Noted for Your Morning Procrastination for October 21, 2013
How To Know More About the Budget than Every Single Republican Office-Holder, Flack, and Think-Tanker in Washington--and Also More than 90% of the Democrats

Uncharted: May I, For One, Welcome Our New Robot Overlords? UNDER CONSTRUCTION

I find myself disappointed that this has not yet jelled into something coherent--especially because there are now only 99 hours until I have to take the stage on Friday…

Let us start out with the view from 30,000 feet: What do we people do to add value? Eight things:

  1. We apply large amounts of energy to move things around and transform them
  2. We use fine manipulators to do precision work as we move things around and transform them.
  3. We amuse, please, and encourage each other.
  4. We figure out how the large amounts of energy are to be applied, and trigger the application.
  5. We figure out how the precision work is to be done, and trigger the manipulation.
  6. We coordinate our collective efforts so that we are mostly pulling in more-or-less the same direction.
  7. We communicate to others both what is going on and better ways of doing useful things.
  8. We think of new (and hopefully better) ways of doing useful things, or new useful things to do.

Back in the really old days, all eight of these were performed entirely by human beings.

Then we developed biotechnology: by applying energy in the form of sunlight to selectively-bred seeds we could grow massive amounts of food.

Then we figured out how to domesticate the horse, the donkey, and the ox--and the elephant--and all of a sudden we could use their muscles as well as our own.

Then we figured out the watermill to supplement the treadmill, and the sail, and the windmill. And life was good--or, if not good, at least better, or at least more numerous.

But all of these simply shifted some of the workload from (1) off of our backs (and arms, and legs) onto those of horses, oxen, donkeys, the wind, and the waterhead. A good deal of (1) and all of (2) through (8) remained the property of humans alone, and did so all the way up to 1700.

Starting in 1700 things begin to shift: steam engines, spinning machines, power looms, locomotives, riverboats, blast furnaces, steam shovels, power lathes, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

At first the amount of human labor that is useful in all eight categories--even category (1)--grows with the coming of the Industrial Revolution. The application of prevously-unimaginable amounts of energy produces a lot of work for humans, and even a lot of heavy work for human muscles. The first generations of machines produce large pieces of metal and rock that humans must muscle into position. The first few generations of assembly lines produce a lot of extra fine manipulation--attach nut #4 and bolt #6 and tighten--that only humans can do, mind-numbingly boring as the jobs are. There is a huge upward leap in the usefulness of all kinds of human labor--its average product--and in the need for it--the marginal product.

But technology marches on. Those parts of (1) that only humans can perform gradually vanish: a strong back attached to testosterone-boosted arms and legs is no longer a terribly valuable productive resource. And (2) begins to fall away as well: human hands are actually not all that good at fine manipulation compared to today's machines. Nevertheless, even as (1) and (2) fall away, (3)-(5) grow: a richer society is a leisure society, and as our machines come to do more work for us, both gross and fine, and the human eye-brain-hand loop remains the best-in-class control mechanism, and so there is more work for them. Moreover (6)-(8) remain the exclusive property of humans.

But technology marches on some more. You no longer have to hire Arnold Schwarzenegger as your personal trainer to encourage you to do five more leg-lifts and remind you of how good you will feel when you are in shape--you can listen to your Arnold Schwarzenegger exercise tape on your iPhone. You no longer have to go to La Scala in Milan if you want to hear a first-class tenor like Miguel Fleta sing the role of Il Principe Ignoto in Puccinit's Turandot: it's $0.99 on iTunes. A great deal of (3) becomes automated in the age of mechanical and now electronic reproduction. (4) and (5) fall away as well, as cybernetic feedback and control loops come into their own and you no longer need a human eye, brain, and hand to keep the airplane on its proper landing path to the runway.

So what's left for humans?

  • Those parts of (3) that cannot or that we prefer not to have automated: live coaches, live performers, live companions--call this (3b)
  • (6) in the form of all of the paper-shuffling to keep track of what we are all doing, what we are each allowed to do, and what we should do next--an economy of clerks, call this (6a).
  • (6) in the form of actual planning--all this (6b).
  • (7)--education, journalism, and marketing, but this too is breaking apart into a (7a) that can be automated by information and communications technologies and a (7b) that still requires high-human cognition.
  • (8)--research and development.

So right now we live in a world in which some people still do (1)-(5), but only (3b) is in any sense a potential growth sector for employment, and in which (6)-(8) (plus 3b) are what we do.

And now (6a) is about to vanish into the automated info sphere as well, possibly accompanied by (7a).

That will leave us with personal services--(3b)--actual planning and control--(6b)--elite education/journalism/marketing--(7b)--and (8), research and development, as things that humans can do in the future to add value. Our society will then be enormously rich: our collective and average productivity will be awesome. But the society will only be a good society if we can figure out how to employ each other in high-value (3b) activities--only if we find ways to organize life so that most of us can actually add a lot of value by amusing, pleasing, and encouraging others will we have a society of mutual respect, and of only tolerable inequality.