A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Our Robots, Ourselves

Anyone who has been following the US election spectacle — and really, the media have made it impossible not to — will by now realize that the insurgencies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are a collective cry for help from the middle and working class. People are struggling, and the usual ways of doing things have not helped them one iota. Hollowed-out factory towns, main streets full of boarded up shops, and parents whose lives now revolve around heroin rather than around jobs that pay a living wage. These are the legacies of several decades of politics as usual.

Despite their quite radical ideological differences, there is an interesting and significant overlap between them on this issue: both acknowledge (or at least claim to acknowledge) the growing numbers of formerly prosperous Americans who have fallen through the cracks. I never in my lifetime thought I’d hear the presidential nominee for the Republican Party call for ripping up trade deals and penalizing companies that offshore jobs. That kind of Bolshevism is not the usual stuff from which Republican presidential hopefuls are made. And to find that these positions of Trump’s tally with those of Sanders, well, we live in interesting times.

However, even within these broad areas of agreement between Trump and Sanders, there are more subtle differences. Each of them blames the problems facing the working class on different enemies. Regarding trade deals, Bernie Sanders views the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as the devil’s right hand, while Trump views the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as the worst trade deal in the history of the United States. Sanders blames offshoring for job losses, while Trumpian nativism tends to focus on the role of (illegal?) immigrants in supposedly taking jobs away from hardworking American-born citizens.

I read an article recently that made me think they were both missing what is — or is about to become — the biggest enemy facing the middle class, namely robots. The article was about how workers in China are being replaced by robots. The Chinese wage differential that was boosting their economy to such heights is no longer a comparative advantage. Soon, it seems, there won’t be anywhere left in the world where humans are cheap enough to hire. Embedded in the article were some statistics on the purchasing of industrial robots around the world that made for chilling reading. For the benefit of readers, I have charted the numbers and provided year-over-year percentage changes. Here is the picture worldwide:

These numbers are just for the past few years. Note particularly the large jump from 2015 to 2016. Now, here is the picture for North America (the US, Canada, and Mexico):

“Roboticization” is not as pronounced in North America, at least as judged by year-over-year increases. But I posit that this is simply an indicator of a mature economy that has been roboticizing for decades now. On the other hand, the chart shows a steady increase, without the dip in year-over-year increase that occurred in the worldwide numbers between 2014 and 2015. And the surge in the red line between 2015 and 2016 is still very pronounced in North America.

Now, what do these numbers have to tell us about the human impact of roboticization? The article mentions a kitchen utensils factory in Foshan, China, which replaced 256 workers with nine robots. If, therefore, we were to assume that each new industrial robot represents 28 jobs lost, it would mean that some 1,232,000 North American workers are poised to lose their jobs in 2016. Of course, many of these jobs will be Mexican, which won’t cause many Trumpists to shed tears. But still…

It might be the case that the robots in the Chinese example are extraordinarily efficient. For the sake of argument, let's instead assume that on average each new North American robot only replaces five workers — an admittedly arbitrary number. In that case, “only” 220,000 workers will lose their jobs to robots in 2016. But look again at that red line, at that year-over-year increase in robot purchases. If that increase only remains where it is, another 276,540 people will lose their jobs in 2017. The damage really begins to add up. And this is not a new process. It has been going on for awhile now. Is it possible that robots have something to do with all the empty factories, boarded up shops, abandoned homes?

So far, to my knowledge, this issue hasn’t made it into the campaign speeches of either Sanders or Trump (or anyone else, for that matter). They instead blame job losses on illegal “aliens”. Or on bad trade deals. Or on offshoring. Or, in Sanders’ more vague language, on “Wall Street”. Any of these might be a contributing factor to some extent. But look just look at at those numbers above. At some point in the not-too-distant future politicians will have no choice but take notice, as roboticization advances and becomes as plain as the nose on one’s face.

It may happen sooner rather than later if roboticization moves up the income ladder and starts gobbling up white collar jobs. We are on the cusp of a brave new world of robots, artificial intelligence, and big data, a world in which a chatbot can already outperform lawyers in overturning parking tickets.

Imagine it: a world without lawyers. Maybe they can replace our politicians too. I for one welcome our new robot overlords.

It raises some philosophical questions. If we are all fated to be replaced by robots and chatbots, what do we say about a species that makes itself obsolete? Or, if we find a way to structure our economy such that "benevolent" robots have merely freed us all from drudgery to do more pleasurable things, what do we say about a species that only lives for pleasure? What is the place of work within humankind's moral economy?


  1. Spiritual EconomistAugust 14, 2016 at 10:32 PM

    What is the net benefit to society of a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks trudging to a factory, working 40, 50, 60 hours a week doing menial assembly that could be done faster and better by a machine, to retire after 40 years of pointless triviality, never having created the great works of art that lay dormant inside him, his musical soul's infinite potential drowned in a flood of wasteful, workaday worry and irrelevance.

    Please take a moment to remind yourself: these costs are not evenly distributed across society. The poor pay them, almost exclusively. Precious few Wall Street tycoons moonlight as miners, loggers, crab fishermen, or sewer workers. The dirty and dangerous, disgusting and demoralizing jobs--drudgeries that destroy body and mind with psychological stress and physical hazard--these tasks are not performed by the Paris Hiltons of our world. The rich do not sully themselves with such "noble sacrifice". These are the province of the poor. The expendable. The underclass. The untouchables.

    The wonderful thing about the American experiment of the past 300 years was the emergence of a true Middle Class. Unprecedented in human history, ours was no longer the land of patrician and peasant. We saw an elevation of the lot of the average "worker"--through the organic economics of private property and capital accumulation--to the point that poverty became a "social problem", as opposed to what it had always been since the dawn of time: the ordinary, unremarkable, foreordained lot for the mass majority of men, women, and children, from the day they were born until the day they died; with precious few days in between.

    The thing that raised those working poor--those human sacrificers--those noble and proud survivors, whose lives and deaths have laid the foundation for our modern world of wealth and plenty--the thing that pulled them out of the cesspools of manual labor to share in these benefits rich men have ever enjoyed: ample food, good health, the luxuries of free time and disposable income--the thing that this article decries as questionable or perhaps even harmful... What is that thing?


    I rest my case.

    Final Note: if you care to understand why it's idiotic to focus on "jobs"--or in other words, upon elevating the producer's interest over the customer--you need only read Frederic Bastiat's "Negative Railroad". If after that you still don't 'get it', you probably never will. At that point, you may want to do something else with your time--watch some Mike Meyers movies or something--because economic logic just "isn't your bag, baby".

    1. Spiritual EconomistAugust 14, 2016 at 10:38 PM

      This interface doesn't work very well. This was part 2; part 1 is below. It probably makes more sense if you read them in order. The first line of the response begins, "A robot is just a tool."

  2. Spiritual EconomistAugust 14, 2016 at 10:34 PM

    A robot is just a tool. Like a hammer.

    Hammers cost jobs. They make it easier and faster to get to the end result of whatever-it-was-you-were-formerly-trying-to-bash-with-a-smooth-round-rock.

    Not long ago, we were all bashing the problem of work-to-be-done with the round-rock-of-human-labor. Wasting time. Which really means: wasting Life.

    As a species, we have expended innumerable lives and destroyed the quality of countless more, on the oppression and suffering of menial, dangerous, unpleasant work that too-often left the "lucky" employee maimed or dead.

    'But, at least he had a job,' right?

    Yeah. Until it killed him. Lucky.

    What sane person could object to robots doing all the coal-mining of the future? No more cave-ins, to be buried alive, slowly suffocating as you worry your wife can't pay rent without your paycheck, that your kids could end up on the street. Eliminating the evil experience of Black-Lung's slow slide through senescence to the cemetery; or the relatively quick but torturous death that is hydrogen sulfide inhalation... Not to mention nitrogen-dioxide or sulfur-dioxide or a host of other evils, part-and-parcel of this particular J-O-B.

    What moron would suggest we send humans to Jupiter rather than probes, because "probes cost jobs"? That we should refuse to explore the outer reaches of our solar system because we don't yet have a way to do it with the stone-age tools of human life, and manual labor? All those poor unemployed astronauts! *Won't someone think of the economy?*

    What humans need is not "more jobs"; you can have that any time you like by burning down your house and rebuilding it. By blowing up all the tractors (which are robots, by the way) and plowing our fields once more with wooden plows.

    See, if you use iron plows, it's cheating. Too easy. Plus, it robs the plow-wright of work, fixing all those primitive plows when they break. In political parlance: "It costs jobs."

    How far should we regress with this lunacy? Back to hunter-gatherer society? Further? How far exactly do we want the human race to devolve?

    What we need, as individuals and as a species, are: water, food, shelter, and self-actualization. In that order, and for the tiniest investment of human labor possible. Which is to say: the tiniest cost in human life. Which is to say: for the absolute minimum amount of human-sacrifice.

    Robots help us accomplish this. As do hammers, tractors, and a host of other historical 'job-killers' (read: life-savers).

    As to the "moral component" of labor... Ask the longshoreman mesothelioma victim which moral lesson he learned from his horrific wasting death? What ennobling character did that pointless suffering impart to his life? What "lessons" did it teach his family, his children, his friends, as they cared for him and held his hand as he coughed and cried and gasped for breath and died young with his six-year-old-son by his beside. Where is the moral here? Where are *your* morals?

  3. I'll have to break this into parts to to length limits. Thanks for the comments, SE — though not for the tone in some places, which I must say comes off as disrespectful (e.g. use of “moron”, “idiotic”, etc.).

    Overall, I am most in agreement with your comments, which is why I find the ad hominem attacks a bit puzzling. However, despite our broad agreement, your comments don’t actually touch on the core problem I was identifying.

    To your points:

    1. Nowhere do I claim that robots/machines/computers/technology are mala in se. I am certainly no Luddite. As you say, a robot is just a tool. Here we’re agreed. Countless are the number of pleasures I experience on a daily basis that technology has made possible. I have no desire to return to some pre-industrial utopia. A tool is an object, without a moral dimension -- until humans are added to the mix.

    2. I think we’re also agreed that there are some jobs that are drudgery, and that other things being equal, it would be better if such jobs were not necessary and could be replaced by tools. However, that “other things being equal” caveat (the great weasel phrase of the economists) skims over facts on the ground: the people who no longer have to do that drudgery must still find a way to feed themselves and support families. There are practical limits to the ability of workers to acquire the new skills necessary for whatever more highly-skilled jobs are available for them to take. Many of them simply fall through the cracks. For them, there is no post-industrial utopia. There will be a steep human cost to this brave new world that can’t just be swept under the carpet. And there will likely be political consequences (which I think we’re beginning to feel).

  4. 3. I think we should be careful about how we simply write off certain jobs as drudgery. I am an educated person in a relatively skilled job, so to me, yes, many of these jobs seem like drudgery. But often they are much more than that to the persons doing them. Yes, they may be exploited, and yes, the work might be dangerous. And maybe replacing them with a robot would remove them from harm’s way and takes them off the rolls of the exploited (does it really?), but it also takes away from them a source of self-worth and self-identity – maybe the only such source they have. I’m sure There have been many underpaid, overworked coal miners with broken health who were still proud to call themselves coal miners, even deriving some self-worth from the very danger of the job -- whole communities of them, in fact. What happens when they not only no longer have that, but also cannot provide for their families?

    4. Being a lawyer is not drudgery by our definition. Yet they too will be replaceable. So what happens in a possible world where we have ALL been replaced by robots? Assuming we’d restructured our entirely economy in such a way that we didn’t need to pay for things anymore, we could live like H. G. Wells’ Eloi. Some of us might read poetry, or even compose it. Others without such interests will take up heroin or Fentanyl (as they are, ironically, doing in many shuttered towns across America right now). That’s partly what I mean about the “moral dimension” of work. It brings us to an old and very basic question in philosophy: What makes a good life? Is life only about pleasure, or must it have some admixture of struggle to add flavor to the pleasure? And if it is all about pleasure, are all pleasures equal? These are questions the robots will force us to face.