Fri, 25 Jul 2003

Robotic Nation?

Sigh. Marshall Brain has no sense of historical perspective. We have been installing robots in our society for many, many decades now. Have we seen any systematic reduction in employment? No, of course not.

Let's take a very simple example: rugs. Used to be that rugs got dirty, and everybody accepted that. The rugs would be taken outdoors and beaten with sticks to get the worst of the dirt and sand out of them. Who would do this extremely unpleasant job? The children of the family, usually female children.

Some number of years ago, somebody invented a carpet sweeper. It had a pair of brushes attached to the wheels. When you pushed it back and forth, it would pick up the dirt. It was quick and easy to use, and allowed a homeowner to remove dirt before it became ground into the carpet. Did anybody become unemployed? Well, the children did, but everybody counts that as a benefit, including and especially the children.

In more time, somebody invented the electric vacuum cleaner. It was able to actually suck the particles out of the bottom of the rug. Did anybody become unemployed by this? No, instead what happened was that rugs got cleaner. People's standards increased as the cost of achieving that standard fell.

Nowadays, you can buy an actual robot to clean your carpets. It's not a very smart robot, doesn't have arms and legs, and is in no way humanoid. It's 4" tall, and because of that does something no humanoid robot can do: it can easily clean underneath things. It's also very cheap: $200.

People who predict the rise of humanoid robots simultaneously causing massive unemployment mistake the evidence of their eyes, and ignore economics. First, because nobody has created a humanoid robot which can do a job better than a specialized robot. Second, because a specialized robot will always be cheaper than a humanoid robot. Third because increases in the ability of tools to expand human effort has always resulted in just that: an expansion of human effort, not the elimination of it.

For the last five hundred years, one and only one thing has consistently become more valuable: human time. Anybody who wants to argue that that trend is going to reverse direction has to put forth an exemplary case. All the more so in the case of Robotic Nation since previous such arguments have all proven to be wrong.

For further reading: Jack Powelson's _Centuries of Economic Endeavour_.

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