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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
This is a fabulous example of thinking big, Scott. But you basically asked us to poke holes in it, I'll raise three salient points:

1. I'm pretty sure I don't agree with the fundamental hypothesis that robots will steal all our jobs. I'm just a moist robot when it comes to macro economics and employment, but that feels a lot like an outgrowth of the "illegal immigrants will steal all our jobs" right-wing screed.

2. More practically, I know you've traveled around the country a lot, so I have to think you're aware of just how frickin' big the USA is. Creating a series of actually interconnected canals would be wildly impractical. You'd have a 80-20 balance of 80% of the canals never getting used because they're in the middle of nowhere. That said, I suppose you COULD have a more "limited" system of canals that are just strategically placed. I imagine the Riverwalk in San Antonio could serve as a model of sorts; just scaled up dramatically. (BTW, if you've never been to the Riverwalk, it's worth a day trip if you're ever in the region. I hate Texas in general but I've been to San Antonio twice for conferences and had a good time for both on the Riverwalk.)

3. Given where you grew up, didn't you know about the Erie Canal and what a hot mess that is? I lived in Brighton and Canandaigua NY for four years (2007-2011) and everything we ever heard about the Erie Canal was always about what a mess it was, politically, environmentally, and economically. Everyone always talked about how the Canal was supposed to be a big tourist boom (the Canal is strictly pleasure boats these days; no commercial or industrial traffic outside of "canal tour" boats) for all the little Canal towns along it and it never really was.

Plus there's a more practical concern: water freezes. A lot of the country is too cold to run an outdoor water-based tourist system for a hefty portion of the year. But I concede that if the scope of the project is big enough, that might not matter; winter in the south, summer in the north...that sort of thing.

That said, I do wonder if such a system could be a way of achieving a badly-neeeded update of the water distribution infrastructure for America. My hunch is that an open-air canal wouldn't work (evaporation losses) and a pipeline wouldn't have enough volume (too narrow diameter). I remember a lot of local gadflies along the Amtrak NorthEast Corridor said that the big electrification update 15 years ago was a secret way of adding power distribution up the coast. That wasn't true; you need very, very high voltages...to have a corresponding drop in amperage...to make long-distance power distribution economical, and you can't have high voltage like that on wires so close to the ground. You get weird electromagnetic coupling issues that have real human safety issues; that's a major reason why power lines are so high up in the air. But in theory the project COULD have been designed to do both. No reason your project couldn't be designed to do both as well.
 
 
Mar 24, 2014
Too ambitious. Once again you have produced a plan that should be approached slowly if at all for the simple reason that quite a lot of things are likely to go wrong with implementation. Some possibilities:

A) Canada refuses to cooperate and give us their water
B) We dont get enough water to canalize the US
C) Many of the people put out of work by robots cant get work in planning this system or anywhere else in this new economy you're trying to create
D) How exactly would a house boat be more energy efficient than a land house?
E) How exactly would a boat based house be cheaper/better than existing mobile homes?

[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]
 
 
 
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