The future will bring large and terrifying changes to our society, especially the inevitable progress of technology. Fortunately we have a few people looking ahead, helping us prepare to manage these changes — to build a better future. The first post in this series, The coming big increase in structural unemployment, which discussed the work of Martin Ford. Today we look at the writings of Marshall Brain.
I went to McDonald’s this weekend with the kids. We go to McDonald’s to eat about once a week because it is a mile from the house and has an indoor play area. Our normal routine is to walk in to McDonald’s, stand in line, order, stand around waiting for the order, sit down, eat and play. On Sunday, this decades-old routine changed forever. …
My goal is very simple. I firmly believe that the rapid evolution of computer technology (as described in Robotic Nation) will bring us smart robots starting in a 2030 time frame. These robots will take over approximately 50% of the jobs in the U.S. economy over the course of just a decade or two. Something on the order of 50 million people will be unemployed. See Robotic Nation for details.
The economy may adjust and invent new jobs for those 50 million unemployed workers, but it will not do so instantaneously. What we will have is a period of economic turmoil. All of those unemployed workers will be in a very bad spot. The economy as a whole will suffer from this turmoil and the downward economic spiral it causes. No one will benefit when this happens.
We are intelligent people living in a modern, high-tech society. Robots are inevitable. Instead of letting this robotic revolution happen uncontrollably and then reacting to the chaos that ensues, what I am proposing is that we look at the problem rationally and design a systematic solution. See Robotic Freedom for possible solutions.
Imagine that you have a time machine and you are able to travel back in time to the year 1950. If you walk into a restaurant, hotel or store in 1950, it would be nearly identical to a restaurant, hotel or store today. People do everything in both cases — people stock the shelves, prepare the food, serve the food, help customers, man the cash registers and sweep the floors in 2003 just like they did in 1950.
It’s the same on any construction site. In 1950, guys with circular saws and hammers built houses. Today it is guys with circular saws and nail guns. No big difference.
An airport in 1950 and an airport today are nearly identical. People take your tickets, handle the baggage, maintain the planes and pilot them in both cases.
Coney island in 1950 looks like any amusement park today, with people operating the rides, selling the concessions and keeping the park clean.Industries like these are, by and large, completely untouched by automation today. These people-powered industries represent at least half of the jobs in the American job pool.
Now imagine the near-term future. In just a decade or two we begin to approach a point where CPU power rivals that of the human brain. This CPU power drives the creation of robots that take over all of these jobs. The unemployment rate in the United States skyrockets as cheap robots push expensive humans out of half the jobs that we see in our economy today. The automated checkout lines and kiosks that are popping up in places like Home Depot and McDonald’s are the first messengers of this robotic takeover.
When the robots start arriving in massive numbers to take half the jobs in America, the effects will be profound. At this moment in history, we are standing right on the edge of the transformation to a robotic nation. It is fascinating to stand on this edge and think about what the robots will mean to us as citizens of the United States.
The question that I would like to pose in this article is a simple one: How are we, as a society, going to respond to this robotic revolution? If we handle it properly, the arrival of robots could be an incredibly beneficial event for human beings. If we do not handle it properly, we will end up with millions of unemployed people and a severe economic downturn that will benefit no one. Can we modify the American economy now to prevent this downturn? Are there things that we can do today to smooth the transition to the robotic nation?
About Marshall Brain
He is the author of The Day You Discard Your Body and Manna. He’s the founder of HowStuffWorks.com. He is known for his book for teenagers entitled The Teenager’s Guide to the Real World. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a master’s degree in computer science from North Carolina State University. Before founding HowStuffWorks, Marshall taught in the computer science department at NCSU and ran a software training and consulting company.