We Are Not Programmed for Abundance

We Are Not Programmed for Abundance

So the topic of the robotification of society seems to be a popular one these days. Eminent economist Paul Krugman, has just written a short post highlighting the connection between the increase in robots use for product assembly and a recent trend of ‘reshoring’ manufacturing domestically. ‘The robot revolution will bring jobs back to America’ exclaim the optimists. But how many jobs are really needed in a robot world?

Essentially the argument goes like this: If you can manufacture goods using very little human labour through automating your assembly with robots, there is little incentive to offshore labour. Rather, you can locate your robot factory closer to your target market, and with access to highly trained workers necessary to support such a factory.

The argument is persuasive, although it should be noted that America is not the only place investing in robots. A robot-race between manufacturing nations seems likely on the horizon. Regardless of where the goods actually end up being produced, the eventual replacement of a great number of jobs by robots seems almost a foregone conclusion at this point.

This conversion of the economy from one of human powered labour to a highly mechanized one is a recurring story in the economy. As one commenter on Krugman’s post pointed out; agriculture went through a similar change, and now a very small proportion of the population actually works in the industry which grows more food than we can eat. This has all happened before, and it will all happen again.

Modern economic dogma states that incorporating technology into business should simply lead to better (and more) jobs. Google the Luddite Fallacy if you want to know what I mean. While I am sure this has held true in the past, I am equally sure that it cannot hold out forever.

This video of the new robots employed at the Zappos.com warehouse really drove the point home for me this week. In this case, every shelf in the warehouse can be moved around by a small army of motorized robots, which will deliver the appropriate goods in the appropriate order to be packed for shipment to customers. All of a sudden, workers simply grab the item from the shelf, scan it and put it in a box. By the time you do this, the next item for the order is already waiting to be grabbed, no walking needed. And the robots will reorganize the warehouse in real time to keep high demand goods close to the packers, and lower demand ones further away!

The virtues of such a system are many, including radically higher output per worker, near 100% accuracy in filling orders, much lower energy consumption, much lower ‘shrinkage’ (business speak for goods stolen by employees) etc…  It seems the logical next step would be to remove even more employees from the warehouse, perhaps replacing them with adaptable robots like Baxters.

But all this leads me to conclude that in the near future, the number of people working in warehouses such as this one is going to be much smaller. If we take google’s driverless car technology and add it on to this, we are suddenly talking about delivering goods from manufacture to doorstep with a vanishingly small amount of actual human labour necessary.

Now, again the argument is that these menial labour jobs will be replaced eventually, but this will lead only to a rise in service jobs. While the robots that would replace workers in a service industry (such as a call centre) might not look quite as cool, these jobs are far from impervious to the steamroller that is automation.

We already rub up against robot secretaries when we call anywhere (ie Please press 1 if you are an existing customer). These systems may seem rudimentary and often frustrating, but they are a sign of things to come. Imagine, a computer much like IBM’s Watson, hooked up to the policy archive of whatever company you are calling, say your bank. This system would be able to accurately answer any questions, and take any requested actions on your account.

Such a system may not be able to handle 100% of calls, but I am sure they can do 95% of average customer requests and figure out when to bump them out to an actual person. As anyone who has dealt with the geniuses that are employed at average call centres knows: humans have a pretty dismal record at helping customers anyway  As text to speech continues to improve, soon enough we will really have no idea if we are talking to a human or a computer when we call a company.

So it seems that both menial labour and menial service jobs are scheduled for the axe. But what does this mean for the overall economy?

While the byzantine network of markets and capital boggle even the finest minds, on some level our current model has evolved as a means to distribute scarce resources as efficiently as possible. It is not clear how the capitalist system as it exists today will function in a world where most people don’t have to work. Just in the same way that our biological programming does not deal well with an abundance of food, perhaps our societal programming won’t be able to deal with an abundance of material goods.

Put simply, the problem is this: Maybe we’re just not programmed for abundance.

Perhaps the ever widening gap between rich an poor we see today is a pathology of a system which produces more goods with less labour every year. It seems many of the current economic woes might (at least partially) trace to this type of effect. If this is true, then the symptoms of increasing unemployed or underemployed will only continue in the future. Will this continue? As Andrew McAfee put it at TEDx: “We ain’t seen nothing yet”.

How can our economy really adapt to serve society at large when it is going to take so few people to keep it running? Is it fair to maintain such intense cultural and economic pressure to work, in a world that has too many goods and not enough work?

Figuring out how to live in a world where we have more then we need and we don’t have enough work to go around is going to require revolutionary change on every level: culturally, economically, environmentally, sociologically. It is time to start figuring out how we can reprogram ourselves and our society to deal fairly and sustainably with a world of abundance. The answers of how this can be done may not yet exist, but it is definitely time is start asking the questions.


10 thoughts on “We Are Not Programmed for Abundance

  1. It’s an interesting thesis, that humans may not naturally cope well with abundance. This happened already with food, and is happening now in manufacturing and distribution. It used to be the case that being overweight was a sign of affluence, just as having expensive manufactured goods is today.

    As a practical matter, even if most human jobs are displaced out of manufacturing and distribution, there will still be plenty of jobs that (for now at least) humans perform better: Construction, landscaping, caring for the elderly, programming, and so on. Robotics lags in its ability to operate in unstructured environments, such as installing plumbing in a house. People will just need to go into one of these jobs that are automation-proof (for now).

    Back on abundance, it seems to me that certain things will always be limited and therefore scarce. Beach front property in Hawaii for example, or attractive prospects for marriage. I think individual competition will always be part of our society, it’s just that the things people occupy their time trying to obtain shifts over time (first it was food/shelter, then manufactured goods, and we’ll see it now shift again).

    • > It used to be the case that being overweight was a sign of affluence, just as having expensive manufactured goods is today.

      That’s great, can I use that?

      As far as the jobs that can be performed better by humans, I agree, for now. Yes, robots are pretty useless in unstructured environments, but they are getting better. A new generation of cheap (relatively) and easy to program robots like Baxter may start to change this in the near term.

      At the same time as robots become more adaptable, we are becoming more robotic. In order to maximize the cost efficiency of many tasks (such as construction, see the poster below) we are making tasks modular and repetitive. This makes sense from a management perspective, because it reduces the need for training, improves the efficiency, and minimizes errors in the final product. This might also make it easier to replace more and more parts of the task with robots. More on this in a future post.

      In regards to there being fundamental limits on some things, such as beachfront property in Hawaii. While this may be true to some extent, it is only holds true if you limit your imagination. There are plenty of islands in the Pacific, what if you could fly to any of them in a couple of hours? Or what if you could simulate the beach in Hawaii in a perfect virtual world? We are only limited by our imaginations.

      Thanks for reading

  2. Wonderful post, I look forward to seeing more from you. I believe that as a young carpenter, even my role in building new homes is going to become quite limited in the near future. With a large % of an individual house being processed on a manufacturing line, I basically put together a giant lego/jigsaw kit. It is similar in construction as well. With the advent of 3d printable houses and population stabilisation, meaning less growth in the housing sector… I do worry that my trade will become redundant in my lifetime. Guess it may be time to look into higher education.

    • I was unaware that a significant proportion of houses are now pre-manufactured – fascinating, I’ll have to do some more reading on that.

      I don’t think you are alone in thinking about the long term prospect for your job. Even with jobs which you might think could never be replaced by a computer, are being automated. For instance, you might say that human resources could never be replaced by a computer, but already most major corporations rely on computerized selection processes to sort through resumes. Granted, the technology is pretty crappy right now, but I doubt it will be long before a computer could tell you who would be the best candidate for any vacant position (given what you are willing to pay). Think about it, with the growing amount of information available about all of us today, a computer with even middling AI and which can process gigabytes of information on each candidate would probably do a pretty fine job.

      And this is just one example of how a computer could do what would classically be called a white collar job. Any time I really stop to think about whether a job could eventually be replaced by a computer, the answer is invariably yes. More on this in a future post.

      All this is not to say higher learning is not a worthwhile pursuit. It probably will land you a job that could last the rest of you life, I more wonder about the lives of people in 20 or 30 years. Also, we should not forget the merits of learning for the sake of learning.

      Thanks for reading.

  3. Excellent read. As a member of Generation E, or Y or Me (whatever they’re calling us late 80s early 90’s kids these days) from a Southern state that doens’t put an abundant amount of cultural prominence in education, I’m seeing this first hand. My state ranks incredibly high in obesity and poverty, and very low in education and employment. It’s pretty easy for someone on the outside to write off our citizens has “lazy”, but the reality is that there are simply very few jobs for people without college degrees anymore. The generation before had absolutely no problem finding gainful employ without an advanced degree, thus the value of education and employment in the burgeoning fields of information and medical technology was culturally hidden.
    Personally, I have an M.S. in Economics but still had an incredibly difficult time finding a job (2010 was not a good year to graduate), and while I found it frustrating but coped with it, my parents were somewhere between flummoxed and outraged. In their day, an advanced degree equated to employers lining up for the opportunity to hire you. Unfortunately, this is no longer true. Dealing with this delimma will be a fascinating study in human behavior. My personal hope is that we start to value “service”, as in social service for individuals with great need, to such a level that someone can actually make a comfortable living helping other people. Could just be rose colored glasses, however.

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  6. I don’t think humans are programmed for abundance or scarcity. it’s just not applicable. There are many places in the world where food was never scarce and the people there could take care of their food needs with just one hour of work each day. I’m talking about places like the Pacific Islands 500 years ago, where fruit and seafood was easily available and there was more than the population could ever eat.

    These societies managed to cope with an abundance of leisure time, and I am quite certain that we could handle it in the future if we ended up with everyone needing to work just one day a week to fulfill our every need.

    The problem in getting from here to there is that our *culture* is heavily invested in the idea that working hard is admirable, and whenever you create spare time through technology, that time must be used for more work. We are allowed to have time for leisure, but only *after* you have earned it by working for a much longer time.

    Many people talk about how great a universal 4-day week would be, but if you try and actually implement such an idea, people lose their minds. It’s as if the 40-hour week has been our only working structure since the dawn of time, but it’s actually a completely artificial and very recent construct.

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  8. What buggs me is that so few people think of the real implications of this all.
    Do you really think that the owner class (the ones owning all these robots) will share their precious wealth with the rest of us poor people that can’t get meaningful jobs because all is automated?
    During the last 3 decades the poor and middle classes were needed to transfer their wealth to the rich classes and this has almost been fulfilled, look at the current monetary crises, which is just a crises for the poor and middle class.
    Soon the rich class has all our wealth, all production means in the form of automation and all the ease of living a rich live among peers, do you really think they let us stay around on this planet and ruien their environment with 8 billion of us trampling and littering it?
    Think again, we are in some kind of end game here and the programs to eradicate the rest of us are already in place.

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