Thursday, July 01, 2010

Future Economy

I discussed with friends my worry that the economy as a whole will come to resemble the economy for professional athletes: a very few qualifying for a job, with many more - 10x more, 100x more - not far below thm in ability but unable to qualify. At its full extension, a society in which 10% of the people make oodles of money, and the other 90% having nothing much to do other than entertain themsleves, supported by the food-making, house-building, car-driving robots controlled by the 10% seems far more possible at a 50 year lookout than it seemed even ten years ago. The Japanese are developing robots which carry old people, and care for them, for example.

Even if we 90% lived in fairly comfortable estate, it would seem an unstable society. Human nature seems to resent those who make ten times more than us, never mind one hundred, especially if we see ourselves as having come close but missed. We search for clues that their elevation was unfair or pure luck; we resent their advantages. This dystopia seems all the more real the more we can imagine the job we do being done by extremely clever machines, or being done by a few humans aided by technologies, replacing a hundred humans. (Perhaps the 10% will move to correct our resentments quietly.)

Even more depressing is the realization that life-extension seems to be happening even though humans start becoming obsolete in the job market at about the same age they always have. It's hard to get a new job after 55 in many fields, and nearly impossible after 65. One might be able to hang on if the type of job you do doesn't change much. I'm still fine in my job - I've got reasonably good computer skills and can keep up with the changes in agencies and approaches. But there are already those my age, or even younger, who can't adapt. Working 45 years out of your lifespan of 70 seems sustainable. Working 40 years out of your 120 revolutions around the sun, not so much.

Thinking about that this week, I think there are other ways of looking at this technology which point entirely in the opposite direction. While only a few athletes make money in sports, there are thousands of other people who make make money in the business, far more than fifty years ago. People sell shirts, have radio shows, design stadiums (no, it's not stadia), develop exercise equipment, become agents. And all those derivative businesses have offices with support staff. If there is money to be made, a lot of people discover new ways to become part of that. Just because I can't envision what the derivative businesses around robot development are doesn't mean they won't be there. Humans like their robots to have personality, so maybe pesonality design will become big. Or maybe we'll rent out our personalities to be installed in robots.

Synthesized music was supposed to put live musicians out of business. Did that happen? While there are indeed a million musicians making money but not making a living, that was always true. The technology that allows a single individual to send a video of herself anywhere in the world has, if anything, increased the number of people having a try at it.

There's an enormous amount of technology in medicine now. Somehow there are even more people working in it.

Developing new technologies may not only come from the realms of the robot masters and their labs. DIY biology, making cells do fun stuff is a new garage hobby, not necessarily requiring Bell Labs to fool around with life, the universe, and everything. Each of these massive wierdnesses, as they become available, will spawn supporting industries around them. I don't know what they are going to find for relatively health 80 year old guys today, but perhaps we won't all have to become Wal-Mart greeters after all.


David Foster said...

There's a long history of over-estimating the efficacy of robotics & machine intelligence. Computers were supposed to eliminate clerical work by, say, 1960 or has reconstituted itself in many forms, call centers being one example. Roger Smith of GM made huge investments in robotics in the mid-1980s: Toyota kicked his ass using an approach more oriented toward flexible and intelligent human work. The BLS actually put out an estimate that the demand for air traffic controllers would fall due to increased automation of the function: didn't work out that way.

Also, there's an interesting book "Inventing ourselves out of jobs?" by Amy Sue Bix on the cultural history of techological unemployment fears.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, the "replacement" of humans has turned out to be mostly enhancement of them thus far, so that's the way to bet. I'm leaning strongly to my second take at this point, the we will invent new jobs only slightly slower than we make them obsolete.