January 9, 2016

Mickey Kaus fears a future in which robots do all the work and we, consequently, have no basis for self-respect.

"Evolutionarily, we are designed for work. We are unhappy when we're not working. We become a sociopathic bachelor herd.... What do we do with all these people who have no productive work?"



ELSEWHERE: "Why Do Americans Work So Much?/The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a society so prosperous that people would hardly have to work. But that isn’t exactly how things have played out."

37 comments:

Sebastian said...

"We become a sociopathic bachelor herd.... What do we do with all these people who have no productive work?" Send them to Germany.

Laslo Spatula said...

Bob Wright's eyes are spaced too far apart by the same distance that Mickey Kaus' eyes are too close together.

Just an observation.

I am Laslo.

Rusty said...

Logical fallacies abound. Technology is not a zero sum game.

Whirred Whacks said...

I enjoyed Robert Wright's book "Non-Zero" (some years ago), but whenever I see Wright on Bloggingheads TV, he always comes across as an effeminate douchebag. Is he like that in real life?

AReasonableMan said...

Odd premise, given that Kaus doesn't do shit and seems to have been a trust fund baby.

rhhardin said...

Robots will give us stuff to do.

hoyden said...

I derive much enjoyment out of my work as an electrical engineer. I wonder what life would be like if I didn't have to work to support myself. I wouldn't mind trying out that option. OTOH I don't have much enthusiasm for deeply exploring such rhetorical questions. I have a house to clean this morning and bacon in the oven.

n.n said...

Self-esteem or rather self-confidence through actualization is one issue. Corruption engendered by a Peter Pan Syndrome is another.

campy said...

I don't see the issue. Many people who already have no evident basis for self-respect still manage to have a lot of it.

Bob said...

And the guy most associated with worry over Too Many Robots, "Magnus, Robot Fighter," wears shorts. :-)

Oso Negro said...

Mickey is sure right about one thing - there is dignity in any honest work. No dignity in being a beggar or thief in any form.

Ann Althouse said...

The part I excerpted is near the end. If you listen to the earlier stuff there's a huge amount of talk about Trump. Bob Wright repeatedly expresses disgust for Trump -- Trump is a disgusting person, over and over again. Kaus, who sort of supports Trump, never pushes Bob back at all, even though it would be so easy to go meta: Bob uses disgust against Trump for using disgust. Kaus has his own sardonic take on things. There's a strange and compelling difference between these two men.

Writ Small said...

Logical fallacies abound. Technology is not a zero sum game.

The Luddites worried about automation taking their weaving jobs over 200 years ago. We've had steady labor productivity gains since that time, and while it is rough on individuals who are displaced, people move and adapt and we are collectively far better off. We've simply turned that increased productivity into more stuff and leisure for everyone. In most ways, the lower socioeconomic levels live better today than the upper classes of 200 years ago.

However, is there not a tipping point, a point at which the Luddites will finally be proven right, and there really isn't enough work to go around matching to what skills people have?

Writ Small said...

I have been thinking for days that I want to see Althouse versus Wright on Trump. Any chance?

Gahrie said...

We are unhappy when we're not working.

Someone is projecting outdated WASP values on today's population.

William said...

Here's my big fear of robot technology: Despite the fact that we sent men to the moon and back two generations ago, we have not yet resolved the problem of splooge shorting out the lithium batteries. It would be just my luck to get electrocuted while establishing rapport with my sex robot. Even worse, it would probably be the one time I made use of the Miley Cyrus model instead of the thousandth time I availed myself of the more appropriate Katy Perry model. There would be snickers and unkind comments at my funeral, and they would all be unwarranted and unfair. I haven't watched the discussion, but I suspect that these men are not addressing the real issues involving robots.

rehajm said...

A conversation with no basis in history or logic. Robots improve human productivity and create opportunities for high value human input. Pointing at a job category where robots will replace humans and declaring tragedy is stupid thinking.

Roger Zimmerman said...

The types of robots (or machines with specialized intelligences) that will be developed in the next ~40 years are going to be "more of the same" in terms of their impact on humanity and work. They will displace people from less skilled labor, thus freeing up resources for human-centric tasks, many of which we haven't even thought of yet, because we can't afford to (since we still need humans to do these less-skilled jobs). The Luddites will continue to be wrong.

Also, there will be significant decreases in the costs of producing products and services we desire, so less "income" will not be a problem, at least for those that are not envious. People will still work, and, while their "pay" won't increase as rapidly (or perhaps even at all), their standard of living will improve so much that they shouldn't care. SJW's will try to stir the pot, but I think the vast majority of humanity will not follow their lead, seeing how good things are getting.

However, there is a non-trivial probability that a truly generally-intelligent AI will be developed in the foreseeable future (mid century is not out of the question), and AI theorists have made a compelling case how such a "machine" will become "super-intelligent" a short-time after that (essentially by performing very rapid evolution on itself), and that would result in fundamental human displacement. Such machines will literally be able to learn any task that even the most capable human can, and because of easy replicability, they will be able to provide all that we want for virtually no cost. At that point, assuming these intelligences have been carefully engineered to not actually destroy us (possible, but difficult to be sure of, at least at the present state-of-the-art), we really won't have to "work" at all. But, we will play, travel, make love, read, and probably interact with this new species in ways that we also can't imagine right now.

I think we will be quite entertained by that new world, and our psychologies will adapt to our new role. But, I could be wrong. Either way, it won't be the problem of these new beings. They will, objectively, have all the political rights that any homo sapiens should have, and therefore will owe us nothing in terms of making us happy. If they were to try to _deprive_ any of us of our rights, we would of course be justified in defending ourselves, but that is all we could do.

ALP said...

We are unhappy when we are not USEFUL! USEFUL is the appropriate word, as it covers paid work, volunteer work, holding down the domestic front, etc...etc... Fucking hell, this obsession with defining our lives via our paycheck makes the steel plate in my head hurt like a motherfucker.

cubanbob said...

rehajm said...
A conversation with no basis in history or logic. Robots improve human productivity and create opportunities for high value human input. Pointing at a job category where robots will replace humans and declaring tragedy is stupid thinking.

1/9/16, 10:41 AM"

The problem is as you said high value human input. Generally speaking the robots aren't replacing humans with high value inputs.

buwaya puti said...

This is not a new worry. There probably is a tipping point, where large parts of humanity are progressively rendered useless, unable to find a way to provide higher quality services because they just don't have the ability to do it. The problem is largely with the limits of intelligence. This was the most important point in Murray&Herrnsteins "Bell Curve" -and the most ignored.
Technology is changing economics in such a way that the limitations of biology are making the left side of the bell curve entirely useless. The poor in modern economies no longer have to worry about being exploited - made to provide labor for inadequate compensation. Many if not most of them are no longer able to provide value no matter how low the price of their labor. This proportion will grow.

mikee said...

Well, first, Keynes was wrong on his economic predictions. Second, in the 1980s a Sci-Fi writer, postulating the world of Keynsian economic surplus, wrote a story starting with the government-required consumption of goods by humans. The story ended with the creation of pleasure circuit for robots, with which they could consume their surplus goods meaningfully.

That story put me off SciFi for several years.

Birkel said...

Keynes was wrong. This just in.

grackle said...

Evolutionarily, we are designed for work. We are unhappy when we're not working..

Work – or something. He’s kind of right.

My theory: I realized years ago that for me happiness was mostly an after the fact situation. Happiness is a memory. In fact everything is attached to memories. We only realize that we were happy later, on those occasions when we recall and reflect on our lives.

In my first career I was busy, the work was interesting and the competition was challenging. It was a struggle, a struggle I was prepared for, had the skills for and in which I excelled – as did the people working under me. We won every award that could be awarded by our organization.

Only later did I realize how happy I was during that time because at the time I was unaware. I was too busy, too engaged with the problems and solutions. The secret to happiness is to be engaged in a satisfying activity. But it doesn’t have to be working at a job for pay. Work is only a prosaic example – one that most can relate to.

I had other jobs, jobs that proved to be satisfying and some that didn’t – which I quit. I was able to retire at age 58 and could have retired years before that – but I didn’t – because I liked the job. I am now 72. This old carcass is holding up well for its age, or so my doctor claims. My days are filled with family, walks, workouts, painting, writing, attending the theater and reading. Although I haven’t had a job for years I am as busy as I’ve ever been. And that’s the way I’m going to keep it because that’s the secret of happiness.

I am in my declining years. The end is near, relatively speaking – I can see it on the horizon. I am a bit surprised, even puzzled, that I am not afraid. Maybe I will be when that day comes …

mccullough said...

Maybe technology is displacing jobs faster than new jobs can be created and new skills acquired. Seems to be Kaus' theory.

Also, there are two parts to his view about work. Work itself is good and builds self respect and also being able to support yourself through work is an important aspect of building self respect.

The black unemployment rate in the US, especially among teenagers, is extremely high. So we have something of a control group on our hands to see how this continues to unfold.

Fernandinande said...

a future in which robots do all the work and we, consequently, have no basis for self-respect.

My robot can beat up your robot!

Paco Wové said...

"They will displace people from less skilled labor, thus freeing up resources for human-centric tasks,"

I've puzzled over this for a while, but still can't figure out what is meant by "human-centric tasks".

Guildofcannonballs said...

Perfect. Kaus doesn't work so he needs to project that on others by deciding what he needs to do to and for them, using this thought as a definition of work to exempt himself from the ramifications of logically concluding his hypocrisy shows his argument to be false.

Learning opportunities without bounds.

eric said...

It's no surprise that every person I know who suffers from some sort of depression has nothing to do.

That isn't to say people with something to do are never depressed.

But my worst days are when I have nothing to wake up for, no where to go and nothing to do.

The Godfather said...

"Oh my Miss Scarlett! You and the other young ladies don't have to worry your sweet little heads about difficult or troubling problems. The niggrahs are going to continue to plant and harvest the cotton, and the overseers are going to make sure it gets ginned and into the wharehouses, and the factors will arrange to ship it out to England on these new "steamer" ships. And then the money will come back from our agents in England, along with all those fabrics and gee-gaws you girls love so much. You all just have to keep being ladies and learning about the best Paris fashions."

"But Mama, suppose something changes? Suppose the niggrahs revolt or go on strike? Suppose the English find they can buy cotton cheaper from Egypt? Suppose the Yankees invent some new kinds of cloth that don't use cotton? What will we do then?"

"Oh hush Scarlett! You have the strangest ideas! Nothing is ever going to change. Why right now our cousins in Charleston are closing down that Yankee fort on Sumpter Island, and then everything will be back the way it's always been."

tim maguire said...

How can we be evolutionarily designed for work when work as we know it is only a few thousand years old?

ken in tx said...

My main reason to get up in the morning is that I have to pee.

The Godfather said...

@Ken in tx: If you don't get up to pee until morning, be thankful: In a few years you'll be very familiar with what your bathroom looks like at midnight and the wee small hours of the morning (and yes, "wee small hours" means what you think it means).

n.n said...

It would benefit humanity and civilized society for us to discover intrinsic value.

It is not too late to stop clinging to ulterior motives, and reconcile individual dignity and intrinsic value on their merits, rather than merely environmental stability.

Roger Zimmerman said...

Paco:

" ... what is meant by a 'human-centric task'"

I mean only those tasks for which (some) humans have a competitive advantage against machines. Perhaps I should have used "human-advantaged".

Currently, these include:

- Delivering groceries, being sure - in the event that the receiver is not home - to leave them in a safe spot based on weather and neighborhood conditions.
- Sports massage.
- Building an internet application, full stack, from database design to user-interface.
- Arguing a case before the USSC.

Obviously, some of these will be converted (to be "machine-advantaged") over the coming decades. But, until there are machines with general intelligence - and for some indeterminate time beyond that - there will be tasks that humans are better at. Some of these tasks have not even been discovered yet. If history is a guide, such tasks will become apparent as the resources are freed, and there will be plenty of these even for humans that are not particularly capable.

Jupiter said...

tim maguire said...
"How can we be evolutionarily designed for work when work as we know it is only a few thousand years old?"

Yo, what he said. What we are evolutionarily designed for is wandering around looking for things to eat. And, of course, killing strangers. Then some mutant freak started digesting lactose, and history began.

The problem, if there is one, is that the people who own the infinitely productive robots may not wish to devote them to the purpose of feeding us while we travel. Do ya think?

Personally, I think it is all a crock. I have been hearing about infinitely productive robots since I was a little boy, and like fusion power and racial equality, it has always been twenty years away.

Peter said...



"Why are people working just as much today as in 1970? ... a shift in 1973 that fits in precisely with when the workweek stopped shrinking. "

1973 was the year of the oil price shock? U.S. companies discovered the post-WWII world had ended and many made-in-USA products were, compared to those of global competitors, too expensive and all too often lacking in quality?

Because, in a more competitive world sometimes one simply needs to work harder?


And perhaps the corollary to "who shall guard the guards themselves" is "who shall make the robots, robots?" Because we're a long, long way from robots that can design the next generation of robots.