Does the theory of comparative advantage apply to dolphins?

by on December 4, 2012 at 1:30 pm in Science | Permalink

Yes, at least so far it does, these are not ZMP dolphins:

The US Navy’s most adorable employees are about to get the heave-ho because robots can do their job for less.

The submariners in question are some of the Navy’s mine-detecting dolphins which will be phased out in the next five years, according to UT Sand Diego.

The dolphins, which are part of a program that started in the 1950’s, have been deployed all over the world because of their uncanny eyesight, acute sonar and ability to easily dive up to 500 feet underwater.

Using these abilities they’ve been assigned to ports in order to spot enemy divers and find mines using their unparalleled sonar which they mark for their handlers who then disarm them.

However, the Navy has now developed an unmanned 12-foot torpedo shaped robot that runs for 24 hours and can spot mines as well as the dolphins.

And unlike dolphins which take seven years to train, the robots can be manufactured quickly.

The new submersibles will replace 24 of the Navy’s 80 dolphins who will be reassigned to other tasks like finding bombs buried under the sea floor — a task which robots aren’t good at yet.

The story is here, and for the pointer I thank the excellent Daniel Lippman.  This is by the way a barter economy:

During their prime working years, the dolphins are compensated with herring, sardines, smelt and squid.

1 Andrew' December 4, 2012 at 1:39 pm

“During their prime working years, the dolphins are compensated with herring, sardines, smelt and squid.”

Afterwards they must make the tough choice between prescription drugs and eating dog food.

2 Mike Hunter December 4, 2012 at 1:58 pm


3 Thor December 4, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Or they can become dog food!

4 dead serious December 4, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Chinese dolphins would be cheaper yet.

5 Andrew' December 5, 2012 at 7:52 am

Or worse, the Chinese will hire them away.

6 So Much For Subtlety December 6, 2012 at 4:11 am

I am not sure Dolphins are that dumb. Chinese people don’t eat robots.

7 lords of lies December 4, 2012 at 2:02 pm

externalities like dolphin crime, dolphin dropout rates, dolphin present-time orientation, dolphin tackiness, dolphin support for unearned ocean largesse and dolphin single momhood appear to be missing, which is a good thing for the theory.

8 Andrew' December 4, 2012 at 2:15 pm

I saw a bunch of dolphins with signs that read “ZMP” and “Porpoise go home!”

9 JWatts December 4, 2012 at 2:12 pm

And the steady march of progress has replaced yet additional blue ‘collar’ workers with automated robots. Can we get some Congressional funds for worker retraining for these blue nosed dolphins in the latest stimulus package?

10 Mark Thorson December 4, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Yes, they should be re-porpoised.

11 Bernard Guerrero December 5, 2012 at 12:28 pm

That’s the problem with ever-increasing poductivity.

12 js December 4, 2012 at 3:42 pm

One technology being replaced by a cheaper newer technology? Sounds like absolute advantage to me…

13 JasonL December 4, 2012 at 3:51 pm

The structural story is inadequate to explain the totality of idle oceanic resources. Stimulus is needed. We should keep dropping herring into the oceans until we are out of this slump. Red herring, preferably.

14 DougT December 4, 2012 at 5:37 pm

So long, and thanks for all the fish!

15 Thor December 4, 2012 at 7:05 pm

Of course, it isn’t really bartering. The dolphins are caught, and “forcibly” (via the carrot and stick of withholding food/gaining food rewards) trained to perform these tasks.

16 Becky Hargrove December 4, 2012 at 9:52 pm

This example highlights the fact that skills and labor were never part of a barter economy, even if they were sometimes confused with its effects. So when people speak of a barter economy, they always mean the created or captured product, not the service which is not only random in this context, but not capable of direct wealth in the same sense.

17 Marc December 5, 2012 at 5:43 am

Have enemy divers and bombs buried under the sea floor been a real threat since WWII or ever?

18 gwern December 9, 2012 at 5:30 pm

The article says mines have been a serious problem: “Mine-detecting dolphins have held one of the most important jobs in the entire US Navy — 14 of the 19 Navy ships damaged since 1950 have been damaged by mines.”

19 joshua December 5, 2012 at 1:26 pm

With the dolphin birthrate falling to a record low, it’s also a convenient way for the government to back out of those crushing dolphin pension guarantees.

20 Richard December 6, 2012 at 2:49 pm

Although submarines may be able to find mines and enemies better than dolphins, I wouldn’t necessarily say that they have an advantage. Since submarines are human activated, it makes the human running the submarine more vulnerable to enemy attacks. On the other hand, if dolphins were used, enemies may not be able to determine if dolphins are enemies or foes.

21 gwern December 9, 2012 at 5:29 pm

Any predictions on when they’re surpassed in ocean operations too? I suspect the drones were in development for quite a while, but I’d also guess that it’s much easier to go from harbor superiority to ocean too.

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