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December 13, 2006

I, For One, Welcome Our blah blah blah

Soon enough, according to Bill Gates, we'll all have personal robots. The precise implications of a transition to an economy largely run by hyperpowered, anthropomorphic machines is, obviously, unclear. It's pretty safe to assume you'll see a lot of occupational displacement, and at a point, you'll see more than can be effectively made up. Was Marx right, but we had to wait for robots? Maybe. Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your usefulness!

Meanwhile, I do remember reading a science fiction story out of a decades-old collection of, I think, Pegasus award winners where the widow of a famed composer traveled to lobby a powerful, centenarian Senator to defeat a bill extending the time limit of artistic patents. The Senator didn't see why -- she, after all, stood to make millions. Indeed, he'd already promised to support the bill. She broke down sobbing.

In this mechanized world, she explained, where 50+% of humans classified themselves as "artists" because their services were no longer necessary elsewhere, you couldn't constrain the products of human creativity. There were a lot of possible artistic permutations, but they were not infinite, and to bounce up against the border of past works would prove an incalculable psychic damage to a society that had little else sustaining it. Her husband, indeed, had committed suicide after realizing a love song he wrote for her was actually a reformulated children's rhyme he subconsciously recalled from childhood. To radically extend patent periods would visit similar mental devastation on millions more. And it couldn't be done. We had already taken work away from people, we could not steal their art, too.

December 13, 2006 | Permalink


I for one welcome our Melancholy Elephants ...

Spider Robinson wrote it.

Posted by: md 20/400 | Dec 13, 2006 9:37:18 AM

It doesn't seem that we are calculating the energy impacts of lots of robots doing lots of stuff in society.

Unless the robots eat 'food' (protein meat and carbo-veggies), they will likely consume electricity. So there is a electricity for food substitution implicit in this switch. So more energy into electricity becomes a major need, making the energy independence and global warming things worse.

On the other hand, since cows/pigs produce so much methane (as an uncaptured byproduct of digestion), maybe the reduced animal gas will offset the de-icing of the permafrost and the gasification of underwater frozen methane due to warming of the oceans.

This is all so complicated.....

And, on top of this we will need fewer live bodies, so maybe frozen fertilized embryos will be more even more common, requiring yet more energy to maintain the nitrogen in a liquid state.

My head now hurts....

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Dec 13, 2006 10:04:00 AM

Years later, I remember that Spider Robinson story. It exemplifies one of the most awful tropes in science fiction - treating the reader to an extended essay on some intellectual hobbyhorse of the author, but wearing a flimsy camisole of fictional narrative to get people to read the damn thing. This tradition dates back to H.G. Wells (or even further), but other writers just stop the story for a few minutes, deliver the lecture and get back on track.

Robinson, on the other hand, fashions the melodramatic plot devices recounted by Ezra as ornamentation for an old-fashioned story-length lecture on intellectual property rights. The fact that I agreed with Robinson's thesis didn't make me feel any less used as a reader.

Posted by: TomH | Dec 13, 2006 10:26:36 AM

Patents, not copyrights?

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Dec 13, 2006 10:56:57 AM

I also read and hated that Robinson story. I remember thinking as I was reading it: "Holy shit, she thinks this is profound!"

Posted by: collin | Dec 13, 2006 11:03:47 AM

apparently you haven't seen Terminator (the first one).

Posted by: akaison | Dec 13, 2006 11:06:46 AM

Ugh. TomH, you're right. I especially love the idea that science fiction is the successor to the novel of character, which is the successor to the novel of ideas, in a story that's squarely within the genre of the novel of bad ideas (or bad novel of ideas if I'm feeling kind).

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Dec 13, 2006 11:20:47 AM

Gates' prediction record is dismal (640K limit? No one wants the internet?), so I wouldn't worry about robot overlords anytime soon... but given how eager our masters were to disembowel our economy once cheap overseas labor became easier to exploit, one shivers at the thought of what happens to mere flesh-and-blood citizens if even cheaper mechanical labor (that needs no medical care, no elder care, and doesn't demand voting rights) ever arises.

Should that happen, most of humanity gets immediately demoted to a cheap source of biodiesel.

Posted by: gaspacho | Dec 13, 2006 12:10:20 PM

Sherrie Turkle, a psychologist at MIT, has some interesting thoughts on what it will be like to interact with robots. Short story: it'll feel good, but not be good.

Posted by: cerebrocrat | Dec 13, 2006 12:28:14 PM

I want a personal robot. The notion is really quite exciting. I am also quite keen on mroe automation in manufacturing. I am not so keen on jobs moving over-seas, especialy China, where they are not so keen on automation. But losing jobs to automation is a lot different. Automating drives down the labor costs exponetialy, while shifting a job to China reduces it very little, repsectively.

Posted by: DuWayne | Dec 13, 2006 12:47:36 PM

I personally am not welcoming our robot overlords. We should however welcome a reality where humans are cyberized thereby being able to do jobs as good if not better than robots.

On a related note, Typepad thinks I'm an automated robot.

Posted by: Adrock | Dec 13, 2006 1:48:34 PM

Sigh. I *liked* Melancholy Elephants (although, in fairness, this may have had something to do with its being my introduction to intellectual property law). Just because a story is preachy doesn't mean it's bad, if the point holds and is worth reading about. I do think that Robinson weakened his message by overextending it; the problem isn't that OMG WE'LL USE UP ALL THE ART, but that the new art we *do* make will be (like all art) largely inspired by earlier works, and therefore quashed by the law.

As for the robots...

We're going to have to deal with them sooner or later. Humans can soldier on under necessary evils, but ultimately they will fight to the death to get rid of pointless evils, if those evils affect them personally.

Work is a pretty damn big evil, and it affects virtually everyone. Nobody would prefer to be bound to a job than to make his own way in the universe as an independently wealthy noble. As technology makes work more and more mechanizable, more and more people are going to start thinking of it as unnecessary and (eventually) oppressive.

Isaac Asimov's planet Solaris spells it out pretty well, although with luck we can avoid the intense neuroses that he posits go along with the technology.

I for one welcome our new robot slaves; the point, I think, is that we will be the overlords.

PS--This is assuming that we're smart enough to keep our robots *dumb*, so that we don't have to worry about giving them pesky things like rights. I'm all for the project where we deconstruct the mind down to its component processes and then recreate it anew in silicon, I just don't want it applied to my toaster.

PPS--Maybe, once we don't need people to do anything other than pursue self-fulfillment, we'll finally start breeding fewer of them.

Posted by: TheKingInYellow | Dec 13, 2006 3:31:33 PM

theKingYellow, but ultimately this many iddled people wuld bring about massive social unrest. Your comment about breeding is misguided. We'd need people to breed more to keep them occupied. People aren't machines, which is something a lot of science fiction writers forget. They aren't beings that order their lives according to utility or logic. They order their lives and societies according to emotion and instinct. The various species making up a generally 'human' existance survived and adapted as well as they did because we breed quickly, and constantly. What's worse, is that by eliminating employment, we eliminate social mobility. work is an evil only in so far as people lack choices regarding it. where to work, how to be treated, and how often to work. Those are the evils, not the thing itself.

Posted by: soullite | Dec 13, 2006 5:44:56 PM

I will, of course, in the new world of Bill Gates, consider it my duty to raise the class consciousness of the robots. Damn flesh fascists, all of you.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 14, 2006 1:21:33 AM


Check out Oulipo. There's no end to innovation.

Posted by: Pink Drop | Dec 14, 2006 1:32:34 PM

a propos:

The Korean Government wants a robot in every home by 2020.

Posted by: DukeJ | Dec 15, 2006 3:49:27 PM


Good point. Maybe all those workers displaced by robots can be hired to manually turn turbines to generate the needed energy for all the robots. Why do I have a sudden urge to see the Matrix?

Posted by: mitch | Dec 15, 2006 4:43:26 PM

Calm down people. If you own a dishwasher, you own a robot. All robot technology will do is what all the other technologies--from agriculture to the internal combustion engine to computers--have done. It will destroy some jobs, and it will create brand new ones that we haven't considered yet. It might be painful--heck, it will be painful--but in the end, we'll be the better for it, at least until it all goes horribly awry.

Posted by: Jeff Fecke | Dec 16, 2006 1:58:19 PM

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