The problem with discussions about AI and robots is they talk about replacing your current job. While that may be true, the real issue is what jobs they enable?
The future is not so much about improving the past - important as that is - as about discovering new possibilities since that's where the growth is.
While robots sound scary and exotic, we actually do have a past era where we had robots - of a sort.
We can learn plenty about human behavior from that.
Robots Eat Your Lunch?
A lot of the talk is about robots eating our lunch and how we will need to offer a Guaranteed Minimum Wage to all these sorry people who will be displaced. The past however, tells us a different story.
While I agree that we need a safety net for the victims of disruption, I think the idea of giving people money for nothing is corrosive and self-destroying.
I think there is a better way. A much better way.
Oddly enough the idea comes from a book I read about the slave trade in Barbados where sugar, slavery and the first wave of "new money" came to England. In fact, you could say that sugar and slavery was the dotcom billionaire bonanza of 1644. There are schools, libraries and mansions in London and Oxford that come from this slave/sugar money.
The book I am referring to is Sugar in the Blood by Andrea Stuart, a stunning read!
Roll Your Own Robot
The slavery model is more relevant than the industrialization specter because a coming generation of low-cost robots will be more affordable than industrial machinery in the same way slaves were in their time. Displaced workers should have the option to use that money to buy a robot or invest in robot workers, just as the early colonizers of Barbados were able to do with slaves.
(I also think we owe the desecendents of slaves, reparations - not a check necessarily, but something like a Marshall Plan for Africa and the Inner City. That is another story of course, and I am only stating this for the record so the PC mob doesn’t crucify me for using the abominable slave phenomenon as my guide.)
What makes the slave trade so interesting is that once upon a time, there were all kinds of slaves and mostly white. They generally came in the form of indentured workers and even then, the term itself derives from word, Slav. These workiers weren’t well treated but the demands of general work weren't that critical and so it was a faintly humane labor system. Barbados used these people, sometimes Irish or often the poor and criminal from Britain, as general laborers and tobacco workers.
Robots Are Nothing Until They Mean Money
It was only when the islands discovered sugar that slavery really took off and Africa became the biggest player in the system. Sugar was incredibly hard work and pale Europeans were completely unsuited for it. Sugar is also addictive in its way and the demand for it exploded woldwide.
Suddenly, there was a need for cane labor and within a few decades, hundreds of thousands of sorry Africans were abducted and brought to the tiny island of Barbados where they were generally worked to death within about 3 - 5 years.
Just as important, semi-civilized Brits quickly and seamlessly devolved into monsters who managed their slaves with terror and barbarous ruthlessness. The Nazis might actually have been kinder to the Jews than these landowners were to their slaves. This was tolerated for about 200 years because there was just no better way to make sugar. Even freed slaves who could afford it, were likely to own slaves!
There was even a kind of slaveowner geekiness - planters made it a point to have slaves do ever possible form of menial work for them - including dressing, washing and holding their chamber pots for them.
What matters with our robots however, is that, until you have a real need, predictions are just fluff that will disappear the moment a real need - and a market - appears.
So Last War
People who talk about robots eating our lunch and so on are really discussing the last war. It is like saying in 1899, that the automobile will make it easy for famers to get to church on Sunday and go shopping, when the real advance was mechanized farming with gas-driven engines.
Likewise, robots that displace drivers or mid-level clerks aren’t the real story. The real story is transportation experts using robots to do stuff they never dreamed of in the past. Instead of driving a taxi why not manage a fleet of 10 robot transporters. These will ferry people all day long to work and shopping. They will carry partygoers to their soirees and drunks back to their homes at night.
Similarly, clerks can let robots do their clerical work while their people skills are suddenly in higher demand.
Most of all, we are going to find higher level things to do once we populate our workplace with enslaved robots. We will burn them out. They will need programming, fixing and replacement - all human work.
The Displaced Know The True Value
Most of all, they will be best managed and most usefully employed by people who actually know the business they were displaced from - only now, they can do more thanks to their high tech slaves.
So much of the "give people something for nothing" school underestimates the value and creativity of working people. They are not idiots, they will know what to do with robots - given the chance. Taking the socialist view of just giving away money just doesn’t tap this kind of human motivation.
Where, Oh Where Did The Digital Divide Go?
Think about it this way. Do you remember the so-called digital divide? That was when poor people just couldn't afford computers and that only rich people could enjoy its benefits. So what happened to it?
Once the Internet came along, supposedly poor people found computers. They made money online. The did stuff or got stuff for free. With increased demand, the price of computing dropped drastically and even wound being cheaper than TVs.
Now, imagine if society had given poor people money for NOT having computers. That would have been ridiculous and indeed most would have used the momey - if they didn’t squander it - on buying a computer anyway, justso they could take advantage of the internet.
The New Slavery
So the real question is not what to give displaced workers but what would they do if they owned a slave/robot?
I believe they would consume these robots just like their ancestors did with slaves and then invent new businesses that can harvest great uses from them.
Putting It To Work Now
If we were smart, we would begin the contest of ideas now - what would future workers do if they were their own slave?
That folks, is the real future of robots.
© Alan Brody, 2017