Giant fire-breathing robots with rocket boots and laser eyes

by on May 3, 2006 at 7:51 am in Economics | Permalink

So requests one MR reader.  Will he settle for the economics of robots? 

Start with Robin Hanson’s paper.  Robin argues that robots will become close substitutes for unskilled human labor.  That requires the wage rate to fall to the cost of robot production.  Capitalists become extremely wealthy but laborers might die off or at least go hungry.  Someday a robot might be as cheap as a laptop is today. 

But will this happen?  Since the Industrial Revolution, there have been numerous predictions of falling real wages due to the advent of machines.  But across any thirty-year time horizon (some would say fifteen-year, but not I) real wages have risen and in the long run they have skyrocketed.  The marginal return to capital has not gone up much if at all.

Even if we have really, really good robots (I still think Deckard was a replicant), they won’t substitute for all forms of unskilled labor.  Maybe they can drive a car, but will they fluff your pillow?  The remaining poor will fill jobs robots cannot handle, own small bits of capital, or live off of charity and transfers.  Don’t forget, we are talking about a ridiculously wealthy and scientifically advanced world.  A small capital investment might carry you through the rest of your life.  Plus if robots will be so good, can’t they help the rest of us learn some skills or acquire some capital?

We will see a "cost disease" for services which cannot be handed over to robots, but so what?  Low productivity sectors may take up an increasing share of the economy in real  terms, but again this is most of all a symptom of plenty.

The robots also have to compete against technologically augmented humans, whom I suspect will be the real force of the future.  Complex biology is hard to master, so let nature handle that and just purchase the mechanical add-ons, no?

So I don’t worry about the special features of robot economies.  It is simply fears of Malthusian overpopulation but with metal rather than flesh.  The difference is that there is a more obvious profit incentive to produce lots of robots, since they can be owned for profit.  But modern technology would have pushed up wages even if we had not seen the falling birthrates as of late. 

In Battlestar Galactica they call robots "toasters."  In their world that may be a morally dubious judgment, but they seem to have the economics just about right.  Now if we let robots vote, or if they have torrid affairs with top DOD research scientists who hold the secret computer codes to our planet’s defenses, that is another matter…

Here is my previous post on robot economies.

joshg May 3, 2006 at 8:15 am

You’re exactly right. Dr. Hanson might be right about falling real wages for unskilled laborers, but people are not locked into the position of being either a laborer or a capitalist. Under such circumstances, a small investment in capital would yield substantial returns. Even if the poor don’t invest in capitol, charity would be easy in this world. Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; give a man a fish-catching robo, well, you get the idea.

Paul Dietz May 3, 2006 at 9:19 am

I wonder what the ability to create robots (and stationary AIs) will do to energy demand. At $10/hour (say), you can afford to use on the order of 100 kW of power per unit. Ultimately, the population of robots on Earth may be limited by environmental impact of all that energy (and waste heat) production. The first hint of this may be seen with server farms, where dealing with local heat dissipation is increasingly important.

Michael Stack May 3, 2006 at 10:04 am

Deckard a replicant? In Bladerunner, yes. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I’m not so sure.

Rich Berger May 3, 2006 at 10:43 am

I wonder if robot development will get a large boost from the emerging needs in the nursing home/assisted living industry. A lot of unskilled labor will be needed to change diapers and feed me and my cronies in about 20 years or so.

Steve Sailer May 3, 2006 at 11:18 am

The Japanese have been investing in robot technology while Americans have been importing illegal immigrants:

http://www.vdare.com/sailer/japanese_robots.htm

We shall see which proves wiser.

Grant Gould May 3, 2006 at 11:54 am

The robots also have to compete against technologically augmented humans, whom I suspect will be the real force of the future. Complex biology is hard to master, so let nature handle that and just purchase the mechanical add-ons, no?

Heck, this is just what pacemakers and prostheses do. We were mechanically augmenting humans well before we were building robots. Augmentations are more valuable than robots now, and are being developed at least as quickly; I’d expect augmentation to outpace robots for decades to come.

michael vassar May 3, 2006 at 12:33 pm

Tyler:
As far as I can tell, the risk free return on capital has fallen tremendously over the last 170 years, but financial markets have improved in such a manner as to allow individuals to capture a larger fraction of this risk free return and to more precisely select the level of risk they want.
Wage rates though, for the lower paid 2/3rds of the US population, seem to have been rouchly constant over this time except for an increase in hourly wages of about 50% between WWI and the depression and a rough doubling between WWII and 1970. If one includes the impact of taxes on real wages the results are even more pathetic.

Welfare has been improved by technology. Today’s beggars can get antibiotics, and our welfare recipients have TV and recorded music, but these benefits are almost independent of the return on labor.

It seems to me that we need a new framework for understanding the cumulative effects of long term economic development.

michael vassar May 3, 2006 at 2:29 pm

Of course Robin, in the extreme Malthusian situation you allude to charity and small amounts of capital are of limited efficacy and “hand made by natural humans” may imply costs inconcievably greater than “hand made by uploads”.
I think that Malthusian scenarios invoke value judgements. Which world do we want? One with greater aggregate utility or one with greater utility for the average observer? Many people are uncomfortable even with “dominant” outcomes where the utility for the top 1% or so is greater than that of anyone alive today and that top 1% is far more numerous than today’s total population but where the average utility is positive but lower than that today. Arguably all rational concerns about population growth have always been driven by such discomfort. Ironically, this may also drive romanticism. I suspect that in Roussea’s time the average “savage” had a greater lifetime utility than a typical Frenchman, but a lower lifetime utility than a 90th percentile wealthy Frenchman. Obviously the carrying capacity associated with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle + slash&burn agriculture was less than 10% as great as that associated with French agriculture.

Nick Bostrom would remind us to pay attention to the utilities we associate with different types of existance driven by selection pressures and would council us not to burn the “Cosmic Commons”.

michael vassar May 3, 2006 at 2:48 pm

Of course Robin, in the extreme Malthusian situation you allude to charity and small amounts of capital are of limited efficacy and “hand made by natural humans” may imply costs inconcievably greater than “hand made by uploads”.
I think that Malthusian scenarios invoke value judgements. Which world do we want? One with greater aggregate utility or one with greater utility for the average observer? Many people are uncomfortable even with “dominant” outcomes where the utility for the top 1% or so is greater than that of anyone alive today and that top 1% is far more numerous than today’s total population but where the average utility is positive but lower than that today. Arguably all rational concerns about population growth have always been driven by such discomfort. Ironically, this may also drive romanticism. I suspect that in Roussea’s time the average “savage” had a greater lifetime utility than a typical Frenchman, but a lower lifetime utility than a 90th percentile wealthy Frenchman. Obviously the carrying capacity associated with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle + slash&burn agriculture was less than 10% as great as that associated with French agriculture.

Nick Bostrom would remind us to pay attention to the utilities we associate with different types of existance driven by selection pressures and would council us not to burn the “Cosmic Commons”.

Erik May 3, 2006 at 10:19 pm

Oscar Wilde had a particularly interesting take on machine labor in The Soul of Man under Socialism (emphasis in original):

“Now, as the State is not to govern, it may be asked what the State is to do. The State is to be a voluntary association that will organise labour, and be the manufacturer and distributor of necessary commodities. The State is to make what is useful. The individual is to make what is beautiful. And as I have mentioned the word labour, I cannot help saying that a great deal of nonsense is being written and talked nowadays about the dignity of manual labour. There is nothing necessary dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure, and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities, and should be regarded as such. To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral, or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine.

And I have no doubt that it will be so. Up to the present, man has been, to a certain extent, the slave of machinery, and there is something tragic in the fact that as soon as man had invented a machine to do his work he began to starve. This, however, is, of course, the result of our property system and our system of competition. One man owns a machine which does the work of five hundred men. Five hundred men are, in consequence, thrown out of employment, and, having no work to do, become hungry and take to thieving. The one man secures the produce of the machine and keeps it, and has five hundred times as much as he should have, and probably, which is of much more importance, a great deal more than he really wants. Were that machine the property of all, every one would benefit by it. It would be an immense advantage to the community. All unintellectual labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals with dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery. Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing. At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man. There is no doubt at all that this is the future of machinery, and just as trees grow while the country gentleman is asleep, so while Humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure which, and not labour, is the aim of man – or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work. The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends. And when scientific men are no longer called upon to go down to a depressing East End and distribute bad cocoa and worse blankets to starving people, they will have delightful leisure in which to devise wonderful and marvellous things for their own joy and the joy of every one else. There will be great storages of force for every city, and for every house if required, and this force man will convert into heat, light, or motion, according to his needs. Is this Utopian? A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”

Paul Dietz May 4, 2006 at 9:03 am

But in the end, if we can develope high enough temperature uprocessors, we can probably figure out how to use uwaves to get rid of most of the heat locally.

Um… what? Microwaves? This makes no sense at all.

The ultimate limit will come from direct thermal pollution of the Earth. There’s only so much heat you can add to the atmosphere before the temperature increase becomes too large. The solution then will be to move servers off-planet, where there is no significant limit to how big their radiators can be made.

Paul Dietz May 4, 2006 at 11:44 am

But if we can convert that waste heat into uwaves efficiently, we need merely to select a wavelength which has low atmospheric absorbtion, and transmit it into space.

This likely runs afoul of the second law of thermodynamics, unfortunately. Narrow-band radiation has low entropy (depending on bandwidth and brightness). Waste heat has high entropy.

One could imagine a scheme where an intense very narrowband microwave beam is directed at the Earth, where entropy is added to it, and the somewhat randomized photons are allowed to escape to space. A scheme like this is used in laser cooling of certain solids by anti-Stokes scattering. But you’d need almost no absorption for this to come out ahead.

Ivan Kirigin May 4, 2006 at 9:14 pm

This is an excellent discussion.

I suppose my original question was about perceptions.

Look at what TallDave said just now: “Two words: productivity gains. Prices keep falling and utility rising while wages remain constant. The average American today is richer in most ways than a milionaire circa 1900.”

Tell that to people against free trade!

My fear is that research will be restricted by robots taking very visible jobs, like cashiers and cabbies and roofers.

For the doubters as to the extent of robotics, I’m going to try and post a timeline shortly of realistic expectations at my blog here: I.K.bot

Paul Dietz May 5, 2006 at 7:49 am

robots taking very visible jobs, like cashiers

You mean, like the self-serve lanes now popping up at supermarkets?

Matthew Sinclair May 6, 2006 at 8:45 pm

This is just an extreme version of the rise in the premium on skilled work that we are seeing happening now. If the wages of the unskilled fall while general production rises this can lead to more poor people or fewer unskilled people depending on whether the education system is working properly.

Becker posted on this subject recently. I liked the Economists view as well when discussing the Japanese and robots. Immigrants are cheaper and have most of the effects on the economy that you discussed in your post. Again, this increases the premium on education.

linda October 9, 2006 at 7:32 am

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