August 12, 2008

Automate everything

Food production? Far too labor intensive. Why not pick fruit with robots? Why not grow meat?

Getting food from the farm to the store? From the store to your house? Work humans won't need to do much longer.

The house? Construction is dangerous, tiring work that'll wreck your back. Print one instead.

What builds all these robots? Robot factories, of course. (Yeah, it's lego and it's old, but it's also sweet).

There's no new science needed for any of these things to become standard operating procedure, only (admittedly large) engineering challenges. What is holding it all back (to varying extents, robocars least of all) is the cost and distributability of energy, paired tightly with the efficiency of it's use. Everything we strive for depends on energy getting cheaper and easier to store and move, and every time energy gets more abundant, "science fiction" gets closer to being science fact. At the same time, humans are pathetically inefficient machines with a lot of overhead needed to power our brains and homeostasis, so making a machine that can use energy more efficiently than we can is a lower bar than you might think (something as simple as a bicycle or skateboard can dramatically increase the efficiency of human locomotion, for instance).

Don't get me wrong, I firmly believe in the nobility and moral character of manual labor. I believe more strongly, however, that skilled human attention is a scarce resource, and every time we're able to replace it with a lower-cost substitute. That lowers the price of goods and -- even more importantly -- frees up some amount of human attention for tasks we cannot yet automate. More available labor means costs can go down again, and the cycle can continue forward as more and more complex tasks can be automated.

This is the future I hope I live to see. I fully expect to watch cascading labor riots as human workers are edged out, again and again by machine, eventually losing out to economic realities, elsewhere if not here. I'm not looking forward to the riots, but I'm not sure there's any policy that will let us truly sidestep them.

Posted by: leoncaruthers at 09:58 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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