Outnumbered by Robots

I heard a piece on the radio the other day about robots. One reporter told the story of how he’d driven across the United States almost without speaking to another human being the whole time. Food via self-checkout at the grocery store, hotels via robots check-in systems, etc. This was all very amusing at first. Then the discussion turned to jobs.

It turns out that more and more people are being put out of a job by robots. Not just repetitive factory work, mind. Pathologists. Sports reporters. Soon, drivers.  There are, as we all know, lots of things computers do better than we do. That list is growing all the time, and it’s growing faster. Moore’s law says that computing power doubles every eighteen months, and if that continues to hold true, we’re going to start seeing almost unimaginable science fiction-type robots and computers, very, very soon.

People seem not to be paying attention to this issue. I don’t want to call it a problem, because it’s just reality. However, for many (most? all?) of us, it will feel like a problem. It’s not just a matter of losing your current job, of suffering economic loss until you can retrain and find your balance in this new world. It’s a matter of being completely outmoded.

There’s really nothing special about humans. Unusual, perhaps, but not unique. People routinely claim that this or that trait is “uniquely human,” without the faintest justification. My cats have most of these “uniquely human” characteristics, too.  There are others that the cats don’t have, but they’re not uniquely human, either. Laughter was the one I heard last. Turns out rats laugh too. Tool use is an old one. Chimps. Ravens. Lots of things use tools. Not unique.

There’s also nothing about carbon that makes it uniquely better for supporting life than silicon. True, there are things that we’re better at than computers are, today. We have emotions, better vision, better language processing, a few other advantages. This will change. Computers are getting better, smarter, faster, every single day, and we’re staying basically the same. Evolution is obsolete. Robots will be better than us in every conceivable way, sometime soon. Maybe within my lifetime. My kids, if I ever have any, might well be the last human generation, unless we figure out some kind of way to live in a world where robots are better than us at everything.

We have to figure this out. Nobody’s going to stop improving robots or computers. To keep this from happening, we’d have to have everyone agree to stop. At the same time. Sort of like how we collectively decided to restrain the development of nuclear weapons. The important difference, though, is that the atom bomb looks like the end of the world. Better robots just look like a pile of cash for the people who make them. There’s no stopping piles of cash.

What we need to do is come up with a plan for how to deal with this transition. Can we come up with some way to improve ourselves as quickly as we improve technology? Can we somehow remain as we are, yet stay in control and actually have our lives improved? There are many unknowns. This could be a coming golden age, or it could easily be crisis in the making, as big a problem as clean drinking water or global climate change. Take some time to think about it. How can we prepare for the day when robots do everything better than we do?


  • Nobody cares because the Luddites cried wolf too many times.

  • I perceive two issues that you addressing here:

    (1) Computers will replace us at doing our job so we won’t have a source of income.
    (2) Computers will replace us at doing what we do so we will feel insecure about our self-worth.

    I’m not really that worried about (2). I suspect there will be more artists to compensate, becoming people whose lives are not about performing a specific task but are about expressing and communicating. Humans may not be special at any particular task, but I think humans will always be better at being human than computers. Cf. Blade Runner for a counterexample :-)

    (1) however is a local “problem”. The wealth of society as a whole is not decreased because of this replacement — after all, you’re getting the same result for less labor. However, in the short term, the wealth disparity is increased. The one who lost his job now has no income, and the employer has more. The one replaced is *forced* learn something new, contribute in a *new* way that a computer cannot do (yet). Capitalism and technology conspire to drive innovation. Extropians say “good!”; I am not so sure it’s good (why should he be forced to change when his unemployment came at no loss to society as a whole?), but it happens.

  • Marshall Brain wrote a series of articles called “Robotic Nation” (http://marshallbrain.com/robotic-nation.htm) about this issue and an interesting sci-fi story called Manna on such future (http://marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm).

  • Jedai wrote:

    I think there are still some big problems to resolve before robots replace every single human, basically they’re not creative or intuitive, which is still pretty important for the development of science (not for every development but still…) or arts. Of course, there is no real reason which would prevent some clever computer scientist from developing creative robots if the process was better understood.

    A great hope is that we may be on the brink of some big steps in the understanding of our brain, which in turn may mean that we could have some brain-computer interface in the near-future, allowing us to stay ahead of the curve relatively to pure computer. Of course your points still stand for a huge majority of the jobs currently occupied by humans, especially since many people are falling into lazy habit of thoughts at the same time, depending on machine to make most of the work they used to do by themselves… They don’t appear to realize that if the machine do most of their work, it can probably do all of it.

    A lot of job are now artificially maintained and could be fulfilled by computers, that could spell a future liberated from low level contingencies and consecrated to arts, research and space exploration… but given the orientations of the current society and the relative blindness of great parts of the public, I fear we’ll see conflicts, poverty, tyranny, panem et circenses and global warming.

  • Alex Matto wrote:

    Better at everything? I find that claim very hard to come true.

    Moore’s Law is not eternal, today processors do not advance at “double performance each 18 months” anymore.

    I think that there is some characteristics that a robot will never have (but other animals besides human do have) like creativity and cognitive learning system…

    For the “Can we come up with some way to improve ourselves as quickly as we improve technology?”: yes. And I believe it will be through Human Augmentation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kq5KWLqUewc

  • As someone who works on the machine learning and natural language processing side of things, I can tell you for certain that it will be a very long time yet before computers can surpass humans in every way.

    Computers are excellent at automatizing things. And we’re constantly finding new and ingenious ways to reconceive of old jobs as things that can be automatized. But, at the end of the day, computers are still automata. They are not intelligent; despite their excellent memory capacity and lightning fast processing, they do not possess any of the characteristics of intelligent problem solving. They are not creative; they are utterly incapable of making logical leaps, glossing over details, or abstracting out patterns in the direct manner that humans do. They are not alive; they do not self-repair and they cannot evolve nor dynamically adapt to a changing world. These things are fundamental to biological life, both human and otherwise, and the current state-of-the-art shows no progress at cracking the secret behind these processes. Because humans are intelligent and creative, we will continue to find new and ingenious ways to automatize that which was previously thought to require human insight, but that does not bestow upon computers, of themselves, the capacity to be intelligent and creative.

    Even still, while the prospect of artificial life is still far beyond the horizon, the economic and ecological ramifications of automatization are still startling and still something that we need to consider seriously. I would embrace a world where the majority of people did not need to work in order to sustain themselves, but we are far from such a world. The thing holding us back is not the technology, but the society. Without a cultural ethos devoted to eradicating poverty, inequality, and injustice, we will continue to blame the people whose jobs are automatized away from them and continue to punish them and force them to adapt.