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As robots take more jobs from humans we can expect a massive unemployment problem. Let's start planning for that now. I'll limit this discussion to the United States just to keep things simple, but the concepts should be applicable everywhere.

I'm about to describe a huge government program. Please don't leave comments saying huge government programs are never a good idea unless you have a better idea that doesn't involve the government.

So let's say the plan I'm about to propose has about a 20% chance of working. That still beats the do-nothing option of massive unemployment leading to certain doom.

My plan is to turn the United States into more of a tourist attraction than it already is by building vast networks of interconnected canals across the nation. These canals would accommodate hotel and residential houseboats. And let's say the houseboats are all computerized so you just plug in your destination and go have a drink on the top deck while the boat does the rest, including making its own scheduled maintenance and refueling stops.

I'm stealing the Google self-driving car concept and applying it to a canal network with houseboats. The boats would be aware of other boats and obstacles and avoid them.

Now let's say that by law the only boats allowed on the canals are the self-driving and highly "green" types that don't pose much risk of polluting the canals. Then the canals become a solution to water shortages across the country as well, so long as they are fed by Canadian water sources. So this project is also a partial solution to climate change and the water shortages. And because these canal routes will crisscross the country, perhaps it makes sense to build out the next generation of our energy grid along the same rights-of-ways.

I imagine all of the house boats on the canal being built with a common docking standard and individual identity beacons. If you want to dock with a friend's boat for the day, just enter the identity numbers for your two boats, wait for the confirmation, and the boats do the rest. The two boats might be miles apart when you program them, and they adjust speeds accordingly to meet. You'd use the same method to dock with restaurant boats, gift shop boats, and other service crafts.

I can imagine that a portion of the house boats are rented to tourists and another portion are full-time homes for retirees and people who just prefer continual travel. Each boat will have full Internet access so folks can work and travel at the same time.

I would think that at some point the cost of a houseboat would be far below the cost of a home because there is no land involved and the houseboats would be energy-efficient. So this could also be an answer to affordable housing.

Obviously robots would be a big part of the labor force for a massive project of this size. But you'd also need huge numbers of humans for planning and implementing. And if the human workers for the canal project are the first occupants of the houseboats, their cost of living might be so low that they become competitive with robot labor. A big reason that human labor costs so much is that our lifestyles are relatively expensive. The boating lifestyle could be designed from the bottom up to be inexpensive (yet awesome). When humans can live inexpensively, they can charge less for their labor and compete with robots for a bit longer.

This one massive project would modernize the energy grid, solve the water crisis, expand tourism, create affordable housing, stimulate the economy, solve unemployment, reduce shipping costs, and make travel affordable.

And it would touch every part of the country. Every town along the canal system would want to create a commercial center and docking area for boaters.

What do you think?

[Update: It occurred to me that you could also design the canals with power generators at the bottom that are powered by the current. And you might as well lay fiber along the route while you're at it, with wifi towers all along the route. Oh, and let's add lots of edible fish to the canals so boaters can catch as they go.]

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com (Scheduling made simple)

Time.com says my latest book is not crazy.

 


 

 
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Mar 24, 2014
The math doesn't work. Simply put, there isn't enough water for your plan.

Look at it like this: All of the fresh water in North America is contained in rivers, streams, and lakes. That water is already running in all of the easiest flow routes. Not only would you have to build your canals, you'd have to avoid and dam every single one of the current rivers because the water would try and take that route because it's the easiest. This would have the knock-on effect of depriving the downstream locations of their water. Ultimately it only works if you can have the canals AND the rivers. But since all of the water is currently in the rivers you're SOL, there's nothing for your Canals.

As for the Canadian part, that water's inaccessible to you. It mostly drains into Hudson's Bay to the North, so you'd be asking Canada to divert the Hudson's Bay drainage for American benefit, which isn't likely.

And for all the smart-asses who know jack f-a about Canada and think you could invade in a heartbeat, maybe consider what would happen if you introduced a strong impetus for domestic terrorism into a country who's just combined their transportation system with their drinking water.
 
 
Mar 24, 2014
@Whtllnew

"Anyone else see a contradiction here? The rest of your post seems to be a very good reason why the jobs situation isnt improving as fast as it should, but what I hear you saying here is that job growth is improving slightly...AND the labor force is shrinking."

Thanks for nice compliment! Yes, those are mutually exclusive. That was intended as a reference to the ongoing joke about the reported national unemployment rate percentage number. Yeah, I should have said the "percentage of unemployed" instead of "job growth". The powers that be have presented many a decreasing percent unemployment number as a wonderful thing that seems to imply job growth, but when you look behind the curtain, the dominant change that is driving the number down is that many unemployed people are giving up and dropping out of the workforce, so they don't get counted, and Voila! the percentage of unemployed goes down as they fall away into oblivion (or disability). In fairness, about 125k new workers enter the labor market every month, so zero percent change isn't zero jobs created.
 
 
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Mar 24, 2014
I've been an advocate of a US aquaduct system, similar to what the Roman Empire used, for a couple of decades. That part alone would solve many problems, including unemployment. You just need to limit the construction to small companies, which are only allowed to work within 1 county, and must hire only laborers from that county. For the less populated areas, well, they don't need it.

Oh, and bury the power lines while you're at it. Same rules as above, they can probably be done simultaneously.
---
The world needs ditch diggers too. How many of them need a college education? How about the guy who picks up your trash? Or people who clean dishes? Education is a great way to level the playing field so that all kids have an equal(ish) opportunity, and the son of a plumber doesn't automatically have to be a plumber. But a healthy economy, on any scale, needs people at all levels because all of those things still need to be done. The value of each is determined by the collective will of the people, so a doctor and his skills are valued more (and therefore cost more) than a ditch digger.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 24, 2014
Google "robotic nation". Marshall Brain's essays on this topic are well worth reading.
 
 
Mar 24, 2014
@Ludwig817

[...So, you get tiny improvements in the monthly reports of job growth, but the labor force continues to shrink as automation continues....]

Anyone else see a contradiction here? The rest of your post seems to be a very good reason why the jobs situation isnt improving as fast as it should, but what I hear you saying here is that job growth is improving slightly...AND the labor force is shrinking.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 24, 2014
Huge government programs are never a good idea. I saw a Potato!
 
 
Mar 24, 2014
[... Oh, and let's add lots of edible fish to the canals so boaters can catch as they go.]

Use Asian carp. You don't even have to hunt them. Just rev your boat engine a few times and they will get agitated and jump into the boat by themselves, trying to bite you.
 
 
Mar 24, 2014
This is the worst idea I've ever heard based on a premise that isn't true. Automation has always increased the standard of living of the population. However, I applaud Scott on the creation of a brilliantly nonsensical solution to a fantisized problem.
 
 
Mar 24, 2014
"I don't accept the basic premise - that the use of more robots will create fewer jobs. We've heard that argument starting with the Luddites (probably before), and continued through the automation in manufacturing. There are actually more jobs of every kind (globally, though perhaps not in every locale)."

In each historical case, the Luddites, automation of farming, and industrial automation, the displaced workers were not re-absorbed into the economy at equivalent compensation until business expansion eventually created demand for workers that exceeded supply and pushed wages back up. People were unemployed and under-employed for a long time. (sound familiar?) In all of these historic cases, the automation that displaced the workers saturated the market quickly, due to competitive pressure, then slowed to a trickle. So, while this drastically reduced the number of employees needed for a given automated task, that number remained constant until the next big automation innovation. That long constant interval gave business a chance to expand and re-absorb the available workers. What is different now, is that big software innovations are happening so fast that there is little time to re-absorb the workers before the next innovation throws more people out of work. The theory is that the rate of software/firmware innovations will continue to increase, resulting in a more-or-less permanent large surplus of available workers, causing high unemployment and under-employment.

Remember when the financial pundits told us that the recession was over in 2009, and nobody (including me) believed it? Look at a plot of corporate profit as a percentage of GDP over the last ten years. Corporate profit recovered robustly in 2009 and has been trending higher ever since. Sure doesn't feel like it! Compare with a plot of wages and other compensation as a percentage of GDP over the same period. Profits took off as total wages paid sank like a rock. Remember, this was when a lot of angry young people were yelling about the greedy business 1%. Obviously, something major WAS going on. Analysis by Stratfor and others concluded that for a decade before the crash, business had been incorporating significant automation, but had not reduced staff to minimums. When the crash hit and profit went away, business reevaluated staff requirements in light of the new tools and soft market and cut staff to bare minimums. That was the big thump, a direct result of a decade of automation innovations. When the decline stopped and demand picked up as inventories came down, business became profitable again very quickly, due mostly to reduced labor expenses. There was essentially no recovery for labor. Meanwhile, business software and automation software continued to get cheaper/better and business got better at using them efficiently. So, you get tiny improvements in the monthly reports of job growth, but the labor force continues to shrink as automation continues.

The employment disruption caused by robots that Scott described is not a phantom of the distant future. It has already started to happen. We don't see it clearly yet because we blame the effects on the recession. Smile, it helps. Also, think of tics as munchies.
 
 
Mar 24, 2014
@Raskolnikov

[I can't believe people are still debating whether robots are about to cause massive unemployment]

Expect the debate to continue up to the point where A) robots really are causing massive unemployment or B)robots get as good as they're going to get and were all still working overtime.
 
 
Mar 24, 2014
[My plan is to turn the United States into more of a tourist attraction than it already is by building vast networks of interconnected canals across the nation....Now let's say that by law the only boats allowed on the canals are the self-driving and highly "green" types that don't pose much risk of polluting the canals....And because these canal routes will crisscross the country, perhaps it makes sense to build out the next generation of our energy grid along the same rights-of-ways....I imagine all of the house boats on the canal being built with a common docking standard and individual identity beacons....(half a dozen other similar bits and pieces)]

Anyone else here reminded of this dilbert?

http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/1994-02-20/
 
 
Mar 24, 2014
I started feeling real sad for the president of Intel. Who will he eat lunch with? At noon he'll leave his office, walk across the wide, deserted floor to the elevator, pass the automated accounting dept, pass the automated engineering department, and down to the front security-bot desk.

Oops, don't go out the front door. Hordes of unemployeds. Zombie-like, homeless, dirty people with distended stomachs, begging for scraps.

OK, so turn around. Check the vending machine. Maybe there's lunch in there. Hmm, a chocolate bar. Hey, I got it. I'll have lunch with the president of Nestle. He's probably just as lonely as me.

So, up to the roof and into the corporate auto-helicopter.

Isn't it nice enjoying a steak and martini lunch, just me and the president of Nestle? Happy ending.

 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 24, 2014
It sounds like the kind of good idea every country needs to keep up with progress.
Of course, foreigners might find it worthy to send the drones and have a free visit. ;-)
 
 
Mar 24, 2014
I can't believe people are still debating whether robots are about to cause massive unemployment. Go to Google News and enter: "Bill Gates robots" for his recent presentation at a DC think tank.

White collar workers will be vulnerable soon. Lawyers do repetitive work. If AI allows one lawyer to do the job of four, then you have massive unemployment in the legal area. Same with other information-intensive jobs like banking and medicine.

Generations ago, "blue collar" jobs vanished for the draft horse because automation became less expensive than oats for the horse. The same thing will happen to humans. The horses didn't revolt, but humans may not go so quietly. That's why socialism is absolutely inevitable. Koch brothers' political ads may be entertaining, but they won't fill your belly.

Secondly, I think you may be overestimating how many people really care about traveling around the US. I think most young, displaced workers would settle for free food, health care and internet connection. They may even trade sterilization for such security -- which helps solve some long-term shortages.

BTW, a shortage of water is really just a shortage of energy. If you run a dehumidifier, you can pull water out of the air, even in a desert. The jetstream is the really the ultimate "canal". We are one green energy breakthrough away from solving both these shortages.


 
 
Mar 24, 2014
Wut.

I get the feeling that the whole "robots will cause unemployment" thing was just a excuse to come out with the batcrap crazy canal idea. Therefore disputing the premise by pointing out that technological advancement and automation has historically created at least as many jobs as it has taken away would be pointless. One must instead dispute the idea of turning half the North American continent into Venice. However, I think that really goes without saying. If you're so in love with the houseboat idea though, we've got two big oceans to either side. I believe you've spoken before about the concept of building an independent floating island nation. Well, okay, just built it with canals and there you go.
 
 
Mar 24, 2014
I may have my econ 101 all wrong, but my understanding is that society benefits when it can allocate labor to tasks that bring the maximum increase in well-being for each unit of incremental labor. So, we are going to 100,000 miles of canals so people can....live on houseboats?

If the point of this plan is employment, then why don't we have them dig the canals and then fill them back in again? At least that way, you would avoid the enormous costs of energy, water supply, etc. Or, to be more blunt, why not create employment by having all the unemployed people break and repair windows across the country?
 
 
Mar 24, 2014
Houses are expensive, and boats are quite costly too. How the hell boathouses would be something anyone could have?
 
 
Mar 24, 2014
[I'm more worried about when robots start taking over the jobs in China.]

It's already happening, Chuck. Remember when Foxconn was pressured into paying a higher wage and cutting back on round-the-clock work hours? Last year, Foxconn announced automation plans and has already ordered the first wave of industrial robots.
 
 
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Mar 24, 2014
Scottie Canal

http://screen.yahoo.com/johnny-canal-000000884.html

[Okay, that is kinda hilarious. -- Scott]
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 24, 2014
Doesn't automation typically increase productivity rather than cause massive unemployment? There's still a lot of people working in the microchip industry and chocolate factories despite the massive automation there.

Not that this is a bad way of utilising the massive surplus productivity that robots will provide.

[Automation has already moved people from high-paying factory jobs to jobs in the fast food industry. And that's with automation that is a 2 on a scale of 1-10. Wait until you have full-robot function and see how many humans are needed to make chocolate or microchips. -- Scott]
 
 
 
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