Monday, 27 October 2014

The robots are coming


It is often said that robots, computers and automation will eventually destroy great swathes of employment. There will be little left for humans to do as the machines take over. 

Fear of automation has been common since the Luddites of course, so how should we react to these concerns? 

One response is that new businesses will spring up as old ones die, providing new goods and services as the old ways are automated into oblivion. Human ingenuity is boundless it is said. Nobody should bet against it.

Certainly human ingenuity deserves great respect for its sheer fecundity. Economic optimists have been right so far, although millions of unemployed in the eurozone may have a different perspective. 

Perhaps as the future is unpredictable we may as well extrapolate from the past and remain optimistic. It’s healthier for one thing.

And yet...

Suppose we turn the question around and ask how many worthwhile human activities there are and how many are suited to financial transactions. If the number, however inexact is limited, then we’ll eventually run out of worthwhile things to do for money. We’ll have to base at least some new businesses on things that in one sense or another aren’t worthwhile.

Well that's not new either. Patent medicines for example, psychoanalysis for another. So perhaps it doesn't matter anyway. It all depends on how we choose to define worthwhile activities, how relaxed we are about creating new needs for the sake of creating new needs, whether exploitation really matters if the exploited are happy.  

If customers can be found then maybe it's not for anyone else to judge. Tattoo studios? Nail bars? Recycling? TV soaps? War?


James Higham said...

Now I wonder what the original word for Asimo was?

Sam Vega said...

"Tattoo studios? Nail bars? Recycling? TV soaps? War?"

Nice selection. I would suggest that capitalism does a huge amount, by informing people about all those needs that they don't yet know about. At the moment, communication in various forms is a rich seam.

The rest is dreamed up by government as a sort of surcharge on basic services. War is a perennial, but along with recycling there are also Equality & Diversity, pointless surveillance, and target culture.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Sorry for the '738' that was the security code. My bad, just stop it from my wages!

Anonymous said...

Once Maslow's hierarchy is more or less satisfied what is left but nail-bars, hair salons, tattoos, tv chat shows and endless flim-flam. Overall I reckon the world's largesse is being spread more evenly - a good thing - but some in the West will have to make do with a little less of it.

Having visited a part of the world where electric power is fairly new I did notice a product we might soon need - FridgeSaver - a gadget that shuts off one's fridge (to protect the motor) when the power volts get too low during a brownout. Brownouts being a feature of those countries where doubtful government or poverty or rapacious capitalism are the mode. Which mode we have I leave you to judge.

Another thing we might take up is the saffron robe and alms bowl, although Wigan in winter does not seem to likely to offer a full belly or warm feet.

A K Haart said...

James - maybe it came via a fan.

Sam - yes, I'm sure we are already wallowing in a pointless activity culture. Where it goes from here I don't know, but even more pointless seems like a good bet.

David - surely we class blogging as a healthy and spiritually nourishing hobby.

Roger - yes, I'm sure some in the West will have to make do with less. It's the motive behind climate change.

One way or another we'll have to use less energy because rich people are afraid we'll use it all up.

Anonymous said...

"surely we class blogging as a healthy and spiritually nourishing hobby."

Not according to my Missus!