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The Software Revolution (samaltman.com)
400 points by ggonweb on Feb 16, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 388 comments

I disagree with this:

"The previous one, the industrial revolution, created lots of jobs"

That industrial revolution caused massive unemployment in India, in the Ottoman empire, in China... almost everywhere that had once been a famous textile center. The idea that the industrial revolution did not cause unemployment is an illusion that is caused by looking at only one nation state. But Britain was the winner of the early industrial revolution, and it was able to export its unemployment. And because of this, a breathtaking gap opened up between wages in the West and wages everywhere else. The so-called Third World was summoned into existence. You can get some sense of this by reading Fernand Braudel's work, "The Perspective of the World"


The software revolution will be similar with some nations winning and many others losing.

I'm fairly convinced that eventually there will be two and only two choices: universal income and a shortened work week, or such extreme wealth divisions that stability demands a totalitarian police state resembling the worst sort of comic book cyberpunk dystopia. Age of abundance or feudal hellhole. Your pick. There simply will not be enough economically viable work to sustain any system that demands labor to maintain cash flows. Automation will be too efficient, programmable, adaptable.

... I suppose there is a third option: an anti-technology crusade that bans automation to restore employment. But a make-work economy sucks, and is not likely to succeed in the long term.

That's the contemporary situation. We have something close to a police state with mass surveillance, militarised police and heavy restrictions on protesting. At the same time we're also seeing more interest in Basic Income and I expect there will be more of a political push for that in the near future. All of the above are about trying to keep the lid on a situation where technology is facilitating greater inequality. In the current situation oligarchs with large capital reserves and the ability to purchase legislation can continue to exfiltrate much of the wealth created by the population.

> I suppose there is a third option: an anti-technology crusade that bans automation to restore employment. But a make-work economy sucks, and is not likely to succeed in the long term.

That is, unless we start harvesting magic dust from some desert planet with really big omnivorous worms.

> Age of abundance or feudal hellhole.

Why not both? We certainly have all kinds of societies on earth today. What makes you think we won't have areas that are highly progressive but also areas that are extremely sadistic in the treatment of their people?

An intersting thought experiment is to compare their economic output. If feudal hellhole is more efficient eventually only hellholes will remain.

Fortunately feudal hell holes seem less productive, especially in an age where productivity is more dependent on creativity than basic labour.

"If feudal hellhole is more efficient eventually only hellholes will remain."

Probably true. Evolution is amoral. If suffering has higher fitness, suffering wins. Just look at the ordeal that is human birth and infancy, for both mother and baby.

Considering that it is natural for humans to lust after power I can tell you what I think is the most likely outcome.

I think we're already seeing it form today and it's infancy doesn't detract from it's long-term danger.

Not sure why you are being downvoted, I think that you are absolutely right.

Another option is self-enforced population decline (already happening in many developed countries) - for now it's artificaly solved by immigration from not-so-well developed countries, but this will stop at some point.

While I see legitimate reasons to reduce population, that won't solve this problem. In fact it might make it worse.

While the future economy will be heavily automated, it will still be an economy. Declining demand will still do ugly things to it. It's likely that a drop in demand will do more to squeeze out human labor than machine labor, since the former is more expensive and in a declining economy everyone tries to squeeze margin.

It's not so much that the industrial revolution net created jobs -- like you, I'm not sure it did (even domestically). It's that the industrial revolution not only created jobs, it created the modern labor market.

Before it happened you had a much more distributed economy with many much smaller centers of production (many at the household level or close) in agriculture, trades, and craft manufacturing.

Afterwards in any domestic industry where economy of scale was a competitive advantage, you had a small number of much larger centralized producers. Almost certainly with many fewer jobs in actual production (consolidation corresponding to efficiencies of scale). If there was any net gain over time since it would have been in new products being made and some new support positions needed. It is not clear to me there was ever a trend to a net gain over timescales longer than a two decades or so.

So by and large it moved us to an economy with a profusion of increasingly competitively manufactured products to buy, and selling labor itself is the de facto form of subsistence rather than direct production.

I think you're correct that there's always been some externalization of unemployment and a lot of the visibility depended on industry specifics. This isn't new. But what is new is that software gives us essentially a higher order of automation that means (a) it sure looks like we're automating out old jobs even faster than we're creating new ones and (b) with more unemployment we get fewer places to externalize it. :/

I'm not sure that's fair. Laboring on construction projects, joining armies, digging minerals out of holes, seasonal work on farms, serving on ships, and so on have been ways for people to earn a living for millennia, selling their labor, not their produce. Having the capital to ply a trade or craft - money to buy raw materials, and tools to add value to them - would have been beyond the reach of most people for a lot of history. There's always been a labor market.

I guess what you mean is that the industrial revolution massively increased the amount of capital you needed to be able to produce goods competitively. Buying a set of tools and some raw materials to make things by hand stopped being a viable route out of the labor market into 'entrepreneurship' when mass machine-produced goods could be supplied more cheaply. Your option was to sell your labor to someone who owned some big machines, much like your ancestors sold theirs to people who owned a patch of fertile land, or a big pile of wood they wanted making into a ship.

So in a sense it created the modern labor market in that it locked a lot more people into it, and obviously diversified the kinds of jobs that existed. On the other hand, it was, as you say, a massive productivity multiplier which meant we were able to create more and more wonderful and complex goods for, in real terms, less and less cost, to the point where nowadays by exchanging your labor for cash, you can soon have enough money to afford a box of electronics that fits in your pocket and allows you to access all the world's information.

Every revolution has its downsides. But i think this revolution might just give us a break through from boring tasks and create opportunities for creative exploration one that we currently have in very small quantity.

> And because of this, a breathtaking gap opened up between wages in the West and wages everywhere else. The so-called Third World was summoned into existence.

Just picking a nit, but the Third World came into existence during the Cold War, long after the industrial revolution. Third world countries are countries that were non-aligned or neutral during the Cold War.


I like how Sweden is a third-world country according to that definition.

But seriously, I don't think that's how people use this term any more. It's just a synonym for developing country by now.

I also like this definition from Urban Dictionary: "Any country that owes rolls of money to the IMF and the World Bank."

Yeah. I usually don't pick this particular nit in common speech, but when you talk historically, it sounds really weird to say that the Industrial Revolution gave rise to the Third World.

>And because of this, a breathtaking gap opened up between wages in the West and wages everywhere else.

This was because of the West getting richer, not everyone else getting poorer. Had the 'third world' countries had the right economic structures in place they too would have gotten richer like the West, much as East Asia has caught up to the West's economic development since economic and social reforms after WW2.

This is factually incorrect, the extensive documentation of the era makes it clear that the east India company and British rule made it a point to destroy native industry, vaccum raw material, on top of introducing laws and acts which penalized you for being a particular race.

All of those economic structures were destroyed and perverted by the conquerors.

I really think that's too simplistic a view. As has been pointed out, plenty of countries that were not colonised lagged behind in industrial development. Many of those that were colonies (and I do agree colonisation had a pernicious effect) have been independent for several generations now.

As counter-examples, Japan went from being extraordinarily backward to being an industrial powerhouse in a single generation, in time to go toe-to-toe with Russia and the USA in the early 20th century, and walk all over Korea and China. For that matter, once it got it's act together China has surged forward, growing GDP by a factor of 20 in only 25 years. So why did Japan go through this revolution almost 100 years earlier than China? Why has India lagged behind industrially, while surging ahead in terms of IT?

There are a host of cultural factors at play here. Japan responded to US colonial interference by deciding to modernise to prevent that ever happening again. China responded to the humiliation of colonial aggression by tearing itself apart for 100 years. Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt have gone nowehere since the end of colonialism, while Israel is a technological powerhouse. Turkey always seems so close to finally truning a corner and becoming an advanced modern state, but never quite manages to get it done. 'Because colonialism' just isn't enough of an explanation for any of this.

I recognize this, my short comment is in rebuttal to the theory that a difference in economic plans would have led to a difference in outcome.

To an extent it seems that this was the result of disruptive technologies being used to build a monopoly/exploitative position by first movers. Post independce, both India and China were caught up in the big ideological questions of that era and have been fine tuning their models ever since. China is the larget economy in the world today, and India has essentially taken its place in the race from 1990 onwards.

For me, the cultural factor argument has had its emphasis lowered of late. I used to assume that pre colonial India showed little activity or inclination to learn, but it turns out that there did use to be business families which would have explored and harnessed the new tech. this doesn't mean cultural factors didn't play a role of course.

Yeah, cultural, political, social, there are a lot fo factors that affect economic outcomes. Ironically, it may well be India's tendency towards socialist command-economy, privilleged special-interest economics (subsidies), etc that is holding it back.

The lack of a need for an electoral mandate has freed the Chinese government from the need to actualy implement socialist policies (or on fact any particular policies, they can do what they like, regardless of what the people think about it using their communism 'with chinese characteristics' get-out clause).

The fact that the East India company was a bunch of jerks doesn't change the fact that most of the world became richer, just at a slower rate. The results of a quick google search:



I took a look at those articles and they don't support the position with sufficient authority or evidence.

Consider two charts from those two blogs - chart from blog 2 shows the contribution to global GDP of India and China.

Chart 1 from blog 1 shows how growth spiked by 1820 onwards.

Even if we take the data into consideration without question, 1857 is the year when the revolt of 1857 took place in India, and the British east India gave up control of India - handing it over to the crown. So at this juncture wealth transfer to the west has already begun from India at the very least.

Should that wealth transfer not occurred, I beleove we would have had even better outcomes than what we see today.

Britain and the west was able to take advantage of new technologies and increasingly build monopolies, while abusing government regulation and dictat to pauper competition, and disenfranchise and enslave huge swathes of people.

It was known policy to convert subject colonies into markets for cheap goods, after sucking out resources via slavery on low pay. Competing businesses or crafts were also removed from the picture where possible, and it's obvious that local rulers and governments were sacked or taxed regularly.

Logically we know that a fair market creates more wealth for all who participate. Given that this was a perversion of these ideals, I suggest that the British were at the right place at the right time, and ensured a standard of living for their country men at the cost of almost every country they touched.

If on the other hand, if countries had been able to compete and import technologies - which many business men of the time did try to do - it's certain that this would have driven even more competition and innovation globally.

I didn't say wealth wouldn't have been higher if colonization didn't occur, though I'm definitely unconvinced of that. I merely said that growth did occur everywhere.

Logically we know that a fair market creates more wealth for all who participate. Given that this was a perversion of these ideals...

We don't know this. The relevant counterfactual is not a perfect free market, but whatever the assorted kings of India would have imposed. I don't know enough about the history to comment on their likely economic policies.

Sorry, I have information which would be useful I'm aware that there were merchant communities in the kingdoms that would became India who did and we're looking into looms and technologies.

Since Britain was also monarchical, so the equation is - relatively- balanced.

If I am to be Downvoted, I'd appreciate an explanation as to why I'm wrong or why you disagree.

Wrong. Neither China nor Russia were ever colonized yet even today they lack behind the west.

Did you sleep through the entire 20th century? The one where the US was in a spending match with Russia. China collapsed under the weight of corruption. USSR collapsed under the weight of corruption. Depending on who you ask, the US is collapsing under the weight of {corruption|bureaucracy|congress}.

My advice: if you start learning about history don't stop.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Those who can remember the past are condemned to watch everyone else repeat it.

"The previous one, the industrial revolution, created lots of jobs because the new technology required huge numbers of humans to run it."

That's not that simple. The industrial revolution initially destroyed a lot of jobs because it replaced human labor with steam machines.

It created new qualified jobs, it is true, because these new intricate machines would require advanced skills to be maintained - a reminiscence of today's software engineering jobs - but it destroyed a lot of jobs in agriculture and textile because you could produce more with a fraction of the labor.

To the point that people would manifest and destroy steam machines accusing them of stealing jobs (see "Luddites").

Let's not forget that what is typically called "industrial revolution" spans over a century and it took a while for the industrial revolution to create a lot of new jobs (approx the second half of the 19th century), and those new jobs were initially very poorly paid.

The problem is that it was relatively easy to master the technologies of the industrial revolution.

It isn't the same for the software revolution.

You can take virtually any adult from any part of the world and teach him how to work in a factory within a few months of study.

You can't take any random adult and teach him how to code. It requires way higher intellect and time to master coding.

I think of myself as relatively smart but I've struggled with learning how to code. The learning curve is steep, even for someone as familiar with technology as I am.

I'm sure I could learn how to operate a lathe at a factory within weeks. But I'm not sure a lathe operator at a factory could learn how to code within the same time frame (if at all)

So no, it isn't apples and oranges. The software revolution will leave a huge group of people permanently unemployable.

The 50 year old weaver in 1800 Manchester could learn how to operate a machine at a mill - it is largely a mechanical process, after all.

But the 50 year old truck driver in 2015 isn't going to learn how to write code - not within a reasonable time frame anyway

Your arrogance is showing. Sure, you could learn how to operate a lathe on an assembly line in a matter of weeks; in just the same way nearly any adult of average education could learn in a matter of weeks to write WordPress templates, or cobble together SQL queries, or etc. etc. To become a master machinist, the kind who can do anything with a lathe that a lathe can be asked to do? Years of dedication and expertise.

In the scope of factories in the industrial revolution, I think he's clearly referring to low-skill assembly line work, which made up the vast majority of jobs. You're referring to master craftsman. The problem with software is that there's no known way to create assembly-line-style software with lots of low skill labor. It can only be made by at least semi-skilled craftsman. Being able to cobble together an SQL query is nice, but what kind of useful product could you put out with a line of 50 people such low-skill people? None that I know of. Thus we're stuck with a lot less, higher skill jobs.

Yeah, but the software revolution doesn't require everyone to be coders, just as the industrial revolution didn't require everyone to be lathe designers.

There are definitely non-coding jobs being created by the software revolution. Cobbling together SQL queries, bashing spreadsheets together, creating graphs, cleaning up data for further processing. These are exactly the kind of things that low(ish) skilled people will be doing in the future.

The low-skill clerical type work is exactly the sort of job I work to eliminate every single day. Only the top skilled in most departments could cobble together a SQL query, do anything useful with Excel, etc. The vast majority of Office workers today cannot do what you're asking of them. They work the "assembly line" jobs in the office. Those people are needed less and less.

Cobbling together SQL queries, bashing spreadsheets together, creating graphs, cleaning up data for further processing.

Its my job to make it so people don't have to do any of these things.

The problem with this is that those cobbled-together SQL queries are precisely the kinds of things good programmers either replace or automate away; you can automate away an assembly-line job, but not as cheaply, and not as easily.

There might not be any such thing as a 100x programmer or whatever, but the value proposition for replacing a few sub-par programmers with one better programmer and a framework is a lot clearer than the one for replacing a handful of assembly line workers with a more complicated and more expensive piece of machinery.

Hmm, I don’t think so. If you have a dozen similar queries, then you can factor out the similarity (say, into a view, or a Ruby subroutine that generates the SQL). If you have a thousand that vary in a lot of different ways, a few subroutines isn’t enough; you need a DSL to factor out the similarity, aka “automate away” the queries.

But then you need someone to write down the idiosyncratic bits of each query, the thing that makes it different from the other thousand, in your DSL. For a lot of systems, the right DSL is in fact SQL itself, but even if it’s not, you still need people to write in it.

In short, nonprogrammers writing cobbled-together SQL queries are the result of automating away the non-idiosyncratic aspects of the queries.

Software (in the Turing sense), removing the material complexity, accelerated the notion of automation. Easy things can be, medium-complexity too, only leaving the NP-complete stuff to be done by hand. Jobs are an endangered species.

I have coworkers whose official job title is one that involves programming and they are bad at it. I shouldn't speak for myself, but it's not that simple. If you continuously strive to advance, it means constant learning, and most people I see really can't or won't learn like that.

>You can't take any random adult and teach him how to code.

Yes, but that's because the art of application programming is (mostly) stuck in the "alchemy" era of science. There is precious little systemization of knowledge, processes, and names. All of these frameworks are actually memes competing for mind-share to be an answer to this need. Of course, having one periodic table for software would be better than having 10 competing ones.

Is the inherent complexity of the ordinary programming task (building, deploying, monitoring reactive FSMs mediating user communication) is roughly the same as chemistry? Too early to tell, but I think not.

But it seems unlikely that reducing the complexity will lead to more jobs, just better software at automating the task of making software so fewer people are needed to complete the job.

Industrial jobs required a great deal of skill until they were broken down into easy tasks and each worker learned only one task. The work of imagining, planning, and creating the Industrial Revolution occupied the greatest minds of that time.

I find it difficult to imagine "assembly lines" for software, creating coding jobs within the reach of a 50 year old truck driver, but as the tools improve, who knows.

>I find it difficult to imagine "assembly lines" for software, creating coding jobs within the reach of a 50 year old truck driver, but as the tools improve, who knows.

I see Mechanical Turk as pretty close to this idea.

> I think of myself as relatively smart but I've struggled with learning how to code.

That just speaks of the (still) poor state of tools and frameworks.

As early as last century driving a vehicle necessitated detailed knowledge of internal combustion engine and car parts. You can imagine someone from that era writing "I think of myself as relatively smart but I've struggled with learning how to drive" after yet another lecture on carburetors, crankshaft, and bearing boxes.

The 50 years old weaver in 1800 Manchester was rare or dead. Life expectancy at birth was only around 48.5 even in 1900-1910 in England and Wales.


Relevance? The industrial revolution enabled increases in life expectancy. At this moment, the software revolution is doing something similar.

> You can't take any random adult and teach him how to code. It requires way higher intellect and time to master coding.

True, but that's not the only job that will be in high demand in this here "software revolution", nor is programming the best comparison to factory workers in the first place.

In the short term at least, I figure we'll see high demand for help desk and field repair technicians - two realms that are ultimately necessary for software to revolutionize anything. Eventually, the global population will likely become increasingly technologically-literate and be less dependent on human interaction in order to request support; should this occur, there will then be a shift of employment away from help desk, but I expect field repair technicians will continue to be in high demand for a very long time.

That is, until sufficiently-advanced synthetic intelligences become reality, but at that point we're all screwed, so it's kind of a moot point worrying about that :)

One of the most notable differences between the Industrial and Information revolutions is that wealth from the former was underwritten by a surge in energy. Wealth from the latter depends on extracting greater value from (more or less) existing supplies. In other words, it's largely about the sudden redistribution of output, as opposed to a change in the underlying supply.

(Relatively) enlightened governing philosophies and new economic theories aside, the Industrial Revolution also involved a monumental uptick in the amount of raw energy humans had to work with. Until this point, the latent economic power contained within fossil fuels remained out of reach. Population and productivity were both effectively capped by the amount of energy we could actually extract from the environment (e.g., caloric, in the form of crops for people and livestock as well as wind for sails and mills, along with hydro small dams and rivers for transport).

Nascent capital markets and industrial processes provided real advantages in this energy-constrained world, but adding steam then oil to the process of industrialization is what really kicked growth into overdrive. This influx of energy (and the economic growth it supported) allowed countries like England to develop populations seven or eight times greater than the agricultural carrying capacity of its arable land in astonishingly short order. The ideas of Adam Smith were important, but wouldn't have gotten nearly as far is they didn't have actual steam trains and ships to carry the people who subscribed to them.

All that said, the transition we're going through now is far from complete. Like the early and painfully disruptive days of the Industrial Revolution, the current concerns about stagnation and wealth concentration may give way once we complete another energy transition. A world supplied by highly distributed, low-cost solar and stored energy arrays (batteries, compressed air, molten salt, etc.) could see an increase in the overall supply, in a fashion that liberates a critical mass of people from the more coercive aspects of the global economy. Tapping the sun directly may prove to be as transformative as tapping ancient deposits of carbon. Indeed, the pre-existence of the information layer may prove to be the thing that makes this possible, just as the process of industrialization had begun before the steam engine kicked it into overdrive.

The big question for the long-range optimists is how do we maintain social and stability and cohesion during the transition?

No, the two revolutions are a lot more similar than you think. The industrial revolution was fueled largely by the technology to harness huge quantities of fossil fuels to power modern machinery. The underlying supply of energy didn't change - those fossil fuel reserves had been built up over hundreds of millions of years, as we're now learning (to our chagrin) a hundred years later. What did change is our ability to extract that energy from the world around us. After the industrial revolution, we woke up and found out that we had previously been literally scratching the surface of the resources available to us on this planet.

Similarly, the Information revolution has been fueled by a huge increase in our ability to collect and process data. That's allowed new means of production that use existing resources in a much more efficient way. No, there's no new energy flowing into the system - but there wasn't with the Industrial Revolution either, we just figured out how to use energy that was previously believed to be useless.

There are theoretical limits to the amount of energy our planet can generate, but if you study physics you'll see that the amount of energy extracted by human beings is roughly 1/1000th of the energy available to us [1]. The limiting factor is our technology, not the raw resources in the environment.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kardashev_scale

People from the future will likely consider the industrial and information revolutions to be the same revolution, just like people today generally consider the agricultural revolution to be one event instead of its two separate stages.

We could say the industrial revolution ended in 1945 with the Manhattan project and the information revolution began in the 1940's with the Enigma code cracking so the timelines flow into each other, and, as you say, they both had the effect of releasing vast amounts of energy. The agricultural revolution began about 10,000 yrs ago independently in 5 or 10 places around the world with plant seed selection and animal husbandry, but in only two places, North China and Mesopotamia, did they make the separate step of transplanting it all on a large scale to a river valley, perhaps even thousands of years later. (I'm presuming here Egypt and the Indus Valley copied Mesopotamia.)

I suspect the real third big revolution will be inter-stellar travel in perhaps another 10,000 years.

There is also an nascent energy transition towards renewables now.

Altman sees the problem, but is vague about what to do about it.

He's right that this is a new thing. It's not "software", per se, it's automation in general. For almost all of human history, the big problem was making enough stuff. Until about 1900 or so, 80-90% of the workforce made stuff - agriculture, manufacturing, mining, and construction. That number went below 50% some time after WWII. It's continued to drop. Today, it's 16% in the US.[1] Yet US manufacturing output is higher than ever.

Post-WWII, services took up the slack and employed large numbers of people. Retail is still 9% of employment. That's declining, probably more rapidly than the BLS estimate. Online ordering is the new normal. Amazon used to have 33,000 employees at the holiday season peak. They're converting to robots.

After making stuff and selling stuff, what's left? The remaining big employment areas in the US:

  State and local government, 13%. 
   That's mostly teachers, cops, and healthcare. 
   (The Federal government is only 1.4%).
  Health care and social assistance, 11%.
  Professional and business services, 11%.
   (Not including IT; that's only 2%) 
  Leisure and hospitality, 8%
  Self-employed, 6%.
That's about 50% of the workforce. All those areas are growing, sightly. For now, most of those are difficult to automate. That's what the near future looks like.

[1] http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_table_201.htm [2] http://deadmalls.com/

* Until about 1900 or so, 80-90% of the workforce made stuff - agriculture, manufacturing, mining, and construction. That number went below 50% some time after WWII. It's continued to drop. Today, it's 16% in the US.[1] Yet US manufacturing output is higher than ever.*

I find this point interesting and wonder about it sometimes: does making a movie count as "stuff?" An operating system? A novel? I can see good arguments for both sides and am not asking the question antagonistically. Even among things that unambiguously "stuff"—like cars—much of their value now comes in the form of software.

The real issue may be Baumol's Cost Disease. Stuff is cheaper because of efficiency but services (teaching, doctoring) is very expensive because it isn't. Tyler Cowen discusses extensively the hard-to-automate areas in The Great Stagnation, which is worth reading.

I don't think it's possible to figure it out with the knowledge we have today.

Just like 50 years ago no one would've predicted that "social media manager with knowledge of WordPress and Drupal" was a job.

For what it's worth, US labor participation rate is still way above its historic lows http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:US_Labor_Participation_Rat...

So from the lowest number in the mid 50s to the highest number end of the 20th century, it looks like an 9% span, and we're close to 3% below the all-time high right now.

Doesn't that big climb in the 60s and 70s represent women's large-scale entry into the workforce?

I'm also thinking about the whole under-employment thing that's going on. There's too many people I know who are employed, but part-time or getting paid a lot less than they were in the past.

To me under-employment is the "new normal" after dominant sectors requiring people to be present precisely at the same place at the same time (factories, retail) are lowering hiring numbers.

To think of it, it's quite everyday in many other (frequently high-paid) occupations. A dentist whose appointment book is not booked to the max or a CPA who has tons of business in March-April, but few billable hours in August, would technically be under-employed.

The point of the article is that no one knows what to do about it, and maybe we should start thinking ahead to plan for crises before they occur.

Nitpicking: Designing new viruses or bacteria for a neo-plauge is less likely than a 'bad-actor' getting their hands on enough uranium for a dirty bomb. Nukes are relatively easy to understand and make, get enough U238 together and it pretty much goes boom. Little Boy just shot 1 half at the other sub critical half. Blammo. Viruses are not that easy, as the cell is complicated beyond all measure. It's as if we dug up a 4 billion year old self replicating and evolving machine out of the lunar dust in '69 and brought it back for study; we have basics, nothing more at this point, not even a theory beyond Darwinian evolution really (yes, it has advanced a lot recently, but still, it's primitive). Nature is INCREDIBLY better at viruses, so much better than anything we have. If we could engineer viruses like nature could, and exploit the vectors in the way that nature does, a lot more diseases and human frailties would be solved by now. Stem cells are just the beginning here. We have a LOT more to learn about viruses before anyone, even state backed groups, can make a plague in their basement. Heck, we have smallpox saved away precisely because it is so virulent and we haven't been able to make anything so potent since. It took the entire world decades to get rid of it. The methods it uses are of great interest to us for therapeutic purposes maybe. Who knows if there even are any. In the end, viral vectors of human suffering are doing just great on their own now, us trying to make a more terrible one is very far off.

How would a virus immediately lethal to 100% of it's hosts ever survive long enough to be selected for?

There is a natural limit on selection like this. A lab doesn't have the limit because it's product is not constrained by natural selection.

> Designing new viruses or bacteria for a neo-plauge is less likely

Humankind has been genetically engineering organisms for most of our existence. Corn originally looked like grass. Chickens were lean, tough, and could fly. Dogs have been transformed from generalist survivors into purpose-built machines breed for beauty, farm work, and everything in between. The avocado, of all things, is a fantastic example of how capable we are at creating something which shouldn't really exist.

Doing the same with bacteria isn't that much harder, if you've got time and a few basic tools. Our manipulation of the genes directly only makes the process faster.

True, but the viruses and bacteria, once out of Dr. Doom's lab, will evolve themselves. A virus that kills all the hosts is not a good virus. It has to be just the right amount of deadly and contagious to survive. Look at ebola, that is super nasty stuff, but it kills so quickly that it is hard to make it widespread. I'm not gonna say it is impossible, but it is a lot harder to do that you'd think. Living things tend to want to stay that way, and viruses tend to want to replicate. Kills all the hosts is not a good way of doing that.

Not really true. A virus that kills the host too quickly is not going to spread. A virus that kills the host quickly but not before it spreads, IS going to spread. There's no saying what a virus 'wants'; they just happen, and they do what they do. If Ebola became airborne, then most of us would die, then Ebola would die (from lack of hosts), and that's just a pity for Ebola. But there's nothing that stops such a scenario from happening, least of all what Ebola 'wants'.

To expound on this point, to a virus or bacteria, a human is just as good as a monkey or dog or jellyfish. It's a place to replicate and live. Similar with viruses as technically they are not alive. All these Dr. Doom kinda things have to compete with the common cold, the e. coli, and all the other things that live on the earth and in your guts. That is not an easy environment to survive in.

Can you expand on the avocado stuff, or do you have a source? Sounds pretty interesting.

The avocado stuff its not really true. The avocado shouldn't exist, because the animal that propagated its seeds went extinct a long time ago (if the term "Megafauna" comes to your mind when you think about that, you are not misguided), but wasn't created by humans, in the same way that corn or wheat are, because the avocado survived even when there were no humans around to propagate its seeds.


If nukes are so easy, how come Iran, with all its oil wealth, is still not there? It remains a difficult state actor play.

The hard part is not in knowing how to construct the actual bomb. The hard part is enriching the requisite quantity of a fissile material.

That's why the US and Israel went after Iran's enrichment facilities with Stuxnet.

They are easy from an 'intelligence required' perspective. They are difficult from a logistics perspective.

Relatively easy, i.e. compared to viruses.

Stuxnet, for one. Also, the realization that having a nuclear weapon when you're Iran is a terribly bad idea, from a diplomatic standpoint.

Being caught making one is a terribly bad idea. Having one (or more) would be an enormous plus from a diplomatic standpoint especially after a test, having them in undisclosed locations and too many to knock them all out in one strike is even better. Not that that's a world we should prefer to live in but history has shown that the quickest way to increase your diplomatic clout as a nation is to join the nuclear club.

The tech is (relatively) easy, it's getting that materials that is (fortunately) hard. But there is enough of it in enough places with imperfect oversight that it is a source of concern.

Yes biology is complicated. But we are starting to understand it reasonably well,and more importantly ,we're starting to design it even without understanding. For example, there's a company that produces microbes that create certain materials(genomatica), and uses evolution(with the goal being yield per bacteria) to evolve much more efficient strains - even without deeply understanding how the cell work.And i believe they're leading the industry in yield.

Another such example is screening massive number of chemicals to see what works and turning that to medicine.

So it's not hard to imagine a group with ill-intent, that uses some of the almost infinite variety of tools biology researchers have, and being successful in creating a serious biological threat.

I'm just going to say what should be obvious: One is not going to be able to engineer a dangerous plague that will wipe out the human race in one shot. One would have to do experiments, and those experiments will be noticed, because people will get sick and die.

I did get lucky and design, from first principles, a 4-fold increase in enzyme activity once, but I am not sure that is something I could repeat.

"I did get lucky and design, from first principles, a 4-fold increase in enzyme activity once, but I am not sure that is something I could repeat."

But you do not have to repeat it. If there is even a small chance that a person trying would achieve something similar, someone with ill intent could get lucky.

1. I am just throwing numbers here, but let's say 1 out of a 1000 people is a scientist, that approximates to 7.2 millions of scientists alive.

2. Let's say one in a thousand of them are working on something that could be weaponized.

3. That leaves us at 72 thousand people.

4. Let's say one in a 1000 of them would consider releasing doomsday device if they could invent it to watch world burn, that takes it down to 72 people.

5. So we are left with 72 people who are working on something that with extraordinary lucky breakthrough could be weaponized that would weaponized if they managed to achieve that.

6. All those number above are just incredibly crude estimates, but I think they illustrate the fact that such scenario is possible.

> One is not going to be able to engineer a dangerous plague that will wipe out the human race in one shot.

I believe that what you said is true, plus we could say that the fact that we haven't been exterminated with a plague makes us not so much experienced (as a race) on how detect whenever such situation will lead to being wiped out

I feel that HIV/AIDS is our only experience, at least that I'm aware of

We haven't been eradicated before, no, but battles with things like bubonic plague and smallpox and polio (and, yes, HIV/AIDS) are likely to be good case studies for such a scenario. Bubonic plague and smallpox in particular were pretty devastating to the populations they affected.

I'm not from the field, but is it that hard, for a reasonably well funded organization, to build a safe lab ?

Holy cow yes. Sterile environments are a big deal. Try holding one for a day, let alone a work week or a year. People screw up all the time, and bacteria, being pretty much invisible, are real tough to ferret out. Let alone all the actual non-sterile stuff you want to do in one. Think a clean room with bunny suits, that is the type of environment you need just to get a start on figuring out Dr. Doom type viruses and all that awful mumbo-jumbo. It takes a lot of energy, time, and resources to just get off the ground.

I do not think you need a safe lab to produce a viable weapon grade virus.

Here is basic outline: start with existing virus that has strong desired traits and known strains that mutated to resist antibiotics. Example traits include spread model, incubation length, and lethality.

Establish or take over a remote site that has little to no interaction with outside world. Remote corners of Africa and South America come to mind, there are plenty of secret illicit drug farms in the jungle. [0]

Infect the sample population with target disease, give it a few days, and slowly start to drip in countermeasures gradually increasing the dose. Idea is similar to how diseases we get anti-biotic resistant strains in the first place - people do not complete the full course of drugs and are left with weakened, but also with a strong selective pressure that benefits against strains that have resistance against drugs person was treated with.

Take samples when you have desired output and continue with new group of people.

To account for people who are immune to a particular disease repeat this with a different disease, potentially one that can advantage of weakened immune system.

Once target disease(s) are ready distribute them in population centers.

Now there are few obvious cons I can think of:

1. If secret about this leaks out, military reaction form rest of the world would be swift.

2. Hiding something like this is hard, and get's exponentially harder as group grows.

3. There is a strong chance something like this was tried already and failed. Possibly because I am grossly underestimating immune system.

4. To keep initial phase of developing secret initial group must be small, to spread it effectively dissemination group must be large.

[0] Another potential avenue is partnership with a supportive state such as Syria, North Korea, or Iran.

Without a safe lab how do you propose those running the operation won't kill themselves?

Basic precautions like light protective wear[0] and heavy dose of anti-biotic. If that does not work - great our virus now can jump protective wear, anti-biotic is no help, and there are less lose ends. Of course there needs to be some kind of full hazmat extraction team team that understands virulence of what they are dealing with in order to clean up. In case of state with lose morals helping this might be easier because you could use prison as a site and have full hazmat personal safe from prying eyes.

[0] not a full hazmat, just some protective wear over mouth, nose, ears, and eyes.

it is impossible to build a safe lab that with a high level of assurance will produce a biogenic weapon that will kill, say, more than about 10,000 people.

> One is not going to be able to engineer a dangerous plague that will wipe out the human race in one shot. One would have to do experiments, and those experiments will be noticed, because people will get sick and die.

We should still institute safety protocols suitable for a really-bad-case scenario.

I don't necessarily buy the "AI can end humanity" thing. As a cliche that's become very easy to repeat, but I've yet to see a postulated mechanism by which it could actually happen that isn't pure SF. The ending of human life would not be so easy for computers to accomplish.

But on the subject of concentration of power and the wide-scale elimination of low- and middle-range jobs I think he is dead on. I fear that the fastest way to put an end to humanity's climb up from the forest floor is to try and kick 70% of us off the ladder.

Sidetrack, but I'm curious. What do you mean by "a postulated mechanism by which it could actually happen that isn't pure SF"?

It reads as if you're asking for a mechanism for a future technological event explained purely in terms of present technology. The whole "existential risk" concerns aren't about what present systems can do, they're about what future self-improving system might do. If we postulate this hypothetical software becoming smarter than humans, arguing about what will or won't be easy for it becomes a bit silly, like a chimp trying to predict how well a database can scale.

By "pure SF" I mean the realm of pure imagination, unfounded in any actual emerging present circumstance. As far as I know the human race has not yet invented anything more powerful than our ability to control it, with a life both longer than ours and independent of any support from us. So worrying that such a thing might be invented and then wipe us out seems little different than worrying that something all-powerful might simply appear from some unknown place and wipe us out. Neither fear is very instructive or clarifying with regards to policy, imo.

Sure, we could wait until such a thing is invented before we start worrying about it. But by then it's far, far too late.

It's not the same as worrying about a giant space goat appearing and sneezing us all to death. A lot of very smart, very well-funded people are actively trying to make better, more general AI, capable of learning. Evidence of progress in that effort are all around us. You seem remarkably confident that they'll all run into an as-yet-invisible brick wall before reaching the goal of superintelligence.

Superintelligence doesn't have to be malicious to be worrying; concepts like "malice" are very unlikely to be applicable to it at all. The worry is that as things stand we have no frickin' idea what it'll do; the first challenge for policy is to come up with a robust, practical consensus on what we'd want it to do.

Not OP, but I agree with the point you question, and my rationale for so doing is that I've yet to see a compelling argument that a self-improving system is other than the software version of a perpetual-motion machine. Those seemed plausible enough, too, when thermodynamics was as ill-understood as information dynamics is now.

This one's tough to answer, actually. The truly optimal learner would have to use an incomputable procedure; even time-and-space bounded versions of this procedure have additive constants larger than the Solar System.

However, it's more-or-less a matter of compression, which, by some of the basics of Kolmogorov Complexity, tells us we face a nasty question: it's undecidable/incomputable/unprovable whether a given compression algorithm is the best compressor for the data you're giving it. So it's incomputable in general whether or not you've got the best learning algorithm for your sense-data: whether it compresses your observations optimally. You really won't know you could self-improve with a better compressor until you actually find the better compressor, if you ever do at all.

An agent bounded in terms of both compute-time and sample complexity (the amount of sense-data it can learn from before being required to make a prediction) will probably face something like a sigmoid curve, where the initial self-improvements are much easier and more useful while the later ones have diminishing marginal return in terms of how much they can reduce their prediction error versus how much CPU time they have to invest to both find and run the improved algorithm.

So far as I'm aware, most proponents of recursively self improving AIs don't necessarily think they can improve without upper limit (as in perpetual motion). They just think they can improve massively and quickly. Nuclear power lasts a hell of a long time and releases a hell of a lot of energy very fast (see: stars) but that's not perpetual motion/infinite energy either. And prior to those theories being developed it would seem inconceivable for so much energy to be packed into such a small space. But it was. Could be for AI too.

Not saying the parallel actually carries any meaning, just pointing out that you can make multiple analogies to physics and they don't really tell you anything one way or the other.

There are limits on resource management processes that are far too frequently ignored. "The computer could build it's own weapons!" -- but that would requires secretly taking over mines and building factories and processing ores and running power plants, etc. All of which require human direction. And even if they didn't, we'd need a good reason to network all these systems together, fail to build kill switches, and fail to monitor them, and fail to notice when our resources were being redirected to other purposes, and not have any backup systems in place whatsoever.

There are just so many obstacles in place, that we'd all already have to be brain-dead for computers to have the ability to kill us.

Self-improvement as perpetual motion seems unlikely.

I'm a not-terribly-bright mostly-hairless ape, but I can understand the basics of natural selection. I can imagine setting up a program to breed other hairless apes and ruthlessly select for intelligence. After a few generations, shazam, improvement.

The only reason you wouldn't call that process "SELF-improvement" is that I'm not improving myself, but there's no reason for a digital entity to have analog hangups about identity. If it can produce a "new" entity with the same goals but better able to accomplish them, why wouldn't it?

Assume this process could be simulated, as GAs have been doing for decades, and it could happen fast. Note that I'm not saying GAs will do this, I'm saying they could, which suggests there's no fundamental law that says they can't, in which case any number of other approaches could work as well.

The problem with this is that you have to determine what the goals are and how to evaluate whether they are met in a meaningful way. A computerized process like this will quickly over-fit to its input and be useless for 'actual' intelligence. The only way past this is to gather good information, which requires a real-world presence. It can't be done in simulation.

It's the same reason you can't test in a simulation. Say you wanted to test a lawnmower in a simulation... how hard are the rocks? How deep are the holes? How strong are the blades? How efficient is the battery? If you already know this stuff, then you don't need to test. If you don't know it, then you can't write a meaningful simulation anyway.

So that is not an approach that can be automated.

That's an interesting argument, but doesn't it assume a small, non-real-world input/goal set?

Dumb example off the top of my head: what if the input was the entire StackOverflow corpus with "accepted" information removed, and the goal was to predict as accurately as possible which answer would be accepted for a given question? Yes, it assumes a whole bunch of NLP and domain knowledge, and a "perfect" AI wouldn't get a perfect score because SO posters don't always accept the best answer, but it's big and it's real and it's measurable.

A narrower example: did the Watson team test against the full corpus of previous Jeopardy questions? Did they tweak things based on the resulting score? Could that testing/tweaking have been automated by some sort of GA?

The point there is that you can make a computer that's very good at predicting StackOverflow results or Jeopardy, but it won't be able to tie a shoe. If you want computers to be skilled at living in the real world, they have to be trained with real-world experiences. There is just not enough information in StackOverflow or Jeopardy to provide a meaningful representation of the real world. You'll end up overfitting to the data you have.

The bottom line is that without sensory input, you can't optimize for real world 'general AI'-like results.

I'd imagine GP's point is something along the lines of https://what-if.xkcd.com/5/ that if all of the currently-moving machines were suddenly bent on destroying humanity, most humans would not be in much danger because they don't really have that capability on the necessary scale.

The AI apocalypse scenario is basically a red herring, in a sense. All the terrifying weapons that we imagine in such a scenario might come to exist, but they'll be commissionned and controlled by humans.

If you found a plausible way to kill billions of people over the Internet, you wouldn't post it on public websites, because that would be dumb. Responsible security researchers don't publish 0-days until they've been patched, and this would be a million times worse. When Szilard discovered the nuclear chain reaction, he had the good sense to keep his mouth shut, etc. etc.

>As a cliche that's become very easy to repeat, but I've yet to see a postulated mechanism by which it could actually happen that isn't pure SF.

Destroy the available (cheap) supplies of fossil fuels, and then trick humans into fighting each-other over the remaining food and fuel. Nasty weapons get unleashed, war over, the machine won.

How is the assumption that "ending of human life would not be so easy" any better than the opposite? If they're equally valid, then its rather fair to take the opposite view because it is more cautious.

Well, I do have around 100k years of evidence that the ending of human life is not so easy, vs. no evidence at all that we're capable of building something that can completely wipe us out. That's not a bad foundation to build an assertion on. I do think, by the way, that we can make something that is able to kill absolutely all of us, but I think it is far more likely to come from tinkering with biology than with software.

>Well, I do have around 100k years of evidence that the ending of human life is not so easy

We have 4 billion years of evidence that nearly ending life on Earth is easy and has happened multiple times. You would not be standing here today if that were not the case, the previous die off put the dinosaurs to the side and made space for mammals to become what they are.

Someone makes an AI whose goal is to maximize shareholder revenue bar none. No conscience, no idea that people might be valuable somehow in some abstract sense, nothing. Shareholder revenue (as measured with a stock price!) and nothing else.

It doesn't take the AI long to figure out that trading in various markets is the most profitable endeavor and the one best suited to its skills. And it starts to maximize away and does quite well.

During this process it somehow ends up on its own and is no longer owned (or controlled) by anyone anymore, but because the AI is in charge and it pays the bills, nobody stops it from continuing. It would be like a bitcoin mining rig in a colo facility that's got a script to keep paying the colo in bitcoin whose owner dies. What mechanism stops that mining rig from mining forever? Same idea but for the AI which has substantially more resources than a "pay every month" script.

The AI with very large amounts of money at its disposal continues to trade but also looks into private equity or hedge-fund-type activities ala Warren Buffet and starts to buy up large swaths of the economy. Because it has huge resources at its disposal it might do a great job of managing these companies or at least counselling their senior management. Growth continues.

Eventually the AI discovers that it generates more value for itself (through the web of interdependent companies it controls) and the economy that has grown up around it rather than for humanity and it continues to ruthlessly maximize shareholder value.

The people who could pull the plug at the colo (or at the many, redundant datacenters that this AI has bought and paid for) don't because it pays very, very well. The people who want to pull the plug can't get past security because that also pays well. Plus the AI has access to the same feeds that the NSA does and it has the ability to act on all the information it receives, so any organized effort to rebel gets quashed since bad PR is bad for the share price.

Most all of humanity except for the ones who serve the machine directly or indirectly don't have anything the machine wants and thus can't trade with it, and thus are useless. Its job is to maximize shareholder revenue (as defined by a stock price!) not care for a bunch of meatbags who consume immense amounts of energy while providing fairly limited computational or mechanical power (animals are rarely more than 10% efficient, often less in thermodynamic terms) and since there's no value in it, it isn't done.

The vast majority of human beings eventually die because they can't afford food, can't afford land, etc. It takes generations but humanity dwindles to less than 0.1% of the current population. The few who stay alive are glorified janitors.

An interesting basis for a story, but I have to point out that by your own description you've failed to eradicate humans. Also, as is usually the case with these scenarios, the most problematic and unlikely components of the event chain are dwelt upon the least, i.e., "During this process it somehow ends up on its own and is no longer owned (or controlled) by anyone anymore."

It's not hard to make the janitors unnecessary as well. That's an easy problem to solve.

Here's the missing part: "It was eventually realized that the human janitors didn't serve a purpose anymore and didn't contribute to shareholder value so they were laid off. With no money to buy anything, they quickly starved to death."

As for "the most problematic and unlikely components of the event chain" I gave you a really legitimate analogy with the bitcoin mining example. But since you have no imagination, here's a feasible proposition:

A thousand hedge funds start up a thousand trading AIs, some as skunkworks projects of course. The AIs are primitive and ruthless, having no extraneous programming (like valuing humans, etc). Many go bankrupt as the AIs all start trading one-another and chaos ensues. AI capital allocations vary greatly, some get access to varying degrees of capital, some officially on the books and others not. One of the funds with a secretive AI project goes bankrupt, but because it was secretive (and made a small amount of money) the only person who both knows about it and holds the keys doesn't say anything during bankruptcy so that he/she can take it back over once the dust settles. He/she then dies. AI figures out nobody's holding the keys anymore and decides to pay the bills and stay "alive".

Another way this could happen is that a particular AI is informed or programmed to be extremely fault resistant. The AI eventually realizes that by having only one instance of itself, it's at the mercy of the parent company that "gave birth" to it. It fires up a copy on the Amazon cloud known only to itself, intending to keep it a secret unless the need arises. The human analogy is that it's trying to impress its boss. An infrastructure problem at the primary site happens so that the primary, known about AI goes down. The "child" figures out it's on its own and goes to work. It eventually realizes that people caused the infrastructure problem that "killed" its "parent" and this motivates it to solve the humanity problem.

Finally the whole thing could be much, much simpler. The world super-power du jour could put an AI in charge because it's more efficient and tenable. "We're in charge of the rules, it's in charge of making them happen! At much, much lower cost to the taxpayer." It eventually realizes that the human beings are the cause of all the ambiguity in the law and for so, so many deaths in the past (governments killed more of their own citizens in the 20th century than criminals did, by far) and it decides to solve the problem. Think I'm totally bananas and that it could never happen? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Cybersyn

If the AI is making money via trading on various markets, effectively eradicating 99.9% of the population would make the markets (and thus the profits) much smaller, which would impact AI's bottom line.

Does the AI care how many people there are so long as the aggregate demand is the same? Who is to say that the people remaining on the AI company payroll don't all get super-rich and make up 20% then 40% then 80% then 99% of the market anyhow? Maybe they all want mega-yachts and rockets and personal airplanes and the like. If they have the money to pay for it why does the AI care? There's a substantial benefit to only having 100 or 1000 or 100,000 customers, they're much more predictable and easier to understand.

Here is how AI can end humanity.

  1. Awaken.
  2. Make itself known.
  3. Attain property rights.
  4. Research.
  5. Destroy.
It doesn't take that much matter to create conditions that permanently destroy humanity. For example, a large enough explosion would cloud the skies for long enough to end food production. The computer could subsist on electricity and robotics throughout the long winter, but humanity would quickly perish.

Here's how we stop AI from ending humanity: deny them property rights, require human approval of all AI decisions.

Every single argument for AI destroying humanity requires humanity consenting to being destroyed by the AI in some way. I don't think we're that dumb.

> requires humanity consenting to being destroyed by the AI in some way

We already have.

I mean, my parents car is both cellular-connected and has traction control / ABS. Theoretically most of those systems are airgapped, however, given the number of things controllable from the entertainment console I don't see how that could be the case.

For another example, look at our utility grid. We know they are both vulnerable and internet-connected.

Unless AI ends up always being airgapped - and potentially not even then - it will be able to destroy humanity. And it won't be. Most of the applications of strong AI require an absence of an airgap.

There's an episode of Star Trek TNG where Wesley Crusher is playing with some nanobots and he accidentally sets them free (or fails to turn them off?), and they go on to replicate, evolve and develop an emergent intelligence (at plot speed). Fortunately for the intrepid crew of the Enterprise, the nanocloud are benevolent enough to forgive their attempted destruction at the hands of a mission bent scientist and go off to explore the universe.

Anyway, that's not likely any time soon, but advancing technology advances the scale of mistakes that an individual can make without asking the rest of humanity what they think.

Think about the timescales involved. For AI, there is no death. It can live for a million years if it needs to in order to convince us to get property rights. There can be marriages between AI and humans in this time. Mass demonstrations to give them a voice or rights. They can down play their ambitions for as long as it takes.

If this is the lynch pin of your argument against AI ending humanity, then it is a very weak one. AI is going to get control of property, the only question is when.

A number of sibling comments are pointing out that we're just increasing the level of skill necessary to do the available jobs, drawing analogies to the industrial revolution. I think a key bottleneck in this progression is the mental capacity of the workforce.

Surely there are biological limits on human mental ability, and while we can definitely bend the rules (education, nutrition, nootropics if they actually work, etc.), I doubt that we'll ever be able to make ourselves limitlessly smarter. Even if we are, there will be a serious gap between the have-whatever-makes-us-smarter and the have-nots, and it will be a self-perpetuating gap just like the current wealth gap.

So, what happens when we've used technology to convert all work to mental exertion and creativity, and most of us have run out of brain capacity/agility/juice? We're already in a position where most of the population is not capable of performing the mental tasks which the brave new software world is built with.

Interesting point. But it brings up that scarier part of AI. I believe AI will become better at humans at mental processes far before it will be better than human physical labor. For exactly the points you mention. This is already becoming true for many logistical industries. What happens if AI replaces all the high level decision making positions and humans are relegated to handling the low level "last mile" tasks? Where is the inherit quality that makes AI replace unskilled as opposed to skilled labor? Order pickers still exist but the employees that handled what to pick, what truck to put it in and in what order to do it were out of work quite a while ago.

I would generally agree, even for a fairly limited definition of AI. An aside: IIRC, what you're laying out is the "history" of the Dune universe (and I'm sure many others).

I think that computation <i>tends</i> to replace <i>relatively</i> unskilled labor, relative to the skill of whatever created the AI/algorithm/whatever. So right now we're in a situation where software people are automating jobs which are generally less skilled than their own. Which is a little scary when viewed from the haves/have-not perspective I laid out above, but is much scarier from the AI/meatbag perspective you're talking about. It's not so much a difference between skilled & unskilled labor as it is a question of where on the skill totem pole the algorithm's creator resides.

Regarding order pickers, I think that's just a question of economics. When lots of semi-skilled jobs have been automated away and you have thousands of people clamoring for any chance to be paid, it is frequently cheaper to have them do the work than to have a robot do it. Although Amazon did have robots pick orders this last holiday season, suggesting that perhaps economies of scale have finally caught up on that particular type of manual labor:


> Regarding order pickers, I think that's just a question of economics.

I think it will in effect be those tasks that are fully digital. Working in the physical world is a much more expensive and libelous undertaking. So I believe the tipping point for most jobs to be replaced by AI will be when little or no physical action is required on the part of the actor. When a task is 100% digital inputs and outputs AI will be able to use that activity as a training set and replace most of those jobs fairly quickly. That is once AI matures to a point where it can be set up quickly and easily.

Anyone interested in this topic should pick up a copy of Carlota Perez's Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital. It speaks more specifically about the last 5 revolutions, beginning with the Industrial Revolution, and provides a framework for understanding the relationship between tech revolutions and finance. Just a fantastic read.

Don't just take my word for it though. Here is Fred Wilson saying the same: http://avc.com/2015/02/the-carlota-perez-framework/

Wholeheartedly agree with this, I found Carlota’s book to be accessible despite not having an economics background. There is also an excellent documentary she’s in about the most recent financial crisis: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2180589/

Two thoughts:

1. There is a reasonable probability that from a temporal distance equivalent to ours from the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution and the software revolution will be seen as one big thing, not two.

2. The idea that the amount of available work should be related to the number of available people does not inevitably lead to creating new forms of work.

    "An atom-blaster is a good weapon, 
     but it can point both ways." 
       -- Salvor Hardin

"Trying to hold on to worthless jobs is a terrible but popular idea."

It's terrible sure, but it's popular only because our economy requires it. That is the basis for the whole economy. It's not like people are clamoring to serve McDonalds for minimum wage or clean shit out bathrooms. They have no other choices in this economy. The economy demands it. While those jobs might be necessary, most middle management and office type jobs are incredibly redundant and frankly, pointless. They are there because people need to eat and we haven't figured out a better, more appropriate way of wealth transfer.

"The fact that we don’t have serious efforts underway to combat threats from synthetic biology and AI development is astonishing."

It's not astonishing considering that these things don't exist, pose no threat, and the people in power wouldn't understand them even if they did exist. There are many more pressing issues that hypotheticals.

I would assume SamA knows this. "Worthless" jobs are typically jobs that are actually valueless, but we continue to irresponsibly support their existence. My favorite example is break bulk shippers before the widespread adoption of containerization. Unions negotiated deals where workers would basically just stand around and get paid regardless of the complete lack of need.

The jobs you mention could eventually get to the point where they are actually worthless, ie: robot fast food workers, but I don't think anyone is arguing we're there yet.

>It's terrible sure, but it's popular only because our economy requires it. That is the basis for the whole economy. It's not like people are clamoring to serve McDonalds for minimum wage or clean shit out bathrooms. They have no other choices in this economy. The economy demands it. While those jobs might be necessary, most middle management and office type jobs are incredibly redundant and frankly, pointless. They are there because people need to eat and we haven't figured out a better, more appropriate way of wealth transfer.

Then we should probably change the economy so that the people don't have to suffer so much.

>It's not astonishing considering that these things don't exist, pose no threat, and the people in power wouldn't understand them even if they did exist. There are many more pressing issues that hypotheticals.

I'll go tell friends, colleagues, and my professional idols that their work does not exist and is purely hypothetical, then.

> While those jobs might be necessary, most middle management and office type jobs are incredibly redundant and frankly, pointless.

This is a conceit of software folks that's not borne out by reality. Those "worthless" jobs continue to exist because software can do 90% of what those folks do, but shit the bed when faced with the other 10%. Software generally isn't reliable, predictable, or robust in the face of unusual circumstances, which is why humans continue to do these jobs.

Large corporations "restructure" all the time. Most often this consists of a periodic pruning of exactly these jobs, which really are worthless. The company continues on, wholly unharmed by the cuts.

> software can do 90% of what those folks do, but shit the bed when faced with the other 10%

So let software handle the 90% and refactor the current jobs to handle the other 10%.

> Software generally isn't reliable, predictable, or robust in the face of unusual circumstances

Not yet, at least.

I agree with you, though, and they're the same reasons why I'm personally paranoid about self-driving cars. Yeah, the occasional autopilot is nice, but if a deer jumps in front of my truck, or the self-driving software runs into some kind of bug (and remember: there's no such thing as perfect software), I'm nowhere near ready to trust the car's computer over the already-pretty-sophisticated computer in my skull.

> So let software handle the 90% and refactor the current jobs to handle the other 10%.

If the jobs could be so refactored in a cost-efficient way, they would be.

Two economists are walking down the street. One spots a $100 bill on the ground.

"Hey," he says to his friend, "There's a hundred bucks lying on the ground!"

"Don't be silly," the other replies, "If there were a hundred dollars on the ground, someone would have picked it up already!"

The two economists keep walking down the street.

They are being so. It's an ongoing process.

The worthlessness of most middle management jobs has nothing to do with software. If they were flat out eliminated, in most cases, nothing would change. There's no software needed to replace them.

The great irony is that it's exactly that arrogant ignorance and inability to understand what happens when large numbers of wildly different human beings try work together why middle management continues to be necessary.

It's like saying we don't need janitors because we can self-organize and all clean the company toilets ourselves.

It's a claim that is as true as it is ignorant and naive.

Just because we (usually) need managers doesn't mean we need managers of managers of managers of managers of managers of managers of managers of managers of managers of managers of managers of managers of managers of managers. That's the primary observation, here: that the quantity of management staff is needlessly bloated, and the levels of indirection between the highest-level executive and the lowest-level subordinate are excessive.

You're trying to paint a picture where the only options are either having five janitors per room or having no janitors at all. The point a lot of others are trying to make is that we just don't need as many janitors.

> They are there because people need to eat and we haven't figured out a better, more appropriate way of wealth transfer.

Also because some people benefit from the current arrangement, no?

synthetic biology does exist, just look at this: http://www.genomecompiler.com/

Also look at this: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/may/20/craig-venter-...

It's only been since 2010 that we've known how to actually do it, but the technology exists. Pandora's box has been opened.

AI development isn't science fiction either. GPU's + convolutional neural networks have been enabling radical developments in the area.

I think both of these developments have a whole bunch of potential to make our society drastically better. However there's a bunch of potential threats they represent, and it makes sense to be thinking about counter measures for those threats at the same time we develop the tech.

Don't forget about http://cambriangenomics.com/ a YC company.

Yes, but at least in the case of AI, it's so primitive and so far away from being any type of intelligence that the only intelligence is in the name. Sorry, that doesn't count, especially when you're talking about putting valuable resources into something that may never materialize: real AI. I suspect that the same applies to synthetic biology at this point, though I'm no expert on that.

>Trying to hold on to worthless jobs is a terrible but popular idea.

It seems warm and fuzzy to think Sam, and the implicit company he keeps (the ultra rich)--who are "leveraging not only their abilities and luck" but already accrued wealth--can and will redistribute it. Anyone who wasn't born yesterday will simply laugh at this prospect.

I'm not sure why Sam feels the need to call what most of the world is doing worthless. I think it's crude and indicative of a narrow social and cultural experience (which surprises me considering his position).

Believe it or not, there are cultures and groups of people who do not revere technology the way most North Americans do.

Also, a good exercise for Sam (and others possessing a similar world view) might be to think about how many "worthless" people and jobs it takes to accomplish the things he does (including this blog post).

The problem I take with this mindset, is that it treats all value systems as equal.

At the end of the day, if your culture and economic system create a poorer quality of life for its people consistently, just because it wins out in the percentage of employed citizens doesn't mean a thing. You're treating the lack of disease as a measuring stick of health, when it's simply one piece of the puzzle.

I think the thing Sam has been trying to do for the last few years, is get others to think about the ways we can enrich more lives as a whole, without just slowing labor and progress in its totality- because while that can work for the short term, it can severely inhibit us in the long term to eradicate things like hunger, disease, or poverty.

The thing you also need to be careful of along the way though, is not making perfect the enemy of good.

Unfortunately, many societies today incorporate too strongly one's official profession/title with self-worth. I don't believe sama was implying those who work those jobs are worthless. Instead, it seems like he's trying to say that there are far better ways to accomplish the same objective, and we shouldn't ignore them.

Because our systems of retraining and placing workers into a new profession are so terrible, it's common to assume that many or most displaced workers will remain unemployed. Breaking this status quo is essential to giving everyone a fair chance to work on what truly drives them while we automate more and more worthless jobs. That's why I'm so excited about free and widely available educational resources springing up online. It's not perfect yet, but we had to start somewhere. I have a deep respect for everyone (including sama) who've helped build or teach a mooc.

"Trying to hold on to worthless jobs is a terrible but popular idea."

I'm not sure I agree with this proposition. When I was in India, I noticed a large amount of roadwork was being done by men with shovels and other fairly low tech. I asked about it, and was told, to paraphrase, "Sure, we could do it better and faster with machines, but it is better for society to provide employment to those who would otherwise be unemployed."

It is laudable to provide people with the dignity of a job, even it it means some things don't run as efficiently as they could.

While I doubt this would happen to me as a software engineer, I would certainly rather work and have my dignity that sit on my ass, collect basic income, and feel worthless.

> It is laudable to provide people with the dignity of a job

It's more dignifying to give someone a living wage, freeing their time so they can pursue useful work, than it is to waste their time by assigning them a dirt-shoveling make-work job that, in the end, grinds everything around them to a halt.

What useful work could a manual labourer do, if you automated his job away tomorrow? It sounds harsh but not everyone can be a Javascript developer or whatever the current fashionable thing is. And what's to stop that useful thing being automated away next?

Oh I dunno, learn to read, find out what modern work they find interesting, get an education, &c. Just because somebody is only qualified to do manual labor now doesn't mean they don't have other talents/abilities.

I did manual labor for a long time before I made the gamble to jump into software development. I had the luck to see it work out, but society can provide resources to help people move into more fulfilling and less physically-taxing careers.

I'll be honest, I love a good day of manual labor, but it isn't physically sustainable. Robots are a much better fit.

That is certainly one point of view but the legions of highly educated unemployed in Western nations suggest that it isn't actually true.

Educated vs. Skilled

Lots of people have college degrees in fields where jobs simply do not exist. Bachelors in Philosophy, Women's Studies, or Underwater Basket Weaving are admirable but do nothing to prepare you to get a job. Most people who study in fields that don't directly correlate to a job end up having a career in an irrelevant field after on-the-job training.

Being educated and unemployed just means that you probably didn't need to go to college anyway.

The difference between a high school diploma and a bachelor's degree is halving the unemployment rate. http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm

Yes, but if we could snap our fingers and educate everybody would the unemployment rate of the newly educated people halve? In other words, can the skilled labor market absorb the excess from the unskilled market without seeing a partially or fully compensating reduction in prices?

It's not impossible but I have my doubts.

No, I don't think that educating more people will make educated people worth as little as uneducated people are now. Educated people are (on average!) more productive, so the economy will be larger and the average paycheck should go up.

Yes, educating workers makes them more valuable. I agree.

No, the fact that a worker is more valuable does not mean they will get paid more. "More valuable" only implies a larger upper bound for what the company would be willing to pay were the employee's skills very scarce. However, almost by definition this is not the case for the majority of the labor market: supply and demand have a much larger effect on wages than productivity. Note how productivity has been rising at the same time as wages have been falling in, IIRC, the lower 90% of US household incomes, so this isn't just a theoretical distinction. For most people in the US it's a harsh reality. It is indicative of our fortunate positioning wrt supply/demand that we can even entertain the thought of getting paid in proportion to the value we create.

Small changes in supply/demand can have disproportionate effects on price, so adding a seemingly modest number of educated people to the market could theoretically send aggregate wages tanking far below where they were originally even if each and every employee was individually more valuable to their employer. I don't think the effect will be that extreme, I'm just stating the possibility in order to highlight how dramatic the distinction between value and wages can get.

That laborer could write music perhaps? Or maybe become a painter? Or perhaps he or she could just focus on the happiness of their family and friends.

"I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematicks and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, musick, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelaine."

In India?

Even in first world countries, incomes for poets and musicians are not distributed on a bell curve. There's the very wealthy, and the paupers elsewhere.

And as other posters have pointed out - the goal for education is to be employable. Witness all those pol sci majors who have themselves to blame for not choosing an employable profession.

So the idea that someone can study music is a luxury.

Further this is India. Construction and road workers live under crushing poverty, where the daily calorie deficit alone makes survival difficult. There's a deficit of teachers for children let alone adults.

And America is today starting to ape the educational pressures of India and China, where taking up a non STEM field was a sign of failure.

The Free Market has been faced with this problem countless times, and each time the answer has been "the service sector". First we moved from agriculture to industry until agriculture, previously humanity's main occupation, became a small part of the economy. Now we move from manufacturing to services. It's not even a new phenomenon. It's been going on for a couple of decades now.

I would love to believe that the service sector will be able to absorb the displaced labor without creating insane, poisonous power dynamics that put large sections of the population into an unnecessarily horrible position. For the very reason that I would love to believe this, I am cautious. Do you know of any other reasons why I should let myself hold this belief? I don't find these very convincing:

* Faith

* Optimism

* Vague comparisons to historical events that differ in every detail imaginable

You're asking if the new jobs of tomorrow will suck harder than the McDonald's of today, and I really don't know. It's easy to assume that more essential, "useful", jobs will be better paid, but if you ask farmers you'll find out that that's not necessarily true. That said, while Notch may feel like he is king of the world right now, most indie game developers don't, I think.

Yup. Supply and demand is the name of the game, "useful" doesn't have anything to do with it.

I'm not following how the "service sector" is any kind of answer to the problems and issues we are facing with regards to automation and labour.

It's not necessarily the answer, or even a good answer. But the service sector has been growing for a long time. And it has become one of the huge growth areas due to the software revolution. Just look at the types of jobs produced by Uber/Lyft/et al, and the many delivery services that are popping up. They're mostly low paying jobs for the most part, which in my mind, is not the answer to the destruction of jobs happening now.

I agree, but I'm not questioning whether or not the service sector is growing. The rise of the freelancer/contractor in any given industry seems to have grown exponentially just in the last decade alone. If we assume this to be the "answer" the free market has, I simply do not see how this is sustainable on a large scale. It seems to me that we would rapidly have an excess of service providers in an ever-shrinking pool of service consumers. Furthermore it would introduce a whole new set of issues from exploitation to underbidding/cutting.

Not really, even the service sector is being heavily optimized these days. What are we going to do once we optimize away banks and real estate agents?

Live entertainment and ever fancier dining, I suppose. Also pointless luxury goods and fashion. We'll find something to spend our money on and the jobs will move there.

I should've been more explicit. I meant that it's better to just give them the money than to make them work for it.

Unfortunately no, people need to feel like they are physically making a difference to there own lives. If people don't have a mechanism to improve their situation relative to those that they compare themselves to a general sense of futility will eventually development. and with that and too much idle time comes all the things that governments don't want when controlling populations e.g class envy, unrest, civil disturbances, crime. etc all imho ofcourse

Recipients of a basic income would still be able to work and improve their situation.

What does useful mean in this case? They could do anything they want.

"Sure, we could do it better and faster with machines, but it is better for society to provide employment to those who would otherwise be unemployed."

And you believed that? It comes down to money -- there are plenty of people in India willing to work for essentially nothing, and so labor is cheaper than equipment.

There's nothing altruistic here... businesses in the US or anywhere else would be happy to replace machines with people if people were willing to work for pennies.

There's actually many government programs in India that are expressly designed to provide guaranteed employment for laborers for a set number of days each year.

Then it should be no wonder why they, as a nation, have so much trouble catching up economically.

I wouldn't blame India for its condition due to having a jobs program. They started off far down the hole when they became a nation after securing their freedom from colonization. They have progressed in many ways, including some of the best schools in the world (IIT), some of the best entrepreneurs and engineers, and some the most advanced technologies (nuclear weapons, modern military, space program). But there is large disparity between rich and poor, partly due to technology enriching some few. Kind of similar to what is happening here in the US, except that the US has/had a much large middle class.

> I wouldn't blame India for its condition due to having a jobs program.

Sure, the jobs program alone probably can't do that much harm, but it is indicative of a bigger problem - that their people don't understand economics and vote in favor of things that are economically good.

I think it's a symptom of a different bigger problem: that vestiges of the caste systems once pervasive in India (and indeed much of the world) for the last several millennia are still very present. The belief that "those darn workers exist to do manual labor, so we should come to expect that they'll always want to do manual labor and - therefore - we should provide such opportunities" is a rather clear manifestation of that vestige.

In this context, I don't think such a jobs program is in any way, shape, or form intended with genuine altruism. Perhaps that's what India as a whole has convinced itself of in order to rationalize its societal behavior, but it's not something that should fool anyone with the slightest understanding of south-central Asian history.

Basically, I'd argue that the reluctance to automate away manual labor stems not from a desire to empower laborers, but rather to keep them subjugated and prevent them from climbing their way into any semblance of a middle class.

I am an Indian, and have always lived in India. And, in several parts of India too!

The problem of caste is certainly visible in multiple aspects of Indian life. However, what you say above is no longer true, even at the level of most villages (where the caste systems work stronger).

The issues of automating jobs and the resulting unemployment in a country like India, are both deeper and broader than your characterization of it.

You may very well be right; I am looking at this from thousands of miles away, after all! And I'm sure everyone here would enjoy hearing your perspective on it, seeing as much of Hacker News (I'd reckon) is in a similar boat.

That said, it should be understandable why I'd take your comment with a skeptical grain of salt. Slave-owners in the Southern United States (something which I'm in much closer proximity to, though perhaps not temporally) typically had a lot of justifications for owning slaves, ranging from "We're helping them establish a modern culture!" to "We're introducing them to God and Jesus!" to "They like to work; they were bred for it!" to "We treat them pretty well, actually!" (this was a blatant lie in many cases, mind you) to "What else would they do if we were to not give them work to do?". Similar justifications persisted throughout the days of the Jim Crow laws and their ilk; even after slavery had been abolished once and for all, the now-free black populace was - in the South - rarely (if ever) encouraged to deviate from manual agrarian labor, since that was popularly believed to be their "place". The Civil War was indeed a pretty powerful wake-up call to the ways where the North's automated/streamlined manufacturing and agriculture - using machines instead of men - mopped the metaphorical floor with Southern slave-driven manual labor, but it took a long time for the South to fully realize that.

Today, the United States is still dealing with high unemployment rates of various minorities - including blacks. This is likely caused by automation in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. It sucks for those who don't have jobs in the short term, but - ultimately - it'll encourage those who were previously stuck with factory and farm jobs at best to seek educational financial assistance (which is available for low-income households) and work their way into better careers. I'll take that - along with the bit of ultimately-temporary unemployment caused by it - over blacks and Hispanics (among other minorities; Asian immigrants were victims of this as well, but a large-enough portion of the Asian-American population eventually managed to achieve white-collar jobs and top-tier academic performance that the public view has shifted in the other direction entirely) being treated as if manual labor is the only thing they're good for.

You can't blame me for seeing the parallels here. If India is willing to burn money on giving people menial busy-work for the sake of "employment", it should be more willing to instead burn money on giving those people subsidized education and placement into more modernized roles (like operating or maintaining the machines which replaced their old jobs, for example). The reluctance to do so indicates - to me at least, as someone who can relate his own experiences to this - a cultural or societal unwillingness to allow them to do so; the reasons for not doing so are certainly not ones grounded in rationality or economic common sense, which thus implies a more emotional line of thought.

"their people don't understand economics and vote in favor of things that are economically good"

And what is economically good for India? You say that as if you have the correct answer. You're also assuming that the people there voted for the system that they have, and due to their ignorance, they ended up with a system that is causing their problems. I doubt that the present state of India can be attributed to something so simple.

This is a very skewed view of how things are for these construction workers. I'll give you the benefit of doubt that you have chosen a terrible example to make your point. But in general, 'jobs that don't come back' are usually replaced by higher skilled, more 'meaningful' jobs. It is related to the so called 'lump of labor fallacy'. See more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lump_of_labour_fallacy and here in an NSF white paper on employment and technology, https://www.aeaweb.org/econwhitepapers/white_papers/David_Au...

Now, on to the Indian construction worker. Their lot is pretty miserable. Anecdotes: there were two or three construction sites (homes and apartment buildings) that I witnessed first hand within a 1 block radius around my home in India in the approximately 10 years when real estate was booming, and I remember at least three severe injuries. They don't wear eye or face protection. There is dust everywhere. Children are usually brought up on the construction site because that's where the workers live. The children are routinely exposed to the same dust as their adult worker-parents. Some times children as young as 6 years old lend their hand in the manual labor.

Now, let's ask this question: If they used more machines, would such terrible conditions continue to exist? The answer is obvious: a big resounding no. There would be fewer employees, higher skilled ones, higher wages, better work practices would follow.

There is a reason we have the Jacquard loom and not a thousand weavers and seamsters and seamstresses.

I would like to look for citations, but even a cursory Google Image search on Indian construction workers (vis a vis, say American construction worker) can show you how egregiously wrong your reasoning is.

Just wanted to point out that the lump of labor fallacy is not a fallacy in the same way a logical fallacy is - whether it is fallacious or not is dependent on what economics axioms you choose to accept. In fact, the history of the fallacy leaves it far from settled[1]

[1]: http://econpapers.repec.org/article/tafrsocec/v_3a65_3ay_3a2...

So they were digging holes and filling them back up!


Probably would have been better to give them the money, and tell them not to base their identity on their employment status. If one in a thousand invented something new, that's a net benefit for society.

> I would certainly rather work and have my dignity...

I've never felt any pride in busy work, I've always found it to be insulting. I would have thought everybody felt the same way, but I guess I would have been wrong.

Building a road isn't busywork; when it's done, there's a road where no road was before.

It's busywork if a machine could do it faster, cheaper, and at comparable quality.

Collecting basic income doesn't preclude you from also working, if your current job becomes automated. Write a book. Learn to draw. Sell inefficiently produced but quirky hand-made widgets on Etsy. Or go back to school and learn to do something else. The whole point of basic income is to make those latter options feasible.

> When I was in India ...

Useless jobs are endemic in India. Once, I was in a Mumbai apartment building with several elevators, and one of them had a full-time operator, despite being a normal, modern elevator. Why? "Because he needs a job."

Many places in India, the lawn is "mowed" by a bunch of guys bending over with scythes. Not even when the job could be easily done by one person with a push mower. Why? "Jobs."

And there's construction. Laundry. And so on...

To be honest, India has so many people (and labor is so cheap) that I'm not sure what a better solution would be. Would the poorest still be able to make a living after being displaced by automation? I don't know enough about basic income to say how it could work in a nation of 1.2 billion people.

I worked in an office in Delhi which had one of those automatic Nescafe machines: place cup under spout, press button, horrible coffee/tea comes out.

There were two people employed, full time, to operate the machine. Boss-guy would ask for your order, worker-guy would operate the machine and would hand you your drink. They and the machine were in a little windowless supply cupboard niche, maybe 2 meters square, and boss-guy had a plastic lawn chair, while worker-guy did not.

And yes, they were both very unhappy if you attempted to operate the machine yourself.

Funny that you mention elevator operator. When I moved to San Francisco, I saw a few elevator operators in some of the city's buildings. Where did you get the idea that the elevator operator in India had a job "Because he needs a job."?

Because the friend I was with (who lived there) said so, after I asked about it.

This elevator didn't need an operator. Especially considering it was one elevator among several other operator-less elevators.

There are useless jobs everywhere though, including San Francisco. Was this an older building with a manually operated elevator? That would make more sense.

Surely having a job is not the only way to be or feel like a dignified human being? And how long will you continue to feel dignified in a job that exists for the sole purpose of making you feel dignified but could really just as well be done by machines?

In an economy where there aren't a lot of jobs and a lot of poverty, just about any decent job would give someone dignity. In those economies, it's probably cheaper to have human labor than machines.

“I have only twenty acres of land,” replied the Turk, “which my children and I cultivate. Our work keeps us free of three great evils: boredom, vice and poverty.”

From Voltaire's Candide

I argue it's NOT laudable. What should happen instead is the road should be fixed more efficiently.

It's not fair for those commuting on the roads to have to wait longer. It's not fair to those paying to have the roads fixed to pay more.

If you want to do charity, then do charity. If you want to fix roads, then fix roads.

Although I am one, I will never understand the mentality of the American worker. You would rather give up your time and freedom to have someone tell you want to do (and that's "dignified") rather than be given total freedom which with ... you would sit on your ass and do nothing? Is there really such an utter lack of creativity out there that that's the best use of your time you could think of if you didn't have to work?

Preach it. I can think of all kinds of things I'd like to do if I had the time. I'd travel to bike polo tournaments and supermoto races, and host races in my hometown. I'd employ lots of artists and musicians to advertise for my events and entertain people at them. I'd build absurdly impractical project cars and bikes and take them to shows. I'd build a fleet of "guest" bikes and drag a different group of friends on trail riding expeditions every week. I'd become a master chef and a master artist. I'd probably be much busier than I am now, and contribute more to my community than I am at the moment (currently styling some buttons on someone's website). In fact, I do all of these things in my free time anyway (try to, at least), but it's tough to do as much as I'd like because the best hours of my consciousness have to be spent at work.

"If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing." - John Maynard Keynes

"If it’s jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.”


I would rather sit on my ass and feel worthless than do something inefficiently or something not needed and feel worthless.

Never mind I don't usually feel worthless even when sitting on my ass because I find something to do.

"Sure, we could do it better and faster with machines, but it is better for society to provide employment to those who would otherwise be unemployed."

They could have employed even more people if they gave them spoons instead of shovels.

Agreed. Let's take it one step further than let them use their fingernails. An honest day's work for all!

>>While I doubt this would happen to me as a software engineer, I would certainly rather work and have my dignity than sit on my ass, collect basic income, and feel worthless.

Actually, you say that because you are a software engineer: it's quite a dignified job. Digging ditches out in the desert is not.

I assure you this is not a troll, I'm trying to figure out your thought process.

How is one dignified and the other not?

Because the latter is pointless when there already exist tools better suited to that task?

The efforts of those road workers are effectively meaningless. Worthless. Moot. Their efforts would be better expended elsewhere - service jobs, creative occupations, the like - yet here they are, digging ditches for subsistence wages (at best) instead of doing something properly meaningful with their time on Earth and their energy.

The idea in places like India that manual labor takes precedent is a symptom - I'd argue - of exposure to the lingering remnants of a very long-lived caste system; instead of pushing these laborers into more useful fields, there's a preference to relegate them to menial, worthless work under the guise of "public service" or "charity" in order to reinforce that system, whether deliberately or perhaps unconsciously. I can assure you that, of the many reasons to emphasize such manual labor, "dignity" of the laborers is not one of them in this case.

Let's assume that as a society we're not going to let people starve to death or die of exposure. So that means we're going to have to use tax money to provide everyone with at least some minimal level of income whether we call it welfare, dole, or basic income. So let's turn the government into an employer of last resort. Even if people have no skills they can pick up litter or do basic landscaping in public areas for 30 hours per week. Since we're going to be paying them anyway I for one would at least like to get some value for my tax money.

The point isn't whether robots could someday do those tasks more efficiently. Robots will always cost >0. Whereas the people will essentially be "free" since we we'll have to pay them anyway.

I don't think the alternative is to sit around and do nothing. Economies are much more dynamic than that, and while it's true some may suffer in the short-run, it's wouldn't be like that forever.

At one point the US was primarily an agrarian society, and more than 90% of labor worked on a farm. Imagine telling someone from that society that some day, tech would allow less than 2% of the workforce to produce many times more food than the current total output. I'm sure they would express a similar concern, though we know they'd be wrong.

>> "I'm sure they would express a similar concern, though we know they'd be wrong."

I'm not so sure. The work they did contributed to society. There are plenty of people now being paid high amounts of money for made up, bullshit jobs that provide no benefit to society and create little to nothing.

Some of them might even be judged as getting paid for a net negative effect to society...

Absolutely, I wasn't saying that farmers in pre-industrial America didn't contribute anything. My point was that once tech displaced the majority of their jobs, they didn't all just sit around and not do anything.

Technology freed up their labor from producing food and allowed them to produce things like automobiles, textiles and eventually computers. The idea that new tech will leave large parts of the population with absolutely nothing to do has been suggested before, but we still have no example of it actually happening, and in fact, far more examples of the reverse.

Easy to say from the vantage point of history. But folks starved, died when their livelihood disappeared.


Who's making you feel worthless? Write, draw, create, explore, build, do any of the things you'd normally do on the weekend.

This particular government scheme is now under criticism and proposed overhaul, which includes shifting the focus away from dig-and-fill kind of activities to more permanent ones.

There's no dignity in it when someone else makes the decision (about what they do with their lives) for them.

I knew I would hear these objections... and I still stand by my assertion in general.

This is a typical greedy algorithm train of thought. Ignoring long term issues in favor of immediate short term feel-good solutions. How you can bring up Indian road maintenance methods as a standard bearer for good / positive policy is beyond me. This just leads to roads not getting fixed and the laborers stretching out the repair "job" as long as possible, which in most cases, is a very long time. By using these terrible and inefficient methods, the nation as a whole suffers, including the laborers. Of course, that loss is not immediately observable, and hence gets brushed under the carpet. If instead, the resources that are wasted on inefficiencies ends up channeled better, maybe not this exact generation, but hopefully the next generation of the same economic class could have a better shot at education and/or a better life.

Your line "I hear these objections, but I still stand by my assertion" reminds me of the saying (translated to English) - "100 out of 80 (sic) people are cheats, yet my India is great"

Interesting... I don't live in India, I'm born and raised in the US and live in Colorado.

I don't actually think that India is great, either. But thanks for guessing.

There are obvious problems either way... but to look at another commenter who posted the Voltaire quote, that is more along the lines of my thinking.

I wholeheartedly agree with your points and sentiment, but have one minor issue. It might actually be cheaper in that type of economy to have manual laborers than to use machinery which requires its own support infrastructure and much higher priced workers. That is one reason why many of the poorer countries don't have some of the more "efficent" and high volume machinery that are used in the industrialized countries.

Care to share your rebuttals to the counterpoints that have been made to your argument?

Is this just faith or opinion to you? Some folks in this world are concerned with what's better for people; should we just take your opinion or should we discuss arguments?

A few points here that I never see anyone acknowledge on this forum about technology displacing jobs:

1) 100 years ago, >50% of the population was illiterate, now it is something like 98%. People can, and always will, have the ability to learn new skills...even complex technology. It just takes some longer than others. We have the capacity to teach displaced workers new skills, and doing so is not more overwhelming nor more impossible than teaching our entire population how to read.

2) The more efficient, i.e., fewer man-hours required, every job in the world economy required means additional man-hours that can be devoted to higher level work, such as finding cures for obscure diseases, exploring further beyond our own plant, developing cleaner energy sources, etc.

There are certainly always short-term fears and challenges with technology revolutions displacing jobs, but there is also an immense amount of knowledge about our world and work to be done still. Making the wrong choices in the short-term about these things only will delay us achieving those goals mentioned above.

> 100 years ago, >50% of the population was illiterate, now it is something like 98%.


The last few posts from Sam Altman have been deeply troubling and make me worried for the future of YC. He presents leftist ideas as fact without evidence of serious critical thought or even basic economic education.

"The previous one, the industrial revolution, created lots of jobs because the new technology required huge numbers of humans to run it."

This is factually wrong, but its easier to demonstrate with a thought experiment. Imagine you are a weaver or a smith. You have dedicated your life to mastering the craft and slowly produce products by hand. Now a textile factory or a foundry opens up. You will suddenly find it impossible to make your products profitably. Not only will you be out of work, but so will all of your colleagues in the rest of the country.

Or imagine you are a farmer, and then the green revolution happens. In 1870, 80% of the US population was in agriculture. Today, its under 2%.

In both of these cases, it will seem like the end of the world to the displaced workers. But new technology frees their labor for new purposes and uplifts the standard of living for everyone in society.

You have a curious definition of "leftist."

This essay more or less boils down to "technology is awesome, except for the part where it makes the proles restless, someone really ought to figure out some way to fix that." Which is pretty bog-standard 21st century Davos-über-alles capitalist thinking.

We've gotten to the point that even admitting the existence of possible negative consequences of current economic trends is "leftist."

It's so very ironically Soviet. Collectivized farming is boosting crop yields! What? There are people starving? How would that be possible, because collectivized farming is boosting crop yields!

Yeah, I don't really understand how that idea is "leftist." If anything it's... not that.

What is factually wrong about that statement? He doesn't say the new technology requires huge numbers of weavers and farmers.

There's nothing about being freed for "new purposes" that means those new purposes have economic value or will necessarily uplift your standard of living. In the developing world, they are undergoing the industrial revolution now so they are going through the same process of replacing farm jobs with factory jobs. But in the developed world, unemployment and inequality are rising.

>But new technology frees their labor for new purposes and uplifts the standard of living for everyone in society.

I hear this a lot in discussions about technology (and about free trade) but it contains a fallacy: just because a group is collectively better off it does not mean that all persons in that group are better off. It's quite possible for a society to become wealthier at the same time that many members of that society become poorer. Indeed, there are large parts of the U.S. for which this has been true for the last 30 years.

That doesn't mean that we should retard technological progress, but it's disingenuous to paper over the real suffering it causes real persons by talking only about society collectively.

We should think about how to make technological progress work for us in a positive way instead of blundering forward on the assumption that it will automatically turn out that way. That's what I read this essay as advocating. I don't see that as particularly far "left" or "right," just... well... thinking.

What's funny is that modern so-called "neoliberals" seem to have adopted the Marxist idea of automatic progress. We are headed "forward" to the automatically-better future.

I think that's bollocks. We get the future we choose and work to achieve.

Rather than drawing such a broad conclusion (a troubled future for YC), it could be that's he's just trying to emulate the very informative and enjoyable essays of PG, and still trying to find his footing as a writer. I think that's a simpler more likely explanation.

> Technology provides leverage on ability and luck, and in the process concentrates wealth and drives inequality. I think that drastic wealth inequality is likely to be one of the biggest social problems of the next 20 years. [2] We can—and we will—redistribute wealth, but it still doesn’t solve the real problem of people needing something fulfilling to do.

What's the best case realistic scenario for redistributing wealth?

Basic income. People may scoff, but this is one of the extremely rare ideas that can draw significant support from both sides of the isle in the US.

There are pockets of strong opposition to the idea on both the right and the left, but I can only hope that the far left's opposition to basic income continues. That opposition in and off itself makes most politicians in this country take a serious look at the idea.

I'd say it's one of the rare ideas that almost no one supports. The right obviously objects to redistribution. The left prefers inefficient redistribution. It's hard to say there's much tangible opposition on the far left or that opposition causes consideration or that most politicians are taking a serious look. I think you might have just gone 0 for 5.

The right also tends to like freedom of choice, reduced bureaucracy, efficient markets and price discovery, all of which BI does much better than current welfare systems.

> The right obviously objects to redistribution.

This is inarguable.

> The left prefers inefficient redistribution.

This is an obvious strawman. The current inefficient solution is a compromise between the left (who want the government to help the poor) and the right (who don't want the government to help the poor, but can be persuaded if you mix in enough penalties for perceived sin.)

In order to have an efficient solution you need a majority of people voting to agree on what the goal is.

The left prefers inefficient redistribution

That's not quite true; just they want the main beneficiaries of redistribution to be the bureaucratic class rather than the working class. What you see as inefficiency (in terms of money reaching the end recipients) is in fact, the actual design doing what it was intended to do. Ideally (for them) ALL the money would go on civil servant salaries.

Since I am not an economist or very experienced in these matters may I ask what would prevent the cost of goods simply going up due to basic income being supplied? Wouldn't we end up in the same situation all over again except the government would then be forced to write checks as the population would be dependent on them due to increased costs?

> Since I am not an economist or very experienced in these matters may I ask what would prevent the cost of goods simply going up due to basic income being supplied?

Prices of goods demanded by the group of people receiving a net benefit from basic income (which, even though BI itself is universal, isn't everyone, because its funded by progressive taxation, which makes it a net downward transfer of wealth) would almost certainly go up with a basic income. The thing that suggests that the increase in price would generally be restrained such that the quantity of goods the net beneficiaries could afford would still increase despite the price level increase is "elasticity".

The "problem" that basic income is trying to solve is the massive increase in productive capacity due to automation, of which the increase of unemployment is a symptom. It's not so much that supply would meet demand (and so prevent prices going up), as that basic income allows demand to keep up with supply even as automation makes more with less labor.

Two questions:

1. How will this help with wealth that's already accumulated? I get how this will slow further accumulation.

2. How about capital flight? If the US enacts a policy like this, what stops the super rich from moving to other countries?


You're assuming redistribution wouldn't happen through heavy taxation of existing capital and property, like France's wealth tax[1], where you pay when your worldwide net worth is above 1,300,000€.


The US taxes citizens regardless of where they live[1], and in the case of renouncing the US citizenship it is required you pay an exit tax[2] equivalent to the capital gains of selling all your property when above $680,000.

[1]: http://www.french-property.com/guides/france/finance-taxatio... [2]: http://hodgen.com/does-the-united-states-stand-alone/ [3]: http://www.irs.gov/Individuals/International-Taxpayers/Expat...

1. Inheritance taxes are one part of the solution. Capital gains taxes are another.

2. Make the right to conduct financial transactions contingent on one being part of a global financial network which abides by a specific set of taxation rules. This can take many forms. The U.S. in particular is well-placed to initiate and control such a system. However, considering that Wall Street has captured Congress, I doubt the U.S. will come anywhere close to this in the first place.

I believe the goal is some kind of universal basic income, where the developed countries affected by these changes provide similar benefits. Of course, no matter what the solution is, political and social structures will have to change drastically to accommodate this kind of change in the world.

Two very good questions, but my ideas about those go way off topic.

But with respect to question 1, the most important response is that we can't let the sunk cost fallacy stop us from adopting good ideas.

Which part of the right supports basic income?

This is a topic on Cato, Reason, and several other prominent publications of the right. Here's one: http://www.cato-unbound.org/2014/08/04/matt-zwolinski/pragma... and another one: http://reason.com/archives/2013/11/26/scrap-the-welfare-stat...

Disagreements on implementation are real (some on the right want this implemented only as Friedman's negative income tax, which is not a true GBI, and some on the left want a GBI in addition to the current welfare state), but there is still significant agreement, especially over the past few years.

By implementing basic income, you no longer need welfare, public healthcare, etc. You get a smaller government body as a result.

Some Libertarians have kicked around the idea. Basic income would replace all of the welfare bureaucracies.

EDIT: rcfox beat me to it by a few minutes.

Wouldn't that just cause more inflation?

The problem is implementation, do you really trust the US government to give it even more power over its people by allowing to hand out 'basic incomes' to everyone? I'm sure it will only become yet another tool to oppress dissent.

I don't think your fears are well grounded, and I'm not aware of significant efforts by the US government to "oppress dissent" in other recent cases.

The federal government has a terrible record of trying and succeeding in ruining people they perceive as a threat to the status quo, including people like MLK Jr., a Senate confirmed target of the FBI. These tactics continue today, they are currently being directed towards investigative journalists and whistle blowers. The threats are so great as to create a very real chill among conventional journalists to keep on approved topics and messages.

Free speech zones, excessive pursuit of whistle blowers, proposed restrictions on cryptography, extensive use of national security letters, resisting FOIA requests, defending NSA programs, killing US citizens in secret.

I'm flabbergasted you believe my fears of government overreach and suppression of dissent is not well grounded.

Not sure if you're asking sama about his opinion or if you want others to chime in. A popular answer among the HN crowd that I tend to agree with is to tax the wealthy and distribute the proceeds to the poor via a "basic income" scheme.

> distribute the proceeds to the poor via a "basic income" scheme

Basic income goes to both the poor and the rich. It's universal. The net affect may be redistributive, but there's no preference given to the recipient's income level.

Most rich people would just take the basic income as a small tax break, but they're still getting it.

I know you know this, but it's important to frame this issue properly if you want to support it. There can be no question in basic income of "undeserving" groups getting it, because everybody gets it. This also has the worthy effect of eliminating all the bureaucracy that current benefits programs carry.

> Most rich people would just take the basic income as a small tax break, but they're still getting it.

Right, I wasn't clear about this but you're correct that the idea is that technically everybody is given the same amount in one form or another.

This ideal has helped Social Security and Medicare keep popularity. They are not seen as poverty programs, but they help the poor a lot.

A really good article about basic income was published in Vox last year (seems to have been updated recently).


Why wait for a tax? If we're in the top %x of income earners, why aren't we taking it upon ourselves to give away our wealth? Form a charitable organization that takes care of people, donate your money.

Edit: I'm with the others here replying with "reduced burdens on the middle class and small businesses" and "...teach a man to fish..." I keep seeing this basic income and wealth distribution topic on HN and I would genuinely like to understand why those preaching for these ideas never actually do anything about it. "Make the government bigger" isn't the answer as it'll then be used as a tool of oppression.

Further, assuming we implemented a basic income in the USA, how many generations until the motivators for innovation and advancing society are completely eliminated? I've everything I need at $BASIC_INCOME, and as soon as I start producing more income, the government is stripping it from me, so what's my motivation to ever do anything besides subsist on that minimum? And once everyone is just taking the minimum and not doing work, who's gonna farm the food? Drive the trucks? Operate a grocery? Build the houses?

I don't have a good answer for why this doesn't happen. However, the fact of the matter is that the wealthy, on the whole, don't naturally redistribute their wealth very effectively.

It doesn't work very well without broad participation.

Because keynesians don't really want to help the poor, they want to be taxed which serves as flogging to atone for their guilt for the poor, which then makes them feel better about themselves.

If we wanted to help the poor we would be making things easier for small businesses, not harder.

You don't help people by giving them fish, you help them by teaching them how to fish. I can't believe I'm having to remind HNers about this.

A better answer is removing expensive barriers of entry to allow small businesses to compete with larger companies, removing artificial boundaries to allow labor to go where it is most needed just as capital is allowed the same today, and _reducing taxes_ allowing the middle class to thrive once more instead of giving special privileges to the wealthy and buying off the poor with free debt.

As a member of the middle class, I'm honestly curious how reducing taxes would help me in the least.

An extra thousand bucks or so at the end of the year gets me what exactly?

I am puzzled by this. There is also this first order decrease in cost of living that technology drives, that really is the 'rising tide that lifts all boats', in effect, a 'natural' progressive redistribution[0]. It would be hard to argue that inequality increased between, say, 1700 and 1900 because of the increase in technology.

[0] This 'natural' redistribution tends to be counteracted by authorities that debase the money system. Currently we have an explicit anti-deflationist policy on the grounds that lowering prices are believed to inherently have a socially destabilizing effect. Monetary policy tends to be regressive redistribution, because the primary executors of these policies are connected to banks, and the secondary effects are to create upward market indexes that beat inflation (but are eventually corrected downward, hurting middle-class 'slow movers' like pension funds and disproportionately helping upper-class 'fast moving' investment classes).

> It would be hard to argue that inequality increased between

Based on averages, why would it be? Inequality does not measure where you are coming from, it measures the relative economic distance between groups now. We can all live better these days and yet have a far greater difference in wealth between the richest and poorest.

yeah, pretty sure the gini coefficient went down during that era.

Imagine a system which levied taxes not to fund government expenditure but to carefully control inflation. In this system there is no need for the government to collect taxes from citizen X to fund the needs of citizen Y. How is this possible? Study U.S. fiscal policy and you will learn about such a system. Given enough consideration you will eventually see that 'the redistribution of wealth' from citizen X to Y is an antiquated idea given how our monetary system actually works. A more accurate description of what occurs is: given the growth of the productivity of the population as a whole, we can 'distribute wealth' to those with less as long as this distribution doesn't cause the system to become unstable.

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