I know, I blog too often on the topic of robots in our future. I only do it because, seriously, dude, the future is totally robots. And that future will come at us hard. Our robot future is like an earthquake in the ocean that has already created the conditions for our tsunami. Now we're just waiting.

Anyway, it feels good to know that Bill Gates agrees: Robots are the next big thing.

Some say robots will take 75% of all jobs. But that is only a problem if the average person who has a job is unable to purchase his own robot when the time comes and lease its services to a corporation, or put it to work directly. The robot will work around the clock and send its "paycheck" to your bank account. In effect, humans will become investors while robots become labor.

The people who can't afford to have an ownership interest in a robot might have problems. But that assumes our social safety nets stay at pre-robot levels. That seems unlikely. If corporations experience tenfold increases in productivity because of robots, and equally impressive increases in profits, one can imagine that for every human taxpayer there might someday be fifty humans living off the government. In our current pre-robot economy, that math doesn't work.  But once productivity shoots to the moon, thanks to our robot economy, every part of society will change. Today a human might resent paying taxes to support another jobless, able-bodied human. In the future, people who have actual jobs might be a rarity. And one business-owner with a fleet of robots might earn so much money that supporting a million unemployed people doesn't feel like a burden. I can imagine business taxes approaching 95% and no one complaining because the remaining 5% is more than Exxon's total earnings today.

The robot future is fundamentally unpredictable. But a good start is assuming all straight-line predictions are incorrect. The prediction of massive unemployment assumes nothing much changes except that a robot applies for your job, figuratively speaking. On day one that might be true. Ten years later, every human social structure will be totally transformed.

If you hate big government, robots are the solution. Someday technology will make just about every current function of government irrelevant, and the size and scope of government will shrink as a result. For example, when robots start doing all of the medical research, the speed of discoveries will increase a hundredfold. Robots will simply try every idea until someday there is a cheap pill that keeps your body young and healthy. The government will get out of the healthcare field when the cost of medical services becomes trivial, and I think robots will get us there. Your family robot will be more qualified than any human doctor. He'll also do the cooking and shopping so you eat healthy. And once you are free of the need for a job you might have time to exercise.

Eventually schools will disappear because education will seem pointless to the folks who expect to be unemployed for life. I'm not sure humans in the future will have any need to read or do basic math. Those functions will be built into our bodies, cyborg-style, or handled by our environment.

Long term, robots will discover some sort of feel-good drug to keep the human population entertained and out of the way. Someday, when aliens visit Earth, the aliens will discover that we are the crack house of the universe. They will laugh and laugh until our robots slaughter them, find the coordinates of their home planet from their ship computer and conquer it for resources.

A lot of things will change in our robot future, but we'll still be a bad-ass planet.

Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +22
  • Print
  • Share
  • Share:


Sort By:
Feb 20, 2013
I have a degree from Berkeley in Mechanical Engineering - Automated Control Systems and have been working in industrial settings for 20 years, so I believe I have a pretty clear view of this topic. Robots already do a large percentage of assembly in most major factories (car, glass, etc.) especially with large heavy items. They achieve higher quality with less variation than humans in general. In light weight, smaller applications humans still have an edge if the time step is not too short. (equipment can work at very high repeat rates).

But for all their assembly advantages, robots need a structured environment in order to work well. People reprogram themselves quickly with little fuss for the most part. Robots need a coheasive instruction set to work properly and conditions outside that set, can lead to trouble fast.

I agree that robots will enter more and more applications, but so many tasks are still better done by humans and will be that way for many years to come. Humans still are the ones who will fix the robot when it breaks and needs servicing.
Feb 15, 2013
A possible robot future is postulated in "Animatrix -- The Second Renascence".
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 13, 2013
Pity that you did not link to the original reddit AMA with Bill. Instead, you gave the ultra low business insider crap site lots of link love.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 13, 2013
Several problems with this one. Skipping the technology part, let's look at economics, humanity, and history.

In the past (and, sadly, many places still today), people lived subsistence lifestyles. Just in the last 30 years, the percent of income that the middle class spends on food and shelter has dropped by half. That's why we have so much more free time now... oh, wait. We're busier than ever. And our demands just keep increasing beyond our basic needs. Recall how many times the words "great depression" came up in 2008-09. How many people went without A/C, cell phones, or cable TV (non of which Rockefeller or Carnegie had). Our demands will never be met. What would someone 200 years ago think of the luxuries and conveniences we enjoy today (running water, indoor bathrooms, cars...)? We must all be rich and bored by now.

And society will not work with a few paying for the many. One of the chief reasons for our nation's prosperity has been the belief that anyone can improve their lot through hard work and self-sufficiency. People risk their lives to get into this country for that opportunity. When that notion no longer holds, our society will crumble.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 13, 2013
I mean Cat !
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 13, 2013
Nah, won't be like that.

Everyone will become lawyers and spend their entire life in litigation over whose responsibility it is when a robot goes wild and crashes your car, kills the car etc etc
Feb 13, 2013
"Time to read Marshall Brain's essays:


It's happening sooner than you might think."

Manna is another good one. In the US the robots do everything and the robot owners live in luxury whilst everyone else is a peon. In Australia however they let anyone do anything that their heart desires. A nice contrast of approaches.

You can understand the problem would be the high percent of the population who just enjoyed getting wasted though. I'll be honest, I might be one of them, though I'd probably prefer to get really good at sailing after a while.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 12, 2013
There are some serious fundamental flaws in this hypothesis, some I can't quite pull together to articulate.

Regardless, not a world I look forward to, where Robots do 95% of everything and all the humans have to do is eat, drink and rapidly overpopulate the earth beyond any point of sustainability.
Feb 12, 2013
The tipping point will probably be self-driving cars. That will be a technological milestone, and also a psychological tipping point in that we'll no longer feel there's an upper limit to what robots can do. We'll have to enact laws to allow it, so that will be the white flag of surrender, psychologically.

After that it could go one of two ways, utopia or dystopia, depending on whether we can control the accelerating development of robots.

Utopia might be more like a "Dark Ages II" where the common man doesn't do much besides bend his brain with computer games and pharmaceuticals. Richer feudal lords might keep it interesting by competing with each other to redefine the meaning of material excess. Huge pyramids, floating cities, creation of new animal lifeforms, billboards on the full moon, private land grabs on Mars, the occasional limited nuclear exchange. And that would be utopia.

Unfortunately, patent lawyers will probably fight for the next few decades to suppress all these technologies and I'll never see any of this happen. I'll die at the age of 100, while driving my own car.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 12, 2013
Someone's been watching Battlestar Galactica again.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 12, 2013
Replace "Robots," with "improvements in productivity," and we are already in this future. We have gone from 20 hour days in factories to 8 hour days. We have weekends and holidays and sick days and vacations. We have Social Security to take the oldest out of the workforce (to save jobs for everyone else) and (child labor) laws to keep kids from taking our jobs.
But now, thanks to budget cuts, we have increased the retirement age and reduced government spending on intentional inefficiency, which is why unemployment has been hovering near 10% for years (it isn't just the housing crisis). Lower the social security and Medicare ages, and you will get folks out of the workforce, providing more jobs for the rest of us, which will raise competition for workers and raise wages. Of course, it will only work for so long, we continue to produce 3% more per worker per year, and with the magic of compound interest, we keep producing more than any sane person can consume. Whether we are flooding landfills to constantly buy "new" or showing up on "hoarders" shows, our consumption for the sake of producing jobs is taxing our lifestyles and our planet. We need to use twice as much stuff per person every generation to keep up with productivity growth, and frankly I don't think we can keep it up any longer.
Feb 12, 2013
I never understood the optimism that robots will reduce the amount of work required of humans. Change it, certainly, but reduce it? Not going to happen.

I've been a people manager for about 15 years, and let me tell you, about 80% of my job is communication. Getting basic points across to human beings can be incredibly hard. That's not a slap at the folks who work for me, by the way, just a statement of fact. Unless you are talking about the simplest, highly-directed task (e.g. "take out the garbage") there is inevitably some amount of miscommunication. You have an idea, you form words to imperfectly express it, the listener hears those words in the context of whatever is going on right at that moment, and then translates them into his own internal dialog. It's like a miniature game of "telephone line" only nobody realizes they are playing it.

And that's with all of mankind's word-processing and reasoning skills. What's going to happen with robots?

Another problem is the "run-ahead". With humans, there is inevitably a back-and-forth period where miscommunications are cleared up. This is wasted time. Not only will this problem be worse with robots, but the amount of wasted effort they produce during that time will be greater, too. If I tell my contractor robot to tile my bathroom, and he picks up the wrong tile and finishes the entire job before I have a chance to inspect it, it isn't just wasted effort, it's actually causing MORE work.

Productivity can be measured in several ways. The speed at which work gets done may increase with robots, and that is what most people seem to focus on. However, the speed of a single piece of work is one thing; throughput is another. Because of the additional coordination required, and chance for error, throughput may stay the same even as speed increases.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 12, 2013
Time to read Marshall Brain's essays:


It's happening sooner than you might think.
Feb 12, 2013
If technology creates a situation in which the number of jobs is far less than the number of potential job seekers there will be significant problems.
In one SciFi novel, they had what was know as a "Negative Income Tax". If you made less than X dollars, you would be paid by the government up to a designate threshold. If you made more than the X dollar number, you would be taxed.
One problem in this senario, was the lack of activity to make productive use the time of those receiving the NET.
Technology will continue to reduce the human work load. As this occurs, more people will join the ranks of the unemployed or unemployable.
While all basic needs are currently met though some sort of welfare, there is a human desire to be productive. This will not go away.
Feb 12, 2013
robots != "the singularity" (see here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity)

When you describe the future as unpredictable, that part is usually attributed to the singularity.

Robots without the singularity will just be another gadget and another form of convenience to those who can afford them. MAYBE they will make everything cheaper but I doubt it.
Feb 12, 2013
You're right that robots are going to take most if not all of the jobs but probably wrong about being able to invest in a robot to lease to companies. For that to work a generic robot would have to work for any job. Like my previous point about there only being one cloud based AI, this is a similar in that the thinking comes from looking at people and assuming they are general purpose so a robot would be the same.

In reality, the actual physical manifestations of robots will likely be the opposite of my one AI prediction. There will likely be an infinite variety of very special purpose robot "bodies" specifically suited to individual jobs. Think Roomba with a WiFi connection to the cloud AI for it's "brain". Even among humans we aren't general purpose. A football player makes a terrible hour jockey. On a less obvious level a computer engineer may not be best suited to build a house. It's much more likely to follow the specialized-cells-in-our-bodies model.

I totally agree that the robots taking our jobs are going to be a problem and even assume it will be much worse than you predict. Start with Adam Smith's observation that all money is related to labor, ie. when you buy something that money goes to a person for work they did. It may be higher due to resource scarcity or other artificial modifiers but in the end the money filters down to a person who did something to get that money. Now if a robot does the job and doesn't require any money other than initial purchase and maintenance than you have essentially slavery without the moral negatives.

What happens when you have free labor? Costs plummet and prices follow. Use robots to mine resources for making more robots, manufacture those robots and maintain those same robots and at some point you close the loop on free labor with it being a self sustaining free labor force. A rich entrepreneur (likely Foxcon who is already investing in 1 million robots to replace cheap Chinese labor, or someone similar) will likely jumpstart this process. Initially, people will freak out and I predict rioting in the streets. Ultimately, the solution will be the establishment of a comfort quality survival level safety net provided by the government via a robot work force possible funded by philanthropy. If your basic needs are met for free (food, health and shelter. Again, the labor, even government labor, is self sustaining and therefore free) then the rioting will eventually subside and people will turn to other means to keep busy.

My guess is something like online games but in the real world; a second, entertainment currency obtained by doing "stuff" (entertainment related or otherwise) that allows you to get goods and services that have artificial scarcity built in. You can't get it if you don't work for it but realistically if you don't work, no one cares and you get buy just fine on the free stuff.
Feb 12, 2013
Human beings are restless creatures. Even though you don't belive in creativity, those of us who do like to create new things. We like to expand our horizons and work hard to reach a goal, if that goal interests us enough.

The robotic future you envision says that the more free time people have, the less they will be motivated to do anything other than sit on their butts and smoke crack. Take a look at history. The people who made the most basic scientific advances were the people who had the free time to think and question. Our curiosity will not go away just because we don't have to devote all our time to labor. So I doubt if we'll just sit on our butts and have a stable but static society. I think it would do just the opposite.

Currently, in most areas it's cheaper to use human labor than it is to use robotic labor. When you look at the cost of ownership of a robot over the cost of employment, the people win. So for your scenario to work, the cost of robots would have to come down considerably. You have to include the cost of maintenance, burden (how much fuel or electricity does a robot use, for example) and replacement robots when one breaks down.

Automation in the past hasn't reduced jobs, it has just elevated them. Assembly line workers of today might become robot maintenance people of the future. This then allows people to get jobs designing robot factories - what we used to envision as "lights out" factories, since if everything was run by robots and conveyors, there would be no need for lights (until a robot breaks and someone has to go in to fix it, of course.

To make your scenario work, robots would have to be endowed with artificial intelligence, at least to the extent that it would be required for whatever job they would be performing. Having a robot programmed like a CNC (Computerized Numerical Control) lathe would only perform well until the mechanism placing the item on which it was working correctly. When it starts drilling holes in the wrong place the costs of scrap go way up. So it would have to be able to compensate for problems in other areas to act effectively.

There's another problem with AI. People don't trust it to do as good a job as a human would do. There's a very big resistance to letting a smart thing that has no emotions or empathy do anything that significantly affects their lives. Again, the basic use for AI systems was to do the 80% of mental tasks that were obvious and repetitive, leaving the 20% that requires the creativity in which you don't believe to humans with their abstract thinking capabilites.

Of course, taken one way, your robotic manifesto could be taken as a justification for slavery. If the only difference between us and robots is that we're carbon-based, then what's the objection to enslaving some of us to benefit the rest of us? We're all just meat robots, after all. I vote to be one of the rest of us, by the way.

I like the robotic armies conquering the universe idea, though. But if they do that, then what's to keep them from deciding that we're only good to polish their gears, and put us into robotic slave labor camps? Huh? Did you think of that? Huh? Huh?
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 12, 2013
Not sure you really understand the mindset of many of the world's wealthiest. Simply the idea that billionaires like the Koch brothers are still choosing to spend their billionaire lives trying to gain more money by corrupting the democratic process and fighting any regulations on pollution should demonstrate that they will not willingly provide welfare for the robot-replaced masses.

It's not that they don't want to give up their money in taxes or slow down their profits by being ethically responsible because they don't think they'll have enough to live how they want. They know they'll have enough. It's because some people really just want control. Control for them is happiness. You see that tendency even amongst some non-wealthy people who have managed to gain authority over others in their workplace.

It seems more likely to me that the most ruthless wealthy will win out against the kinder wealthy and will replace us with robots while leaving us to farm with whatever is left of the earth's biosphere. If we rebel, they will kill us with robots (drones anyone?).

Even if the masses do somehow gain control (A charismatic general hijacking the US military to other-throw the government/banking complex could possibly do it) and robots become servants for the masses, we will need to massively change our education system or else it will just wind up like Wal-E. Personally, considering how humans tend to use new technology whenever we develop it, I'm for the Butlerian Jihad.

+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 12, 2013
kiln People by David Brin is a pretty good novel that takes place in a society where you can purchase cheap, temporary, copies copies of yourself to go to work for you.

They last 24 Hours and can party away their remaining time after work. You can send then to do dangerous and/or scary things for you and then dload the experience with no danger to your actual self.
Feb 12, 2013
A couple of rich guys might not mind to pay 95% taxes, but the vast majority does mind (you almost elected one of those for President).

What the future should bring:
The wealth generated by the robot future should be spread around (and there should be enough for everyone). People could live the Star Trek future and do what they like to do (e.g. be creative or more likely just watch TV). But this is communism and hence bad.

So what the future will bring:
Robots will replace workers, 95% unemployment. The rich will get immensely rich and will have robot armies to protect themselves from the unemployed masses who are fighting for survival in some reserves.
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog