Tag Archives: technology

Robotics and the real (sorry, Karl, you got it wrong) final crisis of capitalism

Robert Henderson

Humans and Robots

Robotics is advancing rapidly. Probably within the lifetime of most people now living – and conceivably within the next ten years – there will be general purpose robots (GPRs) capable of doing the vast majority of the work now undertaken by human beings. When that happens international free trade and free market economics even within a closed domestic market will become untenable.  The final crisis of capitalism will be the development of technology so advanced that it makes capitalism in the Marxist sense impossible because machines make humans redundant.

Robots are already undertaking  surprisingly sophisticated work, but almost all are designed to undertake a limited range of tasks(http://www.sciencedaily.com/news/computers_math/robotics/). None is a true GPR. That makes them expensive because of the limited nature of their possible uses and the restricted production runs they can generate. Many of the most sophisticated are either one–offs or counted in single figures. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/space/8330246/Japanese-robot-could-be-sent-to-Space-Station.html).   A GPR will change that. They will be able to work across a wide range of tasks which will both enhance their utility and result in massive production runs. GPRs will become cheap, much cheaper than human labour.

The cost of GPRs will also fall because GPRs will sooner or later reach a stage where they can replicate one another or design and build new types of robot.  This is potentially startling in terms of what might be produced. Let us say that it takes one week for one GPR to create another. At the end of the first week you have two GPRs. At the end of the second week you have four GPRs. Let us suppose you keep on doubling up every week. In thirty three weeks you have more GPRs that the entire present population of the world. In thirty four weeks you have more than twice the population of the world. The only restrictions on production would be government curbs or a shortage of materials and energy to build and run them.

Economic history to date shows that technological advance creates new work. It may have very painful consequences for individuals whose livelihood disappears – the hand-loomweavers of the early industrial revolution are a classic example – but new opportunities for employment arise as an economy becomes more sophisticated and variegated. The hand-loom weaver found work in the new factories; the redundant western factory worker of today in a call centre. At worst they might only get a MacJob but at least it was a job.

But if the GPRs can do the MacJobs as well as the more demanding work, then there will not be any new jobs for humans, not even much supervisory work because GPRs will need little supervising, and less and less as they become ever more sophisticated. Hence, this technological advance will be like no other. GPRs will not only take away existing jobs, they will devour any new work; the easier work first, then the more complex.

The normal human response to such ideas is not reasonable scepticism, but rejection based on a refusal to accept the reality of change, a rejection expressed with ridicule along the lines of the Victorians’ response to the car:  “It will never replace the horse”. Mention robots and people commonly scoff “Science Fiction” to get rid of the matter without further debate. This type of response is natural enough because human beings, apart from disliking change, do not like to think of themselves as dispensable or redundant. Moreover, incessant propagandising by western elites has made it a received opinion of the age that work is becoming ever more demanding and requires an increasingly educated and knowledgeable workforce, something which seems to most humans to make them uniquely capable of doing the jobs of the future and, by implication, this excludes mechanisation (and robots) from the majority of future human employments.

If that were true the dominion of GPRs might be at least delayed. Unfortunately, the reality is that the large majority of modern jobs, in both the developed and developing world, are non-skilled or low skilled. Just sit and ponder how many our jobs need a great deal of intelligence or knowledge. Think of the huge numbers who are employed in call centres, shops, cafes, cleaning, driving car, on farms picking fruit and vegetables or assembling items on production lines which require no more than a repetitive task to be performed. These may be hard work but the training or innate skill required is small. Even work whose nature suggests that it is more demanding of education, training and knowledge such as much clerical work can be readily done by anyone with a reasonable facility with the 3Rs and a familiarity with basic computer operations, such as using a word processor and a search engine, something which the large majority of those in Western labour markets at least should possess. If twenty per cent of jobs in a developed country require an above average IQ or a long period of specialised training I should be surprised. In places such as India and China it will be less as they have taken on much of the repetitive factory production of the advanced world and are less inclined to substitute machines for labour, which is still by western standards very cheap.

The overproduction of graduates in both the developed and developing world is a strong indicator of the predominance of simple jobs.  In Britain there is a target of getting 50% of school-leavers to university. At present that does not look like being achieved because the figure has been stuck around 40% for years and the recent massive increase in university fees for UK students is likely to cause even that figure to drop in the future. But even with 40%, experience shows that is far too high a figure because large numbers of graduates are either unemployed or employed in jobs which do not require a degree-level education. The latest Office of National Statistics figures show 20% of recent UK graduates are without jobs, but even before the present  recession began in 2008, graduate unemployment was twice the UK unemployment average at 10.6%  (http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=1162). The  figures are worse than they look because graduates in employment include those in jobs for which a degree is unnecessary. In 2010 one in three new graduates were forced to take menial work  (http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/article-1697466/Stop-gap-graduates-forced-into-menial-work.html).

The picture is similar elsewhere. In China there are more than six million unemployed graduates (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/10_37/b4194008546907.htm); the USA  had 2.4 million unemployed graduates unemployed as of June 2010  (http://www.usatoday.com/money/economy/employment/2010-12-06-collegegrads06_ST_N.htm) and the Eurozone generally experiences a high level of graduate unemployment  (http://www.barcelonareporter.com/index.php?/comments/graduate_unemployment_rate_one_of_eus_highest/).  The position in less developed countries is considerably worse because the number of graduate-level jobs is meagre and often only available in government funded positions.

Employability also varies according to education below degree level.  Take the country which started the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings, Egypt, as an example. In 2011 Egyptian high-school graduates accounted for “42% of the workforce, but 80% of the unemployed.” (http://www.afripol.org/afripol/item/237-africa-middle-east-the-jobless-graduate-time-bomb.html?tmpl=component&print=1). Most startling, a 2007 report found that the rate of unemployment in Egypt is ten times higher in the educated section of the population than among illiterates. There education equals disadvantage.  (,http://www.huliq.com/29092/unemployment-in-egypt-highest-among-literate-population).

The hard truth is that most modern work requires less knowledge and skill than was required in the past. A peasant four hundred years ago had to know about his soil, his plants and animals, the seasons, the weather, where natural water was and be able to do a hundred and one practical things such as ploughing, sowing, harvesting, making and repairing of fences and ditches, using tools and turning out cheese and cream and dried meat and vegetables How many jobs today require a tenth of that volume of knowledge? Nor did more demanding work stop at peasants. A 17th century craftsman would have served a long apprenticeship. Jobs which did not require an apprenticeship would have probably required some manual skill. Those who aspired to intellectual employment had to laboriously write and amend their works rather than enjoying the immense convenience of a word processor. That and the cost of writing materials forced them to become precise in a way that virtually no one is today. Perhaps most importantly,  modern division of labour with one person doing a repetitive job was not king. A person making something four centuries ago would probably make the entire item and quite often a variety of items, for example, a 17th century blacksmith would not merely shoe horses but make a wide range of iron goods.

GPRs would arguably have much more immediate difficulty in displacing human labour in a sophisticated pre-industrial society such as England in 1600 than they would today, because of the more complex demands made by 17th century employments. The large majority of  English people in 1600 were employed on the land where subjective judgement rather than decisions made on objective facts were pre-eminent in the days before science and advanced technology entered farming. A very sophisticated GPR would be needed to make such judgements. (I am assuming that GPRs sent to England in 1600 would only have the knowledge available in 1600). Conversely, GPRs today could take over a great deal of employment in Western economies and much of the industrialised parts of the developing world, especially China, because there are so many simple jobs which would be within the capabilities of very basic GPRs.

But that is only half of the story. If most jobs are not demanding of much by way of learned skills and even less of intellect, they do need diligence. Human beings are generally more than a little reluctant to put themselves out in work which has no intrinsic interest for them or which is not very highly paid.. Most people do not have a vocation, or at least not one at which they can make a living. Left with  work which is seen as simply a livelihood, most  just want to do enough to live what they think is a comfortable life. If the job they are doing is laborious and boring and pays not a lot more than is needed to feed and clothe and house them, then it’s a certainty that they will be more than a little resentful. (An old Soviet joke about low wages ran that the communist government pretended to pay the workers and they pretended to work). Resentful equals careless equals idle equals dishonest equals loss of custom equals loss of profit. So what will an employer do when he can employ a robot instead? He will go and gets himself some GPRs which will not get awkward, do what they are told, keep working all the time without being watched, does not make regular mistakes and requires no wages or social security taxes or holidays or sick leave. And it will not be able to sue you for being a bad employer.

The GPRs will have all the capabilities of computers. They will be able to compute and model and display and manipulate data to your heart’s content. They will absorb unlimited amounts of data in the blink of an eye. You need a GPR to speak French, the GPR will speak or translate French. If you want a GPR to explain quantum mechanics, the GPR will produce a lecture by an eminent physicist. You need to fix your car, the GPR will fix your car.

Now, how could any human being compete with that? At that level they could not, but in the beginning at least there will still be a sizeable chunk of jobs which GPRs will not be able to do. These will be the jobs which cannot be reduced to quantifiable tasks; jobs which cannot be done by following an algorithm; jobs which require judgement and jobs which require motivation to achieve a complex end which is not obvious from the units of means which are required to achieve it.  But those type of jobs are only a minority of jobs, probably a small minority, perhaps 20% of the total. If the earliest GPRs could only undertake fifty per cent of the jobs which humans do that would be catastrophic. Human beings will not be able to kid themselves for long that everything is going to be all right.

There will be two further advantages enjoyed by GPRs over humans. In principle there are no limits to increases in the capabilities of GPRs; there is no such human potential in the present state of knowledge. It may be possible in the future to enhance human capabilities dramatically through genetic engineering or a marriage of human and machine to produce a cybernetic means of advancement, although in both cases the question would arise are such beings human? But for the foreseeable future there is nothing to suggest that human capacity can be raised dramatically through education and training, not least because attempts to raise IQ substantially and permanently through enhanced environments have a record of unadulterated failure over the past fifty years or more. Most tellingly, all the claims for raised IQs through enhanced environments involve people without well above average IQs. No one has claimed to have demonstrated that those with IQs of over 150 can have their IQs raised by environmental means. Nor do adult IQs increase as people experience more and learn more. That suggests humans have reached an intellectual plateau in terms of an ability to comprehend by the middle teens. With GPRs as many robots as were wanted of a certain ability uld be created.

The second advantage is that GPRs will come with a guarantee of performance. An employer gets what it says on the tin. Moreover, the performance will be consistent. Humans beings do not carry such a guarantee. The individual’s qualities only become apparent once on the job and are subject to variation according to the physical and mental wellbeing of the person.  This makes them a gamble for anyone who employs them. A faulty or rogue GPR could be repaired or replaced without moral qualms; sacking a human being raises all sorts of ethical questions and matters of sentiment.

The social and economic effects of GPRs  

When the first GPRs appear those in political authority will probably try to say everything will be all right when they are first presented with the problem. Now it might be thought that it would be pretty obvious that a GPR which could do everything the average human could do and then some would spell trouble for the human race, but it never does to underestimate the power of custom, ideology and the sheer unwillingness of human beings to face troubles which are not immediately upon them.  The tired old and worthless comparison with technological change in the past will doubtless be made, namely, that new jobs for humans will be generated by the GPRs. But that will not last long because the reality of the situation will very rapidly force elites to accept the entirely new circumstances.

There would be a dilemma for the makers and distributors of goods and services.. At first it might seem attractive to use GPRs, but as humans lose their employment and purchasing power the question for private business would be who exactly are we producing for? Very few would be the answer. For politicians the question would be how can we finance government including public services when our tax base has collapsed? The answer is we cannot as things stand.

As GPRs threaten to destroy the world’s economy, politicians will be faced with an excruciating dilemma. If GPRs are allowed free rein by governments the consequence will be a catastrophic collapse in demand as humans lose their employment en masse and an inability of the state as it is presently constituted to provide welfare to those put out of work or even to maintain the essential services of the minimalist state such as the police and army.

The situation will be pressing no matter how supposedly rich a country is because the majority of people even in the developed world are actually poor. They are only a few pay packets away from destitution (http://www.retirementsolutions.co.uk/many-britons-have-little-or-no-savings). Even those who own their own home will not be able to sell it because who will
there be to buy?

To begin with attempts will probably be made to control the crisis bureaucratically by instigating rationing and price controls. But that will not go to heart of the problem which is how do you sustain an economy in which most people are not working. In the end politicians will be faced with two choices: ban or at least seriously curb, the use of GPRs or adopt a largely non-market economy. Banning GPRs completely would create a particular problem because some countries would continue to use them and this could lead not merely to cheaper goods and services but technological leaps which exceeded anything humans could do. For example, suppose that a country produced GPRs to their fighting. A country which relied only on humans would be at a hopeless disadvantage.

The widespread banning of the use of GPRs in national territories would severely shrink international trade, because as sure as eggs are eggs not all countries would stop using GPRs  to produce items for export.  Any country using GPRs could undercut any country which banned GPRs. Protectionist barriers against countries using GPRs freely would have to be erected, although human nature being what it is, this would doubtless result in GPR products being supplied through a third country which had ostensibly banned GPR produced goods and services. The likely outcome of such a situation would be for protectionism to grow beyond the banning of GPR products to the banning of products simply because they were suspected to be GPR produced. This would also be a convenient excuse for simply banning imports.

As free trade (or more accurately freer trade) and internationalism generally has been the Holy Grail of politicians in the developed world for a generation or more, the re-embracing of protectionism and state control might seem to be a tremendous psychological blow for western political elites to accommodate.  In practice it is unlikely to give them any great emotional difficulty because elites only have one fixed principle, namely, to do what is necessary to preserve their position. Think how the British mainstream Left, most notably the Labour Party, happily embraced the idea of the market and globalism in the early 1990s after having been resolutely opposed to both only a few years before. Here is Blair in the late 1980s: “We will speak up for a country that knows the good sense of a public industry in public hands.” (The Blair Necessities p52 1988). Dearie me, who would have thought it?

The alternative to a protected economy in which GPRs are banned or severely restricted is a society in which the market is largely defunct. A perfectly rational and workable society could be created in which human beings stopped thinking they had to work to live and simply lived off the products and services the GPRs produced.  The GPRs would do the large majority of the work and the goods and services they provide would be given free to everyone whether or not they had formal employment. No GPRs would be allowed in private hands. Such a situation would mean the market would not make the choice of which goods and services were provided. Rather, the choice would be made by the consumer through an expression of what was needed or wanted before products were developed or supplied.  This could be done by anything from elected representatives to online voting by any member of a community for which goods and services should be supplied. For example, all available items could be voted from by the general population and those which were least popular dropped. The provision of proposed new lines or inventions could be similarly decided.

As for allocating who could have what in such a world, money could be issued equally to everyone in lieu of wages (a form of the social wage). Alternatively, in a more controlled society vouchers or rations cards could be issued equally to everyone for specific classes of goods. Greater flexibility could be built into the system by allowing the vouchers to be swopped between individuals, for example, a voucher for footwear swapped for food vouchers.

In such societies there would be scope for a limited use of private enterprise. People could be allowed to provide personal services, for example, entertainment, and produce goods just using human labour (human-made would gain the cachet that hand-made has now). There would also need to be some greater reward for those who occupied those jobs which still required a human to do them such as political representation, management and administration. The reward could either be material or public approbation. It would not be unreasonable to imagine that in a society where necessary work was at a premium quite a few would take on such positions for the kudos.    There could also be some legal requirement to undertake work when required.

The greatest change resulting from such a social upheaval would be the removal of most of the advantage the haves now enjoy over the have-nots. Because the vast majority of things would be provided by the state one way or another, the advantages of wealth would be greatly diminished. Those with wealth at the time the GRPs forced a change on society might still have their money, but what would they spend it on? Not the goods and services provided by society because they would be sufficient for any  individual? On the luxury goods and services offered by human-labour enterprises? Perhaps, but that would be a petty pleasure. What the rich would have lost is what they prize most, their power. They would not be able to hire other humans easily because why should anyone work as a servant when they already have the means to live? Instead they would have to live as “the little people do” (copyright Leona Helmsley). The historical experience of those with privilege relinquishing it peacefully is something of a desert, but in the circumstances of where no one has to work simply to live they would have little choice.

It would be difficult to build up a great fortune even where money remained the means of exchange, because all that would be permitted outside of socially controlled provision would be that which humans could produce without the aid of GPRs or perhaps without any form of robot, would be items which because of their means of production or provision would be expensive. This would make them luxury items. There would also be an incentive for most people not to buy them because the socially produced items would be much cheaper, in effect free because no work would have been done to earn the money to buy them. Money in such a society would have much of the quality of a voucher.

Perhaps some entertainers and artists might still command high incomes but fortunes made from business would be next to impossible. The vast fortunes made in banking and other financial service providers would not exist because financial services would become redundant in a society which has decided to provide the means of living without working for it. But like the rich generally, what would it really buy them?

Could an economic system akin to those which depended heavily on slaves not be created with GPRs taking the place of slaves which might be owned by anyone? The answer is negative. No slave society has ever relied overwhelmingly on slaves.  In slave societies there is always a good deal of free labour, both because of the scarcity and cost of slaves and the inability of owners to trust slaves to do all work or work without the supervision of free men and women. The demand created by the free part of the population through work or accumulated wealth provide the basis for a market economy in a slave-owning society. In many slave societies, slaves have acquired rights to earn money, own property and have families, all of which bolsters the demand of the free part of the population.  In the case of the GPRs, they would undertake so much of the work there would be insufficient realisable demand to sustain a market economy. There would be no point in private business using GPRs on a large scale because there would be no mass market to serve.

Who would be best placed to survive? 

It might be thought that the people best placed to survive would have been those in the least industrially developed states because they would be less dependent on machines. But the trouble is that there is scarcely a part of the world which had not been tied into the global economy. If a country does not manufacture products on a large scale, it exports food and raw materials and accepts Aid.

The fundamental trouble with Aid is not that it breaks the initiative of the recipient or props up dictators or alters traditional trading patterns or drains countries of money through everlasting interest, although all those are important features. . The killer fact is that it produces a level of population in the Third World which the Third World cannot naturally support. If the  economies of the industrial nations collapse, the Aid will stop and the market for their export of food and raw materials dry up. All of a sudden the Third World will find they cannot feed their populations and their elites will no longer have the means of maintaining order because they will not be able to finance forces to subdue and control the population.  The chaos which will ensue will be aggravated by the fact that the old economic and social relationships have been fractured so that even maintaining a population appropriate to the traditional ways of living will be problematic.

Low-wage developing countries such as China is now will be struck particularly hard because when GPRs are available their labour cost benefits will disappear.

The future

The rate at which robotics evolves will play a large part in how the story unfolds.  The speed with which GPRs replace human beings could be truly bewildering. The example of digital technology to date suggests that the stretch from a primitive GPR doing simple work which can be broken down into physical actions to a GPR with some sort of consciousness or a facsimile of what humans think of as consciousness will not be massive. Such development could well be speeded up by GPRs assisting with development as they attain more and more sophisticated abilities. The faster the development of  really sophisticated GPRs, the more chaos there is likely to be because there will be little time to plan and implement changes or for the human population to accommodate itself psychologically and sociologically to a radically different world

How sophisticated GPRs will get is unknowable, but the development of Artificial Intelligence programs which allow a process of learning are already well established. These have the potential not only to produce the wide-ranging intelligence which would allow value judgements, but also for GPRs to develop in ways which humans cannot predict. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/microsoft/8344028/Xbox-Kinect-foretells-computers-of-the-future.html).

It is reasonable to assume technology will develop until GPRs are showing behaviour which suggests consciousness. They will make decisions such as what would be the best way of  achieving ends which are loosely defined, for example, an instruction to design a city redevelopment in a way which would have the greatest utility for human beings. At that point the GPRs would be effectively making value judgements. Perhaps they already are doing that at some level. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/roger-highfield/8587577/The-big-plan-to-build-a-brain.html).

This is a real danger with potentially catastrophic world-wide consequences. The problem is getting people in power to address the subject seriously. There needs to be discussion and  planning now about how far GPRs,  or indeed robots or any type,  should be allowed to displace human beings in the functioning of human societies. Nor should we assume humans will happily tolerate GPRs  for reasons other than the economic. Robots which are too like humans make humans uncomfortable, probably because it is difficult to view a machine which looks like a human and acts like a human simply as a machine.  (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/8494633/Japanese-robot-twins-fail-to-bridge-the-uncanny-valley.html)

Apart from the economic consequences, GPRs also offer dangers such as the possibility of the realisation of the tyrant’s dream; an army of unlimited and utterly loyal and obedient servants who will refuse no command and GPRs developing intelligence and human-like qualities so profound humans have difficulty in treating them as slaves.  But those are subjects for another day…

The value of anecdotal evidence

Robert Henderson

There is a general sneering at statements based on anecdotal evidence. This is wrong because although there are not sociological laws in the sense of  those in physics or chemistry, there are indubitably sociological phenomena which show that the behaviour  of humans is governed by more than their individual biology and experience. Opinion polls work on this assumption. Where the question asked is unambiguous and at least reasonably  uncontentious, the poll  of a thousand or so people is, when placed in the context of the superficially  atomistic nature  of human behaviour,  remarkably close to what the nation thinks. Polls of voting intention in general elections are generally accurate in terms of  the overall percentage vote  for each party if not in the constituency results.

Perhaps the neatest example of such a law in action is the voting at general elections. The voting patterns in a general election are generally uniform. If the swing from one party to another is 5% in the vast majority of constituencies it will be  close to that. Exceptionally some constituencies will return a different figure but invariably this
can be traced to factors such as a good or bad constituency MP, whether the MP is a minister and so on.

Of course, polls and market research are based on supposedly scientifically selected samples which remove bias and produce an answer which either applies to the population in general or whatever group is being polled.

When we collect anecdotal evidence we  automatically select from those within our social group which generally means people like us in terms of class  and education with age and sex also strong influences . That is no different in principle to  the pollster or market researcher polling , say, the members of a political party or middleclass women on childcare.  All we need to know about any anecdotal evidence is the likely group it has been culled from and then put it into context.

Some evidence arguably  does not even have to be put into social context. That is evidence which  consists of factual reports of actual behaviour. Take the case of  a riot. Those who witness it will by and large tell the same general story regardless of social status.

In one respect anecdotal evidence may be much closer to the truth than that gleaned by pollster. The more contentious a subject the less likely a person is to tell the truth to pollsters. They are much more likely to tell it in private conversation with friends, although there is peer pressure to conform to a particular view mitigate this advantage.

As to the objection that  anecdotal evidence will be  biased, of course it will be. The real question is  why should we believe it is generally more biased than that collected by pollsters?  Pollsters manipulate results by their questions and contentious questions often render poll results highly dubious for the reason given above. Moreover, we know that although a sample of  1,000  is generally reckoned to be the  size of sample beyond which little greater accuracy will be achieved, it is also true that much smaller samples  provide answers which are still pretty accurate. The average person assessing his or her view of an important matter will probably have taken in several dozens of  individual views through face to face social contact, the internet and the media before arriving at a judgement.  It is also true that the individual will bring all the normal human abilities to assess the views of others before  judgement is made, something polling does not do. That may actually be a more accurate way of assessing the general sociological mood of a population than scientific polling.  Finally, the sociological phenomenon of general change in population such as voting
behaviour will of itself  ensure a high degree of truth in the reporting of opinions because opinions will widely change through whatever sociological law governs such things.

To those still prone to sneer let them reflect on this: human beings actually run  their day to day  lives simply by basing their behaviour on the empirical evidence of what  others do and say, that is, anecdotal evidence.

Can  anecdotal evidence be quantified or evaluated objectively? Problematic to say the least, but perhaps the Rev Thomas Bayes (1703-61) can come to our rescue. A dictionary of philosophy (Pan)  states that Bayes developed a theorem “giving an expression for the probability of an hypothesis, h, if some evidence, e, is added to antecedent knowledge, a. The theorem states that the probability of  h relative to e and a is equal to the probability of  h relative to a multiplied  by the probability of e relative to h and a, and divided by the probability of e relative to a. This means that evidence improbable antecedently, but likely to obtain if the hypothesis is true, raises the probability of a hypothesis most. ”  The problem of assigning probabilities to antecedent evidence  exists, but in principle the theorem appears to be able to
deal with the type of information described as anecdotal.  It is worth adding that Bayes theorem  is widely used in science, engineering, computer modelling and robotics, so it has undeniable practical value.

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