tide is clearly lifting a lot of boats worldwide. In the richer countries, that's more debatable -- but I think it's still true. Dollar incomes may be flat, inflation-adjusted, but electronic entertainment (for example) is a lot better than it used to be.

But it's hard to deny that income disparities are on the rise. And it's reasonable to think about those income disparities in part by counting numbers of "good" jobs (probably down) and (of which there are fewer) "great" jobs (probably up).

Historically, "good" jobs have arisen to more than make up for those lost, perhaps after an uncomfortable transition period. If that's what's going on again, we can muddle through without great answers to #3. But if This Time It's Different -- and it well may be -- then we need to reorganize our economy, our work practices, and everything else, rebalancing work/leisure in the way some people (often socialists) were already (and falsely) arguing was necessary decades ago.


And finally -- at a minimum, we're causing problems that society needs to deal with in terms of general job loss. We're also causing other problems, such as privacy threats. So it's our duty, as very fortunate individuals, to also put some effort into alleviating them, or in some other ways of improving the world.

I, of course, have put some effort into the privacy issue. (http://www.dbms2.com/category/liberty-privacy/page/2/ -- more coming soon). Others may look at general economics (e.g. the OP here), or censorship, or the need for better STEM teaching, or in unquestionably beneficial applications of technology, or whatever. But we all should be thinking of what, personally, we can do to try to help.

I think you've already highlighted an interesting signal that This Time It's Different: in the U.S., productivity has increased while wage gains have flat-lined. Workers aren't sharing in the additional created wealth. Sure, the aggregate amount of wealth to the poor has increased over time. I'd think that's a given. If that hasn't happened something has gone horribly wrong. But its value relative to other wealthier groups has steadily declined. That's a bad spot to be in. The workers' increasing productivity is earning themselves a smaller return over time. Indeed a shrinking return. The nastiest consequence of this in my observation has been political; when a large majority of the population has relatively little wealth to toss around (even taken as a whole) it's easy for their political representatives to become unresponsive.

Now, whether It's Different This Time because of characteristics inherent to a steadily improving economic system, or simply because of self-destructive tendencies that wealth-hoarding tends to exhibit, is a question I'd love an answer to. But I'm sure there will be others to tell me that this time is just like all the others too. Maybe I'll hear a decent explanation that allays my concerns.

If you can get a flat-screen TV for $300 today, you're sharing the wealth - never before you could get anything close to that, let alone for so little money. If you compare the things accessible even to somebody who is considered "poor" today - in terms of quality of food, shelter, gadgets, etc. - it has never been more. 62% of people considered "poor" have two or more TVs. 48% own a computer. Look here: http://money.cnn.com/2012/08/01/news/economy/poor-income/ind...

The average household defined as "poor" in 2005 had air conditioning, cable TV and a DVD player, according to government statistics cited by Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. If there were children in the home, the family likely had a game system, such as a Microsoft Xbox or Sony PlayStation.

If you go back 50 years, would any poor person have access to anything like that? Would many middle-class ones? If this is not sharing the created wealth - albeit unequally, but undeniably - then what is it?

Almost everything you listed can be bought for under $1000 total and others rented for very little cost. That does not mean they're sharing the wealth. That just means economies of scale and planned obsolescence works and makes things cheaper over time. Things you cannot import from China are still prohibitively high - education, healthcare, insurance etc. Giving people $300 gadgets does not make them wealthy. Even having a $99 iPhone with $40/mo data plan does not mean you are rich. It means you have $99 and can afford $40/mo. Anyone on minimum wage can theoretically do that.

I don't disagree with you that quality of life has improved due to technological progress for almost everyone but I would hardly define that as sharing the wealth. I would define sharing the wealth as not having to declare bankruptcy when your kid has cancer. Or not having to take whatever job is available in any field instead of your speciality just to pay rent because you cannot collect unemployment anymore. Or not being stuck living in a city you want to move away from but can't because the house you purchased has fallen in price through no fault of yours and will barely make 50% of your mortgage in rent. I don't see how adding a $300 TV or air conditioning to this mix would make one feel like they're sharing the wealth.

If you have a much better TV than somebody had 50 years ago, then in that one particular way you're wealthier than they are. Ditto similar advantages over them in recorded music, communication, gaming (if you play computer games) and so on.

As for not being able to pay for a cancer cure without going bankrupt -- if it's a cure that hadn't been invented 50 years ago, then again you're richer than or level with people from 50 years ago, not poorer.

But all that doesn't necessarily mean there isn't a problem. If it takes two parents working rather than one to "get by", then the fact that one is "getting by" in more style than people used to may not be consolation. Even without such considerations, wealth doesn't automatically equate to happiness, and inequality in wealth generally tends to detract (except perhaps from the happiness of those best off).

>>>> Almost everything you listed can be bought for under $1000 total and others rented for very little cost. That does not mean they're sharing the wealth.

Of course it does. What would be the point of having $1000 if you can buy nothing for it? And if everything costed $0.0001, wouldn't somebody with $1000 be rich? Wealth is how much stuff you can buy (stuff meaning not only physical goods, of course, but other things you want too). If you can buy more stuff - you're more wealthy. If things got cheaper - you become more wealthy even if amount of money didn't change.

>>>> Anyone on minimum wage can theoretically do that.

Practically, they'd just get an Obamaphone "for free" (paid by taxpayers, of course), but that's besides the point.

>>>> but I would hardly define that as sharing the wealth.

That's because what you mean doesn't seem to be sharing the wealth, it seems to be envy. If you get a lot, but the neighbor gets more, you're envious - why he has more and you don't? Probably because he's not sharing! If you stop looking at Joneses and look at each person as he/she is, you'd see the wealth is being constantly shared.

>>>> I would define sharing the wealth as not having to declare bankruptcy when your kid has cancer.

This has nothing to do with sharing the wealth. This has everything to do with parents not having adequate insurance. That's what insurance is for.

>>>> I don't see how adding a $300 TV or air conditioning to this mix would make one feel like they're sharing the wealth.

What you mean by "sharing the wealth" is "I don't want anything bad happen to me and don't want to ever have money trouble or suffer consequences of either my poor foresight or unexpected circumstances, because there are people around who don't". Sorry, this has nothing to do with sharing the wealth, and the bad news are - nothing can do that for you. Shit happens, and nobody can be fully guaranteed from it. You can, however, be reasonably prepared and reasonably cautious - such as not buying a house on the peak of the bubble, but renting for 3-4 years and then buying when the bubble pops and Joneses have to sell because they can make barely 50% in rent. For each one of those there's one of those who rents for 50% of the mortgage. That's who you want to be, not the other guy :)

What your failing to take into account is there are plenty of finite resources people want. For example Land. As your relative share of total wealth decreases then your ability to buy land where you want it also decreases.

Land is much less useful resource than before, despite all claims to the contrary. You can become billionaire without ever owning a single slice of land - something that wasn't possible not so long time ago. I have hard time seeing how you need any land more that it takes to build a modest house. Of course, you may want a private island - but that's way beyond "sharing the wealth".

I don't think it is Different This Time. But the thing is, last time the world's response to overproduction and depression was social democracy version 1, also known as the Postwar Consensus. That deliberate rebalancing of society's wealth distribution resulted in the huge boost of consumption, demand, innovation and productivity we saw for 30 years after that.

Then came the oil shocks, which led to a completely different politics: neoliberalism, or, an economy once-again organized around maximizing capital gains rather than net earnings.

This is not directly replying to you, but something you said made me think:

> so long as you measure wealth by the value and owner-/consumer-perceived quality of what is owned and consumed

What about things that aren't really owned or consumed? Clean air/water, forests. Do they factor into this function somehow? If not, I have difficulty trusting any suggestions based on that definition of "wealth".

And just in general, I'd much rather optimise for happiness than wealth. But it's much harder to quantify, so I guess that's why people don't.

Whenever the income inequality of the US is discussed, I wonder about the global income distribution. The US is no longer a closed system, so it may not be meaningful to consider the US income distribution on its own. Does anyone here know how income inequality is doing globally?

I don't have numbers at my fingertips. That said:

Less developed countries seem to be growing faster than developed ones. That said, while gratifying huge numbers of people in China, India and smaller countries are moving up in the middle class, they're leaving many of their poorer countrypeople behind.

(Also, beware of any attempt to present the numbers so simply that commodity price swings are allowed to have a major influence.)

Fixed lump of labor fallacy detected. Counterfactual statements about politics (many republicans signed "no tax raise" pledge - which of course includes everybody's - including author's - taxes) detected. Calling unbased hypothesis "common sense" because the author couldn't find any proof - detected. Unbased assumption about how drastically raising taxes would generate tons of new income - instead of widespread evasion - detected. New and useful ideas - not detected.

Lump of labor of course grows as economy develops but it doesn't have to always grow faster than automation reduces it.

Given that we automate things faster and faster and economy needs time to grow to increase lump of labor there might be time where lump of labor starts shrinking.

Lots of currently held jobs are pretty much useless already but can't be removed in business as usual mode due to various social agreements.

US economy used crisis as an excuse to shake off lots of them. Output regrew fast after crisis but jobs didn't come back.

Automation does not reduce available labor - it reduces only the number of specific workplaces available, but since it frees the resources by doing it and produces more value, this value can - and will - be turned into buying work of somebody else. Maybe instead of buying services of a clerk, the owner of the company would buy services of a Ford dealer and Ford workers by buying a new car. So what? I have no reasons to prefer clerk's job for Ford dealer's job - the only difference is that people apparently need the latter but not the former. Transition can be painful for the individual, but beneficial for the economy as a whole.

> it frees the resources by doing it and produces more value, this value can - and will - be turned into buying work of somebody else.

Or maybe the owner of the company will just buy more automation for the money he saved that will cause further savings? After all he's business owner and increasing productivity of his company even further is his priority.

You might argue that eventually he'll buy all the automation for his company that is available on the market, and then he'll spent all of his freed resources on something labor intensive, but new, cheaper to use, automation is developed as he upgrades his company so it's possible that he will never be able to buy all automation. Besides labor intensive things he would spend his money on might get much less labor intensive until then due to their own automation.

Or maybe the owner of the company will just buy more automation for the money he saved that will cause further savings?

Maybe. That would then create job for automation creators - and for somebody to mow the lawn of automation creator because he's now too busy to mow it himself, creating the automation. The point is - more productivity creates value, not destroys it. Even though the value created may be allocated differently - so if $100 of value were created, it may end up (grossly simplifying, of course) that somebody would have $150 and somebody -$50. If you think in human terms, getting -$50 sucks, and I can totally understand that and there may be talk how to help that particular unfortunate man to deal with it, of course. But if you switch to economics terms, it's still +$100.

It's the reverse of the famous Broken Window Fallacy. If the world worked like the author of the main post thinks it does, you could create wealth just by breaking and destroying things - which "creates jobs" both for breakers and for somebody who would the restore them. I think it is obvious that no value is created this way.

> That would then create job for automation creators

That would be significant for labor market only if creating next level of automation required more human labor of roughly same skill level than was freed by implementing previous level of automation. Which is possible but unlikely since most automation tools can be used in development of next version of automation. Robots are building robots and new software helps create newer software.

> The point is - more productivity creates value, not destroys it.

I agree. But value is not jobs. We will have more and more wealth altogether but less opportunities to get employed.

Don't get me wrong. I think it's awesome. People work way too much. I'm just saying we'll have to do with abundance of automation in more mature way than we currently do.

Humans will always figure out a way to combine the resources they have to generate additional value. It doesn't matter if these resources are wood, sand, oil, water, steel or software.

In the example given above, the owner of the business buying more automation is actually an explicit example of an enterpreneur REINVESTING. A manual job is being traded by a specialized job. Demand for specialized jobs is being created. I fail to understand where on earth that would be a bad thing.

When resources are reallocated, some people lose their jobs on the way, that's just the way life is. A responsible individual doesn't take a job for granted and saves so that he or she can go through bad times.

By visiting a third world country it is very easy to observe the lack of automation employed by its society. Yet, quality of life is ridiculous. Can you explain why?

My point is:

1. Automation is lowering amount of available jobs at lower skill levels.

2. New markets created by automation no longer manage to suck lower skilled level workers back in before those markets themselves get automated.

3. Government can't allow for high unemployment as it causes civil unrest due to jobs being most common way people get money to fulfill their basic needs. Government then makes up some jobs and finds pathological ways to provide food and shelter for some people. Lots of new government entities were created or strengthened over recent years. Prison population is as always growing.

My conclusion:

We need to deal better, more honestly with inflow of unemployed that will not subside. 50% (or higher) unemployment is perfectly fine and eventual inevitability. But we shouldn't lock half of these people up and pay some of the rest to guard them and the rest of the rest to do some fake paper-pushing or citizen groping government jobs. I think basic income guarantee is good solution especially implemented together with sponsored, high quality education that can help some unemployed (those who can and are able) to make the jump into future highly skilled workforce that will architect, manufacture and implement further automation.

1. It doesn't really - it changes them. Changing from horsepower to cars eliminated the jobs of people that hauled horse manure - but created myriad of jobs for caring for, fixing, maintaining, selling and otherwise dealing with cars. The mistake here is that people see where jobs disappear, but don't see where they appear since they don't know where exactly to look.

I don't really see how car can be seen as exemplary labor saving invention. Steam engine, electric engine, radio communication, computer, internet sure, but car?

It's just a technology that allows you to build artificial horse that drinks stuff you can mine from underground and shits in the air you breathe instead of on the street you walk on. It surely saves some labor, but it turns so much on its head by increasing mobility and allowing for actions that were previously impossible that this labor saving part is pretty minor and is easily offset by paradigm change that car brought by.

> New and useful ideas - not detected.

If you ignore the author's prescription, their analysis reads quite well.

Author's prescription - which is basic "let's have the government rob the rich and feed the poor" is neither new nor interesting nor working. It was tried many times in many forms. It fails. As a software engineer, one should know better than propose using something that spectacularly crashed so many times before.

The article is a bit more nuanced. He talks about a specific way for the redistribution to work.

And if you are in Europe, where a welfare state is pretty much a given these days, then the author's integrated prescription of basic income is probably better than the myriad of disjoint systems they have. The US is similar, where you have food stamps, subsidized mortgages (e.g. Fannie Mae), public streets, etc.

This posting just spoke to me on so many levels. I've personally had a beer thrown in my face by someone who's job I destroyed. I really believe we are have started to eat our own tails.

Approximately 70% of the current jobs can (and will) be automated but what does that mean for my grandkids. How will we as a society cope with >20% unemployment never mind > 40%.

A big thing people has said is simply to make people work less. Sure it's "less efficient", but if that's what it takes to at least allow people the chance to work, so be it. Who cares about efficiency if we have people starving in the streets anyways.

Raising the cost to employers will just encourage them to adopt even more automation.

Isn't the answer to reduce population?

I'm not suggesting mass genocide. If family planning is right for a family then surely it's right for a nation and for nations together?

If we keep increasing the population at this rate it seems that it won't end well.

Some forecasts predict a decline in the total population within the next 100 years. Birth rates in many countries (not just industrial, first world) have dropped below replacement rates for long enough that we'll likely see a plateau in total population, and possibly a drop, as there won't be enough young people having babies to replace the big bubble of old people that all start to die off together.

Interesting presentation on it here:


by this guy:


Please explain to me how a smaller population help with unemployment?

Jobs are performed primarily to benefit people. Less people means less jobs.

Two things.

There's a fixed amount of resources. So you can only manufacture, grow and produce to a limited extent - even if all the production is automated. You can use the greater quantity of resources per person to provide more affluent lifestyles to everyone.

Think of it this way: if there is enough energy to support 80% of the people in a typical USA suburban lifestyle, but you have instead 60% of the people. The excess can be used to give the people more per capita. Providing "more" in whatever sense requires greater productive output.

That's the first thing, resources.

The second is occupation of time. Not all people need to be employed all the time but with an excess of resources one can concentrate on attaining a higher level of education, healthcare, etc.. These things in turn require more focus on training, more intelligent input to push on to give a greater quality of life for everyone.

Yes, more people create greater needs. But with resource limitation and wealth being focussed with a small group those needs simply don't get met, there is not so much more employment as is needed to meet those needs with a degree of quality. Instead what happens is resources get stretched - austerity measures and such.

There's also the corollary of economies of scale. Greater production requires a decreasing number of additional personnel. Going the other way this means there is a point at which even if you produce less you still need a similar number of people to do it.

[Would be happy to get feedback on holes and flaws in this thinking though.]

Your resources argument is sound, for a certain time frame, i.e. long enough that we are worried about running out of resources on earth, but short enough that we haven't developed the technology to extract resources off of earth.

However, unemployment is not currently (and isn't likely to be in the near future) caused by limited by natural resources, so I don't see how freeing up more resources will help with unemployment on any reasonable time scale.

Furthermore, more resources don't solve the problem of unemployment. More resources per person may allow us to provide a better quality of life for the remaining people, but it won't create jobs.

In fact while you may have some arguments for a better quality of life with fewer people (assuming resource limitations and ubiquitous automation, and assuming that 10 people living at X standard of living is inherently better than 100 people living at less than X standard of living), none of the arguments directly address solving unemployment. I was specifically challenging the previous poster on that point. Will population reduction solve unemployment. It may solve other "problems", not unemployment.

150 years ago the agricultural sector employed roughly 80% of American workers. Today, it employs less than 3%. It may be hard to imagine looking forward rather than back, but dynamic economies are capable of experiencing such dramatic shifts AND of absorbing and reallocating the labor towards more productive uses. They key thing to understand is that once certain modes of production become less efficient relative to alternatives, often because of technological advances, it frees our resources and productive energies to engage in new enterprises. It's true that employment dislocations that occur from rapid technological advancement can cause great transitional distress; that is why it's important as a society that we find humane and efficient ways of supporting people through these changes. However, the net result of progress is that we are all better off. No one can say exactly what the baristas or the project managers of today will become, no more than anyone could have predicted what would have become of the farmworkers who were displaced in the great migration towards a service economy. But, the last 150 years have seen a veritable explosion in the specialization and profusion of occupations which were previously economically unviable. I see no reason why we should not expect the same kind of evolution going forward.

What happens when machines are stronger, have greater endurance, and are cheaper than humans? What happens when machines are smarter, faster, make less mistakes, and are cheaper than humans?

The "same kind of evolution" is no longer ours -- it belongs to the machines. How does your optimism work when most human effort is simply obsolete?

Wow, I wrote this post and it's gotten more points than my cumulative HN karma. But it's also gotten better discussion than anything I've ever posted to HN, so I'm totally okay with that. Thanks, guise, this is fun.

Hi Jason,

I've been reading a few of these articles lately, and I really enjoyed your first person perspective on what is otherwise being dubbed "Technological Unemployment".

I'm wondering if you think that a re-localized economy, namely one created around the local production of food through urban farms could be a viable way to offset the growing problem of unemployment.

Instead of job destruction, you could say we're just becoming more efficient at doing things. This is nothing new, it's a trend that started with division of labor in the Stone Age. Then we invented currency to distribute the fruits of this divided labor somewhat evenly among the participants. Now we're seeing that the value and income gap between professions is becoming wider and wider, and it's developing into a real problem.

Some proposed fixes like raising the minimum wage will only work temporarily, as it increases the pressure to become more efficient. A basic income might indeed be a better approach, but the problem is that we'll have a lower class of bored, but somewhat poor people. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out. I think Europe's "social market economies" with high taxes and high benefits are in a better position to handle this than the US's gung-ho capitalism.

And to say that higher-level languages and open source products are making software engineers obsolete is a bit short sighted. Sure, languages and frameworks have become more powerful, but the problems to solve have become orders of magnitude harder, and new problems have arisen. You still need people proficient in lower level languages to build those high level tools and frameworks.

I wouldn't worry too much about destroying jobs - at least as far as the tech market is concerned. For every tech job that's destroyed, is seems at the very least 1 new job is created. Engineers should be flexible to take advantage of these new job opportunities.

For example once the mobile market started booming, lots of people wanted apps for their devices, ergo lots of jobs were (and still are) "created" to build those apps. Eventually the mobile platform as we know it will whither and some other platform will take it's place, requiring many new applications build with different technology and techniques (computer languages, design paradigms, etc...).

I keep hearing people say this... yet I'm confused. The operational goal of companies (and industry) as a whole is to continually increase efficiency to reap more profits.

If you take a step back, and just look at the entire machine, it seems frivolous for any industry to make investments in technology, given that your statement is true.

The big telecom I worked for was trying to automate their customer service, I highly doubt they would make the investment in the technology if they expected rehire the equivalent amount of layoffs.

Anyway, if I'm off point or misunderstanding some key mechanism at play, I'd love to be a bit more enlightened, because your opinion seems to be the dominant one.

The idea is that they or other businesses will spend their new surplus on hiring workers to do what can't be automated.

This would have to be in a different industry though, no? Inherently the point of automation is to shrink the amount of labor required to do a task. So as to your comment and in my example of customer service, employees laid off from company A would need to acquire technical skills to manage the new automation in that industry (likely that company B has already, or will adopt), or move to a different industry completely.

The problem I see is that everyone is automating though. Or is it assumed that enough tasks can't be automated to actually effect unemployment?

It could be. The surplus flows to the owners of the company.

They can choose to a) re-invest it in the company, creating new jobs there, b) re-invest it in new/other companies, creating new jobs there, c) spend it, creating new jobs wherever the money is spent.

But yes, retraining is generally required to some degree -- as jobs become more productive, people need to learn how to do those jobs!

Pretty much this.

After all, if you're creating value, I don't think you can go wrong in the grand scheme of things. Destroyed (usually more tedious) jobs means people as a whole are now free to do more interesting and creative tasks.

I'd happily destroy my job of doing the dishes with a dishwasher (one that fills and empties itself too) by automating it, etc.

The problem is that the nature of the new problems we create that necessitate new jobs are fundamentally more challenging for humans to solve than the problems that have been automated away. There will always be jobs to be performed. The problem is if there will be enough humans capable enough to perform the jobs that still need doing.

We like to think that the industrial and agricultural revolutions created as many jobs as it destroyed. However, while it did do that for humans, the horses were not quite as lucky. Many hundreds of thousands of horses were put out of work permanently between the end of the 19th century and into the first half of the 20th century.

What makes people think that humans are too special to avoid the fate of horses?

A well presented point, I didn't think of it that way. You're probably right.

Even so, at this time I want the human race to progress forward (to be more advanced, better capable at surviving even if a meteor is headed towards Earth or from rogue destructive humans, etc.), even if that means the people with less skills will suffer.

Like it or not, life is about competition. Personally, I strive to improve myself and get better every day. I prefer to solve more challenging problems rather than keep doing tedious work. I wouldn't want the human race to stagnate its progress just because of fear that least-skilled members of our race cannot keep up.

Besides, if enough things become automated, perhaps we will have less work to do in order to maintain comfortable lifestyles. Maybe that won't happen, I'm not sure.

Anyway, that's my current view off the top of my head.

After finding some way to be retrained. And good luck getting back into the job market if you're 50 and have been displaced from an industry you've worked in for most of your life.

(It creates new jobs, but it doesn't necessarily mean the displaced get those new jobs.)

My thinking about this is that people are both sellers of a product (their labor) and human beings. I think this is what got way too mixed up in the Marxist framing of socialism and needs to be unwound.

I don't think people should have rights qua producers. Acer doesn't have the right to have people buy their products, their purpose in our society to produce a good value proposition for computers. If nobody wants what's on offer, they can and should go out of business. Otherwise they're wasting resources that could have gone to their superior competitors. The same goes for a redundant worker.

But qua humans, I think people should have tons of rights! I think people should have equal opportunities (I'm thinking especially of children and how unfair life is to those with poor parents), and in addition, I honestly don't think someone should have to go hungry or homeless no matter what they do.

A basic income serves not to replace capitalism with socialism (in the Marxist sense) but to work in concert with capitalism to make sure nobody is ever dehumanized by a process that makes us all richer.

By this logic, anyone who improves anything is a job destroyer. One small team of factory workers can ruin thousands of blacksmith careers. One good therapist may wipe out an entire local industry for divorce lawyers. A single medical research scientist could prevent countless would-be morticians and undertakers from ever discovering their true calling.

The solution to joblessness seems simple: We just need to ensure that no one ever does anything important.

Sure, we can’t destroy all the non-Job Destroyer jobs… yet. Burger King and Starbucks still need human subjects employees to make Whoppers and skinny lattes, but how long before these jobs are deskilled to the point they can be done by machines — i.e., by software?

Interestingly, there is a robotics company in SF (Momentum Machines) that is trying to automate fast food (burger) assembly.


I will always remember my first project at my first job out of school. The project manager sat down the team to explain the goals of the project. My company made digital asset management software, and it had sold a license to a major client.

It was pitched to the team like this: "The client has already announced to shareholders that this project is going to lay off 20 people, so we need to get it done by such-and-such date."

I felt really awesome about those poor smucks who got unemployed partially due to my work. As programmers at our best can create whole new industries, but most of what we do is automate repetitive tasks.

That's good for productivity, but might not be an unvarnished good for society if the gains are not distributed in a fair manner.

Paul Krugman has written a lot lately about "capital-biased technological progress" and potential remedies.




Some coffee shops still have manual espresso machines, which require training, skill and finesse to operate.

I worked at two different Starbucks a decade ago and have used the manual machines. They require a tiny bit of manual labor and attention but not really an special amount of skill and finesse. Anyone that can learn to make a scrambled egg can do it. I was in high school at the time.

Let's not romanticize this crap. Most of these jobs we are destroying aren't that special. And people will be forced to focus on learning more useful skills.

I think there needs to be a revolution on training people for work and careers. There are a lot of jobs in the US currently that cannot be filled, we don't have enough skilled workers. It seems like displaced workers should have the option of getting into some kind of fast-track training to enter these roles, at no cost to them and while keeping their family fed.

The countries that figure out how to do this fairly, effectively, and without crazy costs will be unstoppable.

Also I think moderate mental health issues are a massive economic problem that nobody seems to notice but I don't know how to fix that.

Yeah, I exaggerated the amount of skill needed to operate manual espresso machine. But I don't think it diminishes the point about de-skilling. The point I think most people missed reading TFA (due to my so very highly nuanced brand of snark) is that I don't really have a problem with jobs disappearing... I have a problem with the political rhetoric that we should be creating more jobs. I want less work to do, or at least less _boring_ work, dammit!

This meme has become an ego stroking impulse of knowledge workers but it evinces a gross misunderstanding of economics on a fundamental level. More than that it represents a disturbingly insulting implicit characterization of "unskilled workers" who are incapable of adapting to a changing economy.

The economy is not static, and it has never been static. Indeed, it's actually far less dynamic today than it has been many times in the past. And no, you and your software are not going to change the world so drastically that suddenly people won't be able to find work. People will still work, they'll do different jobs than they did before. Supply and demand. Today many processes and systems are more efficient, by orders of magnitude, than they've ever been before. And yet at the same time a much larger percentage of the population is active in the work force than before (since many more women work today than in the past, among other factors). Is this a deep paradox or just simple economics?

> People will still work, they'll do different jobs than they did before. Supply and demand.

The unaddressed issue is the real possibility that the majority of human effort is merely not cost effective anymore. In other words, human effort isn't worth paying a living wage. You say we have more population active in the work force ever than before but the total earnings have decreased steadily.

I'm currently working a project to eliminating a few good office jobs. They had a choice, hire more staff or build software to improve efficiency enough that the staff isn't necessary. The company chose to build the software.

So I can easily see where software has eliminated jobs, I haven't seen these "different jobs" that people are supposedly doing.

The question isn't whether people will "do different jobs than they did before." The question is whether any of these "different jobs" will not be low-skill, low-paying service jobs. Basically, the argument that employment is being eliminated by this "software eating the world" trend is oversimplified and a bit hasty, but give it time...[1] But in any case, the argument that employment is being polarized seems unassailable.[2][3][4] Basic income is one solution. Unionizing those shitty Starbucks/McDonald's/Walmart jobs is another, although I personally prefer basic income since it covers the entire economy.

[1] http://jacobinmag.com/2011/12/four-futures/ (kudos to another commenter who reminded me of this fantastic article by posting it elsewhere in the thread)

[2] http://www.frbsf.org/economics/conferences/0311/alm-skillcon...

[3] http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/08/rise-of-the-robo...

[4] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/02/28/h...

It seems that far fewer women work now (as a percentage of all women) than did in 1810. Sure, the rich women whose husbands could afford slaves didn't work. But that might have been 10% of the population. Tops, 20% of the female population did not have to work. Most women (especially peasant women) either worked the land/animals, or were seamstresses, or prostitutes, or did various household tasks to bring in extra income (or to free up their husband and children so that they could earn extra income). And women generally couldn't retire like they do now, especially as most didn't live beyond middle age.

Those jobs should be destroyed. It's well deserved.

Maybe in some future world where we invent AI (could be right around the corner for all I know)

But, right now. No, programmers are job creators. Guess how many programmers in the world create browsers? Probably less than 10k. Guess how many jobs browsers have created? Millions. Guess you many programmers+engineers made networking stacks? Guess how many jobs networking has created? How many programmers made the top illustration or photo editing packages? Now compare that to the number of jobs of artists created using those packages.

That tide might turn someday but right now programmers are job creators not job destroyers.

My dream is to outsource implementation details to computer algorithms. Programmers should be designers. Just describe what you want (not necessarily always using a programming language), and it runs.

I do not understand the dig against c# being less "efficient" than Ruby or Clojure.

C was used to build modern languages which in turn replaced the jobs a lot of would be c developers could have had. It is the same kind of thing, progress means fewer people need to work.

He's talking about programmer productivity per line of code, not machine efficiency.

{programming language argument goes here}

> the amount of socially necessary labor decreases with each passing year.

Isn't this Lump of Labor fallacy? There is not a fixed amount of work available because human desire is limitless. (and therefore so is human suffering, but that's a different discussion!) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lump_of_labour_fallacy

When AIs or uploaded humans can do everything that flesh-and-blood humans can do, more cheaply, then there will be more reason to pay flesh-and-blood humans for anything. And they won't have any spare land or resources to return to past ways of living, because technologically advanced corporations will be able to extract more value from that land or resources, so flesh-and-blood humans will be outbid, and subsequently perish. Basic econ 101.

(Programming seems like a task that's especially suited for AIs or uploaded humans, because it doesn't involve any physical manipulation of mass. So programmers should be the first, not the last, to worry. And don't kid yourself that you'll be an uploaded programmer earning a living wage. That honor will go to the the most productive and undemanding uploaded programmer in the world, who will get copied a billion times. See Robin Hanson's "Crack of a future dawn".)

One possible answer is transhumanism, making humans smarter so they can stay competitive. But even so, the majority could still get left behind.

We need a lot more educators. We need people to take care of elderly. We need more people to work on preserving the environment. We need much better public services. The amount of work needed is astounding.

The fallacy of putting equals sign between work and production of commodities is what causes this dim view of our economic future.

I still think that we are a long way from a heavy technical society

Why is it that in a 100 person company, you only have 5 IT ppl and the other 95 seem to have secured jobs?

It may happen one day, but we'll still need plenty of accoutants, pilots, truck drivers (googles driverless car is probably 40 years away from being legalized)

I we may do better than 40 years. Other countries develop their own solutions. There might be as little as 10 years to pretty widespread adoption.



"Why is it that in a 100 person company, you only have 5 IT ppl and the other 95 seem to have secured jobs?"

Isn't that what we expect to happen? As jobs become automated, humans stop doing them and you get more humans doing the jobs that cannot be currently automated.

When a labor saving innovation occurs people get fired, but after some time they get rehired by new markets that develop thanks to this innovation.

But as labor saving innovations occur more and more often newly developed markets get automated before they can soak up unemployed generated by previous innovation.

I think programmers do in fact create some jobs. Programmers are really self-replicating entities. Think about it, every time you start a project you create a burden of maintenance. For yourself, which means you can't tackle as much work as you could before, work which will go the way of another programmer; or for the lucky dude who will end up maintaining your work. Of course, the project can end up abandonned, but in that case nothing is destroyed either.

The more we create complex systems, the more we need people to grease the cogs at all levels, people to oversee them, people which have non-local view (or even a global view, as far as it is possible) of the system, etc...

I'm in the midst of destroying the jobs of 1, maybe 2 workers right now. I am replacing a poor quality document generating system based on MS RTF templates with wrappers that build tex files and then calling pdflatex on them.

I honestly believe that many decades from now, 20 to 50 years, at least one industrialized country will have something like a Basic income guarantee.

It happened to Rome. When all of their work was done by slaves, the free Romans got bread and circuses on the government's dime.

I think we will reach a point where unemployment will just grow despite a growing economy. And it will steadily grow for months, then years, and over the years we'll go through a long and painful political process which I think will eventually result in a a Basic income guarantee.

At that point a staggering percentage of our economy will be 100% automated.

Of course, "Bread and Circuses" is a pejorative describing the fall of Rome: ...Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions - everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses

"Sure, we can’t destroy all the non-Job Destroyer jobs… yet. Burger King and Starbucks still need human subjects employees to make Whoppers and skinny lattes, but how long before these jobs are deskilled to the point they can be done by machines — i.e., by software?"

Actually it's already being done http://singularityhub.com/2013/01/22/robot-serves-up-340-ham...


It is fallacious to argue that since similar arguments in the past were wrong, then current ones must be as well. We could be entering a world where machines can do all of the work that a segment of the population is capable of doing.

The most useful part of these discussions isn't figuring out which side is right. To me, it's figuring out what we'd do if this time actually is different.

A statement is right or wrong based on reasons. The same argument is wrong for the same reasons it always has been. I'm curious why you think this time is different? In any case, if you find that kind of discussion useful I would say this:

The point of life should be to work on a job that you find fulfilling. If the boring things are all automated, then everyone can have a job they enjoy, and sitting around all day doing nothing gets boring really fast.

The argument has been true in the past because technology lowered prices, and people used their new disposable income to pay people to do work they used to do themselves, which grew into the huge service industry we have today. There were also jobs created that involved building and repairing the new technologies, but far fewer than the jobs that were lost. If service industry jobs are automated away, will we always have more service industry jobs to create? I think this is unlikely.

"If the boring things are all automated, then everyone can have a job they enjoy, and sitting around all day doing nothing gets boring really fast."

But how will these people doing jobs they enjoy pay their bills?

With the money from their jobs of course!

Lets think about it with this example: if it takes a worker 2 hours to make product X, but then a new technology comes along which makes it only take 1 hour to make product X, then the value of labor has doubled.

Then the owner has a choice, he can either double all the salaries of his employees and have the same income for himself, or else fire half his employees and double his profit.

This example shows that unemployment is not a result of new technology, but of choices made by people who have the most power in a society.

That's not how markets work.

"if it takes a worker 2 hours to make product X, but then a new technology comes along which makes it only take 1 hour to make product X, then the value of labor has doubled."

Wages are set by the supply and demand of labor, not by how much a product can sell for. The hypothetical new technology leaves the supply of labor unchanged, but the demand for the labor is reduced.

"Then the owner has a choice, he can either double all the salaries of his employees and have the same income for himself, or else fire half his employees and double his profit."

Have you actually pretended to be the owner in this thought experiment? Why would the owner double their salaries?

You owe it to yourself to take an introductory economics course, because your comment flies against everything that such a class would teach.

I'm done arguing with you, here is another comment for you to down vote. I tried to give you the benefit of the doubt that you wanted to have a reasonable discussion instead of being condescending and insulting, I guess I was wrong about that, what a shame.

Downvoting is disabled on threads a user participates in, so it wasn't me. My intent was to inform, not to insult. For the argument you made to be correct, textbook economics must be wrong.

There is a third choice, keep wages constant but halve work time.

Agricultural age, industrial age, information age...

Cannibalizing our past has always been the path to creating more wealth.

Societies deal currently with job destruction and unemployment in very pathological ways.

USA criminalized, what unemployed often do, locked significant amount of them up and hired other people to watch them. USA unemployment could be as much as 2% higher in total if they didn't.

Imagine if we could outsource prison guard duties (especially the dangerous, interpersonal stuff) to robots. And if those robots could also ensure the prisoners work efficiently in their prison jobs.

That's one of the reasons why putting people from highly unemployed groups in jails is not the right long term solution. Eventually you won't even have jobs for jailers as a side benefit.

You might always imagine that eventually all people end up in jail that will get pretty relaxed till then and robot jailers will become just become security beneficial mostly to prisoners since there won't be much people outside only industry and ai-s that will have to be reasonably protected from descendants of monkeys in mutual interest of all involved. That would be cool idea for dystopian/utopian short story or novel.

Why do people keep asking for the old days with the 91% tax rate? Do they realize that today the effective tax rate is nearly the same as it was then. Not only that but today the 'rich' carry a far larger percentage of the overall tax burden.

That's very odd, putting 'rich' in quotes like that.

It's as though you're trying to imply they're not really rich. But that would mean that it's not the rich who're carrying a larger percentage of the tax burden after all. Which negates the very point you were trying to make! You seem a little conflicted on this issue ;-)

[citation needed]

The contention is that 1950s tax law enabled tax shelters which allowed wealthy filers to heavily reduce their income tax bill.


Even if the rich paid 100% in taxes, there will still be people complaining...

There is an amazing and unjustified arrogance on the part of the author on what "software" can do. Add to that the author missing whole areas of our labor force (creative, vocational non-factory, farming).

I would say the labor force makeup is changing and our schools have done a piss poor job of picking the right trends, but we still haven't got to the point a robot can do construction, in the field building / maintenance, or what's left of farming and ranching. I don't see robots getting there for a great while. I haven't seen the robot who can do even basic creative jobs.

The way forward is still humans. If you want to really help the workforce, get micro-transactions that work. That will change everything.

The comments on that article make me feel all :smith:. As if oh yea we can keep this going, raw capitalism will totally work forever.

Where you saw "raw capitalism" in the US? Do you know how many thousands of pages federal regulations, state regulations, regional regulations and local regulations are? How many new ones are created every year?

The means of production are privately-owned, operated for-profit, using wage labor. Also, firms' entry and exit to/from the markets is basically unrestricted.

It's capitalism, red in tooth and claw. Doesn't have to be unregulated to be "real" capitalism.

>>>> Also, firms' entry and exit to/from the markets is basically unrestricted

You must be kidding me. Try entering banking or insurance market, you'd quickly learn how "unrestricted" they are. Or, even simpler, try entering a job market without joining a union that controls that particular market in a particular place.

>>>> Doesn't have to be unregulated to be "real" capitalism.

The world "real" apparently has a very wide meaning for you. I guess everything that allows people to make transactions without asking written permission of the district market supervisor from the government in advance is "raw capitalism" for you. No amount of restrictive regulation, no amount of government involvement, no amount of market distortion will ever make it not raw.

The amount of regulation doesn't actually matter if the basic conditions for the capitalist mode of production are satisfied.

The market interprets regulation as damage and routes around it.

Where for "market" presumably we read "criminals breaking the law", ultimately to disastrous effect.

I suppose if you divorce the concepts of "Captialism" and "Free Markets" this is true, but they are typically thought of togther.


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