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July 06, 2006


Won't genetic engineering allowing all humans to be geniuses happen before this?

And Derbyshire's article is obviously influenced substantially by Marshall Brain's papers on this subject.

Personally, I think that we actually reached this point in the 1970s, but what is not taken into account is the government's almost infinite capacity to make totally useless work via regulation and the encouragement of bureaucratic growth, not just internally but within large businesses. This *might* coincide with the decline in economic growth rate during the 1970s.

Won't genetic engineering allowing all humans to be geniuses happen before this?

You need to test the genetic engineering procedure before it can be used widely. Testing whether a given genetic modification to a human embryo will make the human grow up a genius will take around 20 years (supersmart kids who go permanently insane when they hit adolescence won't count as a success). Testing whether your new robot can clean a house takes about a day. And you might even skip building a robot and test your AI in a simulated environment. Simulating the growth of an embryo with a specific DNA into an adult human is, on the other hand, way beyond anything we can even begin to model.

Humans are currently ahead in the intelligence game, but new machine generations can emerge a lot faster.

Today our politicians act as if all people are born with equal intelligence, and unequal outcomes in life are blamed on bad schools.

Another strawman. I don't see any evidence for this statement. Liberal politicians (for example) act as if there are people who aren't given the opportunities to find work appropriate to their talents, but I don't see anybody suggesting that if we were a better society, everybody could be a rocket scientist.

Thus people who are not smart enough to do something more than just menial tasks will become economically worthless and unable to find any job at any wage.

I think it's a pretty big assumption that robotics will ever become good enough to replace *all* menial jobs. However, I'll run with it for the sake of this discussion.

My optimistic answer is that if we have to, we'll simply make jobs for them or find some other way of keeping people gainfully occupied while essentially living off of society. Keep in mind that if we have such an advanced state of robotics, our society would be wealthy beyond our dreams.

My pessimistic answer is that we'll do what nations have always done when they have more able-bodied men then jobs: war.

Why don't you take your hypothetical farther, though? As long as we're assuming fantastic robots, why not true artificial intelligence? What would we do if there were *only* menial jobs left? What if there were no menial jobs nor intellectual jobs?

We're verging on Star Trek territory here. When there's no need for work of any kind, we'll have to figure out a whole new system. Being able to do whatever you want without worrying about sustenance sounds fun, but it'll certainly turn out to be a mighty challenge for society as a whole.

JA, no one will make jobs for them that are not feasible - that's the government and only the government can do anything here, on a significant scale. I assume that is to what you were referring. And we wouldn't be wealthy beyond our dreams, just as the amazing advances in farm productivity have not. It will raise our living standards, both our assets and wants (which soon transmute into supposed needs), but not midwife us into some Heaven on Earth.

True AI seems far off, so I can't make much of it. (Though it seems on the face of it impossible that only menial work would be available.) Regardless, some make-work scheme may become necessary.

Importation of third-worlders exacerbates the problem. Even without them, there is a large portion of any race that falls into the category at hand.

For the short term, I see some menial jobs eliminated, like pancake flipping. The flippers will flow into other menial jobs, with lower wages due to higher labor supply. Obviously, cheap labor will deter exploiting robots.

Even a coercive eugenic plan would take generations to work through the system, with plenty of regression to the mean to render it half useless. Genetic engineering is promising though distant.

What if, due to complaints over sweatshops, robots replaced menial workers in the third world, making those countries even poorer? What would the protesters say?

In a previous post you suggested America was wealthy enough to provide stipends so people could live without working. Robots would make it even easier. We won't have moral arguments against laziness, because we won't need much human labor. Regarding eugenics, I suspect this would curtail the reproduction of certain types who now reply upon it to obtain government support.

I wonder how that would affect the mating market. Being a "good provider" would no longer be a factor.

People are cheap compared to modern factory robots. These units can cost easily 250k each. The reason we use robots is to improve quality (fewer defects), not necessary to reduce price (given the high init. capital cost).

michael vassar, great link! Although I disagree with the author's take on restaurants: "At restaurants, robots did all the cooking, cleaning and order taking." Not true, people will like to have other people waiting on them, and with robots doing all the work in construction, manufacturing, and janitorial services, there will be plenty of labor available to work as waiters.

But at fast food, where price not atmosphere is most important, we will see this automated with a whole staff of robots and maybe one or two robot technicians to manage them and make sure no one tries to steal from the robots.

Regression to the mean means that there will be a significant menial population regardless of our machinations.

nobody, while that may be true for the factory robots of today, it isn't for the contemporary lawnmower robots or those of the future.

Mr. Vassar,
Thanks for the great link. Most of it is very plausible (the power source of the robots, humanoid robot emphasis and specific pricing notwithstanding).
"it should be possible for everyone to go on perpetual vacation . Instead, robots will displace millions of employees, leaving them unable to find work and therefore destitute."
People can't live off the fruits of robots, simply because at some point, there is human labor involved - a reformulation of the impossiblity of perpetual motion (maybe that should be rethought). The simplest way to get around this would be to have the government giving a guaranteed income, below that of the wages of human only jobs. If one wanted to steadily reduce the number of recipients, sterilization/genetic engineering of recipient offspring would be a condition for recieiving this welfare. (I don't necessarily advocate such but am exploring possibilities.) Otherwise, more and more money will need to pay those unemployed, to yield the same benefits paid.

Also, much of the automation he speaks of can be done today, without humanoid robots but computer kiosks. It's a bit scary to think that automation may necessitate genetic engineering (of intelligence) or severe eugenics policies. The author overestimates the creativity (ie. brilliance) of those threatened by robots. (How many Linus Torvalds work for Wal-Mart?)

I'd be somewhat surprised if robots that can clean my bath-room come before robots that can perform surgery. I'd be outright astonished if they came before robot pilots. The correlation between the skill level of a job and it's replacability is questionable. By the way, why don't we see human semi-skilled workers specialized in cleaning bathrooms or other specific household services that people tend to find particularly unappealing?

By the way, given the low correlation of IQ to income, there are probably lots of very smart people working at Wall Mart.

The robot surgeons aren't really performing surgery on their own, but rather they are advanced tools the real surgeons are using. It's not an example of robots replacing humans because the surgeons and nurses are still involved.

And actually there probably aren't any very smart people working at Walmart, low paid high IQ people work at bookstores and Starbucks.

"By the way, why don't we see human semi-skilled workers specialized in cleaning bathrooms or other specific household services that people tend to find particularly unappealing?"

Oh but we do, there are a ton of housecleaning and landscaping work that is farmed out. Of course its mostly immigrant labor. I know people who've done well starting businesses in this field. Since they speak fluent English they can do the marketing and they speak Spanish so they can manage the workers.

Nontradable services guys, that's the secret. If it can outsourced to China or India, it will be. If the work has to be physically done here, that's the business to go into (and then use cheap immigrant labor to do the dirty work). Its a crummy situation, but neither Pat Buchanan nor Ralph Nader are ever going to be elected president, so there isn't much any of us can do about it.

As for you Halfsigma, you're licensed to practice law in at least one state (Arizona, no?), with that you can practice immigration law anywhere in the country without taking another state bar exam (an anomaly that drives the state bars nuts). So you can always ride the wave that way.

To some extend, legal service can be out sourced as well. Legal research comprises a large portion of what lawyers do. Why not farm it out to India?

The basic problem with outsourcing is that unless we find higher value tasks for our people, it has the negative result of lowering standard of living for a large number of people. The trade deficit is a sign that this country is becoming less and less economically competitive. If we truly had a better product at a lower cost, other country would buy from us.

I think you are biased by the fact that you live in NY Half-Sigma. No WallMarts here and LOTS of Starbucks and Bookstores, but there are plenty of high IQ people in the mid-West where the converse holds.
Today's robot surgeons don't completely replace humans, though if they make existing humans much more efficient the difference is unimportant. Tomorrows though...

Beowolf, I don't mean general domestic services, I mean extremely limited and specialized domestic services. If you know where I can hire someone in NY for a 1-time bathroom cleaning, please tell me. I imagine it should cost, at market rates, about $1minute/square foot of surface, and cost $10+$20/hr.

The threat of India is overestimated. It's pool of skilled workers is relatively limited. Here are some relevant articles:
(Entry level Indian engineers cost about a sixth, not a tenth, of their American counterparts.)

I figure wages will rise in India until they reflect the productivity and costs of Indian workers. That may mean still say half of their American counterparts, but they will have other, added costs.

Michael Vassar, any residential cleaning agency would do a one-time cleaning for you, unless there's something different about NY. It'll probably be about a $60 minimum. Just buy the minimum time and tell them to focus on the bathroom. No one's bathroom should take more than two hours to clean.


I took his need forf a one time visit by a bathroom cleaning specialist to involve destroying trace evidence before the crime scene techs showed up. Like, say, Harvey Keitel's character in Pulp Fiction.

As for Nobody's point about legal research being outsourced, this is true. But for legal services, you still need a licensed attorney to sign the paperwork and presumably to do all the marketing. So its the paralegals and baby associates who are replaced first.

In that case, http://www.crimecleaners.com.

In my observation, very little of the actual practice of law consists of legal research --except maybe for newbies at the very top firms. It's mainly hand-holding, managing the file, negotiating, and showing up. I suppose it is possible people in another country could be trained to do research memos using computer sources. Maybe they could even write motions, although I bet judges could tell the difference and would be intolerant of this practice.

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