Showing posts with label robots. Show all posts
Showing posts with label robots. Show all posts

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Replace Waiters With QR Codes

A large number of jobs exist not because they create economic value but because they make business sense given the institutions we have - customer expectations, bureaucratic regulations, and so on. They do not solve a real problem but a fake problem created by inefficient institutions. They therefore do not make our society better off but rather they represent a great cost to society - of many people's (life)time being expended on something fundamentally pointless instead of something worthwhile. 

One way of spotting such anti-jobs is to compare staffing in the same industry across different countries. US supermarkets employ people just to greet customers and bag groceries, for example, which would seem a ridiculous waste of time in most of the world (hence US supermarkets are more expensive). In Japan one can find people standing in front of road construction waving a flag (they are replaced with mechanical manikins on nights and weekends).

Another way to spot anti-jobs is to to observe the effects of Covid restrictions and look for areas where removing workers or tasks made no impact on performance, or even improved it. Take waiters. In America there are around 2 million people doing this job (1.4% of all employment). The experience of Covid lockdowns shows that much of what waiters do can be done better by pasting a QR code to tables for customers to scan to visit the menu webpage and order and pay directly. Having learned this, it would be ridiculous to go back to employing people to waste their time and their customers' by doing such fundamentally needless work. We still need some servers to bring the food and drink we ordered (for now), and to bus tables, but we don't need nearly as many because we don't need to employ people to ask us what we want and then tell someone else to make it.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

What Kind of Jobs Will the Robots Leave Us?

Coming for your job!
Machines powered by self-learning algorithms and internet connections are displacing humans from all kinds of jobs, from driving to legal discovery to acting in movies. Will there be any work left for us to do? Economics says yes. Will it be awful or will it be nice? That is up to us.

Friday, 30 May 2014

The Robot Economy and the Crisis of Capitalism: Why We Need Universal Basic Income

The success of capitalism depends on technology as well as markets (and social norms and state institutions). Markets enhance the efficiency of a society's allocation of resources, such as labour, between competing projects so that we spend them where they will create the most total value. In factories for example rather than in tiny subsistence farms. But there is a limit to the gains from better logistics. If that were all there was to capitalism then economic growth would have ended long ago - as the classical economists feared.

What saves us from a dead-end economy in which anyone's gain is someone else's loss (the kind of economy that some benighted environmentalists dream of) is technology. Technological innovations, from electricity to computing don't merely rearrange the resources we have, they multiply the value we can get out of them, the productivity of our economy. Thus, for example, from a black goop of compressed zooplankton we created a fuel source that transformed the cost-structure of transportation and made the horse redundant. And it doesn't end there. Recent developments in lithium battery technology and artificial intelligence are once again transforming the price of moving from A to B, making the human driver redundant.

In 1930 the famous economist JM Keynes made a prophecy about the Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren: Within 100 years the relentless trend of rising productivity would solve the ‘economic problem', the struggle to overcome scarcity that has characterised the human condition since our beginning. Finally, we would be able to turn as a society to considering what our enormous wealth can do for us, rather than what we must do to get it.

With the birth of the robot economy, Keynes' prophecy is coming true. Yet this is not a time for complacency. Unless we intervene, the same economic system that has produced this astonishing prosperity will return us to the Dickensian world of winners and losers that characterised the beginning of capitalism. Or worse. The problem is this, how will ordinary people earn a claim on the material prosperity of the capitalist economy if that economy doesn't need our labour anymore? 

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Love's Labours Lost: How Robots Will Transform Human Intimacy

An elderly nursing home resident with a Paro robot companion 
The robots are coming.

Even though they won't actually think, they will behave enough like they do to take over most of the cognitive labour humans do, just as fossil-fuel powered machines displaced human muscle power in the 19th and 20th centuries. I've written elsewhere about the kind of changes this new industrial revolution implies for our political and moral economies if we are to master its utopian possibilities and head off its dystopian threats. But robots won't merely be set to work out in the world. They will also move into our homes, with consequences for human intimacy as we now know it. Robots will not only be able to do our household chores but also care work, performing the labours of love without ever loving. 

I see two distinct tendencies at work. First, because robots will allow us to economise on love, inter-human intimacy may become attenuated as we have less need of each other. Second, because robots will perform care better than we can, robots may become objectively more attractive than humans as intimate companions. 

Friday, 31 May 2013

Seizing the Utopian Possibilities of our Robot Future

Baxter is coming for your job
According to increasingly credible accounts (egeg, eg), the robot economy is on its way. Perhaps by as early as 2040 robots will be smart and dexterous enough to do pretty much everything humans call work as well as or better than us, and at a lower cost. If this scenario comes about, human societies and indeed the human condition will be radically changed. But will this future be utopian or dystopian? At least two dystopian threats must be actively addressed: inequality and meaninglessness.