Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The jobs they are a vanishing

CGP Grey is a Youtube creative type who puts out fantastic videos on all kinds of obscure and arcane topics.  He discusses things like the rules and structures of the Eurozone, the way Vatican City is officially organized, and the history of the border between the US and Canada.  Somehow he manages to make this sort of thing incredibly interesting despite the dry seeming titles.  Recently he did a piece on the ways in which robots, both physical and code based, will replace our jobs.  He correctly points out that many people through history have thought their work could not be replaced and that they have been consistently wrong.  His point is that we are headed for massive unemployment due to so many of our jobs being easily accomplished by robots, even jobs such as physician, lawyer, or computer programmer.

This is the first time I have watched one of CGP's videos and said "Nope, wrong, missed it entirely."  He tries to make his point by emphasizing how horses would have thought about innovation just before they were largely replaced by cars.  Would they have thought that no noisy, expensive, unreliable machine could do their work?  He points out that horses now have a much smaller population than they did one hundred years ago and that they no longer do much in the way of work.  My reply would be that yes there are fewer horses and they have drastically better lives, work very little, and live longer and healthier.  The vision that we will be shoved aside from the world of backbreaking labour to become decorative hedonists who just do things when efficiency isn't a big deal and who live long, easy lives isn't exactly terrifying.  Seriously, horses have it pretty damn good as a species these days!

So even if we are destined to stop doing trivial tasks by dint of being replaced by more efficient machines I don't think that is a problem.  The more stuff robots can do for us the more wealth we have available to spread around.  However, I am not yet willing to concede that a life of decadent unemployment is our future.  Horse trainers were skilled professionals who required much experience to be excellent at their work.  They were nearly wiped out as a career by technological advancement and yet we still have unemployment at 7%.  Typewriter repair was a real, common career which required training and understanding.  Still, unemployment at 7%.  In the past it wasn't just people who lifted rocks that were replaced by technological change - it was everybody, and we adapted and found new things to do.  Nickelback is still filling venues even though we all know a bot could write better music.  (I actually like Nickelback, but you aren't supposed to admit that.)

There is nothing new about skilled professions getting the axe and people finding new things to do for one another.  Maybe we will be overwhelmingly driven towards being sex workers, politicians, or priests as every other job is systematically destroyed by technology.  I doubt that very much given our historical record of always finding wild and interesting employment but even if it does go that way, so what?  I can't and won't be a priest but I can have sex and utter bland platitudes just fine if it comes down to it.  The world is going to be filled with robot baristas, robot surgeons, and robot drivers and although that world is going to be very different from today I think we should rationally expect a world of riches and wonders, not fear and deprivation.


  1. Horses could do things for other horses, but the purse strings are nit controlled by horses. Their value is determined by what they can do for those with money.

    With smart, but not too smart, robots, and expected capital concentration in the near future, most of us will be valued nit by what we can do for each other, but what we can do for the people with money.

    The depopulation of the scottish highlands comes to mind: more GDP before, but much of it went ("wasted") on feeding the workers. Afterwards, less GDP, but far fewer workers, so more money for the land owners. Triggered by technological growth (textiles). In the middle, strife, starvation, and displacement.

    The price of labour, once it falls below substinance, can and has priced humans out of the market, with horrible results.

    In the long term, those that did not die horribly fled to cities and other countries, and their descendents did better. In the shirt term? Sucked to be them.


  2. The fact that everyone writes as though robots replacing our jobs is a bad thing shows that we aren't really ready for this to happen. We should be saying, "Wow, we can do all the things we need to do with half the work, that's wonderful!" but instead we are saying, "Oh my god, half of people will be unemployed."

    As AfN says above, we are valued based on what we can do for rich people. Every question comes down to "who's going to pay for it" or, in other words, "which rich person's permission do we have?" After mechanized agriculture arrived there were placed in Africa where grain was rotting in guarded silos because the price of it was too low and the people in the surrounding area were eating the rats that were eating the rats that ate that grain.

    The real worry is that too many people will become of little use to the people who have enough resources to hire people with guns.