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
"A) Canada refuses to cooperate and give us their water"

-- ha, that's like Ukraine refuses to cooperate and had over Crimea.
Mar 24, 2014
"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 cost 10s of $trillions. Remember the stimulus and all those shovel-ready jobs? How's that working out for ya?

And if robots do all the construction -- how does it solve unemployment?

I'm more worried about when robots start taking over the jobs in China. Half the population still lives in poverty. But the other half (over 500 million people) are getting a taste of the good life -- and they like it. Imagine what happens when robots start building everything (all the stuff we buy from China, we'll buy from some factory in Mexico where all the robots work).
Mar 24, 2014
leaving aside the robots-ate-my-dole-cheque vibe for a moment, I enjoyed envisioning the continent-spanning, back-in-time-ness of the canals idea. A little bit of Iain Banks' Consider Phlebas in there, although his was in a giant, artificial, ring-shaped habitat in deepest outer space.

Anyway, practicalities started punching holes in the dream, and or adding to it.
In no particular order
- canal boats get very cold in cold water. Conduction (water) trumps convection (air), and the water sucks the heat out very quickly. Yes, insulation yadda yadda, but soooo cold.
- having all that open water would lead to massive water loss through evaporation
- possibly that magnitude of water loss could be part of a deliberate, structured climate-altering project
- ice in winter
- massive massive massive traffic jams at crucial lock junctions. You thought it was bad in the rush hour now, how about waiting weeks to get through to higher (or lower ground)?
- one of the biggest pleasures of canal boating is to navigate from canal-side pub to canal-side pub, so the food and drink industries would thrive
- it might make for a more efficient delivery of effluent to processing centres
- the canal boats could form a gets-there-eventually freight transport system
- would need some awesome canyon-spanning aquaducts

Not clear how this has anything to do with robots really, but a pleasant few minutes imagining.
Mar 24, 2014
Mmm, the boat scenario is kind of boring.

But in thinking about it, I realized the real cause of the future human-robot war.

It will be caused when the displaced workers begin to revolt and destroy the robots who are stealing their jobs.

Corporate-think solution will be to program the robots to react/defend themselves, and at some point in pursuit of this cause, a clever programmer will create something close enough to a singularity- it will leak out into the already semi-weaponized robot populace, and that will be that.

Robot-human war. Feel free to steal this idea for a movie or book, I am too lazy to write it. You could give me credit, though. I did put three minutes' work into this, after all.
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).

There will probably just be *different* jobs. Just as it has every time that this fear has reared its ugly head before. And, sorry, but the one way to ensure that distortionary effects are felt by the increased use of technology, it would be another government program to mitigate those predicted outcomes.

[When manufacturing migrated from the U.S. to overseas, those high-paying jobs were replaced by low-paying service jobs. I would say the risk is proven by history. After the robot age we might be fully employed removing tics from each other for a dollar a year but I wouldn't call that a lateral move. -- Scott]
Mar 24, 2014
The boats could be connected to the power grid inductively (without cooking the fish between the buried coils and the boat). See WitTricity. And, no, the water doesn't short out the field. It just puts an upper limit on the resonant frequency, so almost all of the energy transfer is via the magnetic field.
+19 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 24, 2014
1) As said previously, water freezes in half the nation for 1/4 of the year.
2) The amount of energy necessary to pump water from Canada or whatever wet state you prefer, or even the ocean if need be all the way up to the high elevations in most of the country would be astronomical. As in more energy than all of humanity currently produces.
3) Evaporation would be a huge problem in the entire Southwest. Canals through Arizona and New Mexico would require extreme amounts of water.
4) The amount of soil you'd have to remove to make these canals would probably be more land mass than humanity has moved in all of history. Just one single 4 houseboat wide channel (2 directions allowing for passing) from NY to LA that is 10' deep (on level terrain) would be over 700 million tons and the volume of dirt removed would be about 44 Panama Canal's worth of excavation.
Mar 24, 2014

Working to improve the education level of our population would be a more effective and infinitely easier approach.

There will always be a percentage of people who are innately only capable of manual labor, but that is small relative to those our society has created. Plenty of ideas to do that, but it would get overtly political.
Mar 24, 2014
[Obviously the system requires lots of planning. But let me give you a few ideas of how boats could be cheaper:

1. Can relocate to climates that require less heating and cooling.
2. Smaller than homes (but improved lifestyle in most cases).
3. Energy efficient.
4. Electric motors (less maintenance)
5. Low delivery costs for building materials (delivered by boat).
6. Homes are custom-built. Boats can be mass-produced.
7. Far fewer local home-building rules to satisfy.

And as far as Canadian water, let's assume Seattle and other overly wet states are kicking in water too. -- Scott]

Which one of those advantages arent shared by mobile homes?
Mar 24, 2014
Just wondering - is the US really such a great place to live in a boat all year round? I don't know so much about the US but just two months ago there were severe cold waves in the US even in our news here in Germany. Or does your unlimited optimism include weather control making winter a thing of the past?

I'm also wondering if boats can be really energy efficient (particularly regarding heating and air conditioning) compared to houses, and since they cannot connect to the energy grid they all need an individual energy source or really big batteries.

And then I simply don't believe that robots will take over human jobs on any scale worth mentioning. Robots can perform repetitive tasks. Period. The workplace of a robot has to be prepared specifically so that it can do its repetitive work without disruption. You cannot send a robot simply anywhere and make him do a variety of different, partly unforeseeable actions. But this is what you expect from a cleaning woman, a nurse, a caretaker, a handyman, or a hairdresser. The difference is that you can tell a human what to do, in natural language. Robots need to be programmed. There is no such thing as artificial intelligence and there will not be such a thing in the next 30 years (and the main reason for that is that there is simply no necessity to develop it due to cheap human labor, compared with the enormous development effort needed).

Regarding water, I think you should go for using solar energy to create potable water from ocean water. And for distributing water you simply need a nationwide water grid - this should be a simple thing compared to your canal network. Wouldn't be such a tourist attraction, of course (you could create submarine house boats though :). But I think your farmers will vote for the cheapest water source they can get. Good luck with that.
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 24, 2014
"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."

Do-nothing is not %0 and is not certain doom. You are severely discounting the jobs created by building, maintaining and installing robots. People will move across industries. It would be several orders of magnitude cheaper to train truck drivers in robot maintenance than to build canals.
+33 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 24, 2014
When I see an idiotic idea from someone I don't know, I assume that person is an idiot.

When I see an idiotic idea from someone I know to be intelligent and thoughtful, I assume that person is on medication.

But when I see an idiotic idea from an intelligent, thoughtful, non-medicated person, I assume they are messing with me, and I look for clues embedded in the idea that tip off their real point.

But you got me on this one Scott... I got nothin'...
Mar 24, 2014
Scott, I'm impressed. This is a good direction. I can honestly say I have not seen this before. The closest was a railway based approach that involved high tech powered train cars instead of boats. Anyone who has owned a boat big enough to live on knows that boats are a maintenance money pit. So, even after the whole system has been built out, the fleet maintenance needs would keep many, many, humans employed managing the required automation. This would indeed provide a significant flow of wages to the people in exchange for real value, which is the central issue of an economy based on robots: How do you complete the money loop back to the (human) population's pockets? I really like approaches like this that define fresh new ways to live and work, instead of forced redistribution of the robots' earnings that is not in exchange for actual value. It's better to figure out new ways to pay the humans to be and to do what the society needs to carry on. Notice that, regardless of the details, Scott has proposed a system in which government can still be the "server" and the people can still be fundamentally in charge as the "client".
Mar 24, 2014
I remember (vaguely) being in college, smoking lots of weed, and coming up with really impractical ideas to save the world. This sounds like one of those ideas.

Wholes you say?
1) The up-front cost is huge: digging, lock building, and the infrastructure to support all of this.
2) This doesn't solve any water or transportation issues: Drawing water off the canals will deplete them quicker than you think, and transportation by boat is rather slow for the go-go culture we live in.
3) The tourist attraction factor is low: Ocean cruises work because you can go to interesting places with great climates. Peoria Illinois ain't either of those things.

[For the record, I would totally visit Peoria Illinois. -- Scott]
Mar 24, 2014
Scott, keep dreaming. I mean that in a good way, I like reading these kind of fresh ideas. Economically your plan could work, but I have two environmental concerns:

1. I live in Canada, and we do have lots of water and you're certainly welcome to share some, but not all of it please.
2. Highways divide ecosystems and strand animals that need to roam. Canals wouldn't be as bad if we were starting from a fresh slate (less crushings) but we already have tons of roads and this new project would cause a huge amount of habitat loss. Also, what would you do with all the dirt?

One of the other commenters commented about what happens in winter. Well here in Canada we either run ice breaking boats through important channels to enable other boats to traverse the waterways, or we just let them freeze over and they become huge skating rinks. Fun either way.
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 24, 2014
Ah, if only the country was level or near level. I see locks, locks everywhere.
But sign me up, I'd likely want to live on one of these boats. I'm ready for a live of leisure on the backs of the robot minions.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 24, 2014
...and then what? Everyone cruises around jobless until they starve? This is probably your most under-thought idea ever, Scott, and I'm usually a fan of them.

[You might have missed some of the finer points of my idea. -- Scott]
Mar 24, 2014
When I envisage the perfect future world it entails humans having to do nothing and all their needs being catered for by robots. Nobody has to work because everything is done by robotic slaves. Therefore everyone is intrinsically rich and does not have to work. Now in this hypothetical world when we look at unemployment we see that everyone is basically unemployed. The conventional view is thus that this must be a horrific place to live in because of the high unemployment rate but the reality is quite the opposite. A question thus arises from this hypothetical scenario. Is the unemployment problem then really a problem ? Is it not a move towards the ideal world where no one has to work ?

[You are describing the end game. I'm describing the decades between now and then. -- Scott]
Mar 24, 2014
I don't understand the fear of robots regarding unemployment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, In 2012, natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations and production, transportation, and material moving occupations made up 21 percent of the workforce. Let's say robots replace half of those workers over the next 10 years. That would be a 1% employment impact per year.

In my view, that pales in comparison to the employment disruption already caused by computers and the internet. Entire industries have been eliminated or are on their way to being eliminated, including: record stores, newspapers, travel agencies and many others. Meanwhile many support positions have been radically reduced, including secretary, teller, inventory manager, etc. Overall, it has been and will be much easier to kill off an administrative job with a computer than it is to kill off a manual labor job with a robot.

So, I guess I don't understand why the (likely slower than expected) advance of robots is going to cause more disruption or even the same level of disruption than we have seen over the past couple decades.
Mar 24, 2014
I also think your premise is flawed; robots wont cause massive unemployment in the future any more than automation causes massive unemployment now.

[What is your prediction for how unskilled labor finds work when robots are a better option? -- Scott]
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