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The invention of the transistor spawned the Digital Revolution that is still ongoing today. As digital technologies are developed and improved, a growing number of applications are found for these technologies. One example is the industrial robot which will completely replace humans, unlike robots today which can only do a subset of a human’s tasks. Kevin Drum’s “Welcome, Robot Overlords. Please Don’t Fire Us?” explains how this robot paradise will become a reality and explores its impact on society as labour participation decreases. He also estimates when certain developmental milestones will be reached for these industrial robots. This paper will support Drum’s views that the creation of industrial robots is inevitable, but argue that the timeline he provides is too optimistic.
One precondition for industrial robots is sufficient processing power. It may seem that true artificial intelligence (AI) is still far in the distant future when examining the current state of technology; however, Drum uses Moore’s Law to put the pace of technological advances in perspective. Moore’s Law makes the observation that “computing power doubles approximately every 18 months.” Using the current state of computers with a processing power a thousandth of a human brain as a starting point, he applies this exponential curve to extrapolate that it will only take until 2025 for computers to reach computational parity with the brain. Although Moore’s Law has been correct for the past fifty years, computer chip manufacturers like Intel are facing difficulties in meeting these expectations now. The chip industry’s published roadmap has already been adjusted to account for a slowdown in performance enhancement due to limiting factors such as heat dissipation and physical size limitations. Perhaps Drum’s statement that the human brain’s processing power can be attained within a decade is too optimistic when factoring in the limitations on how conventional computer chip technologies can be improved. New technologies such as a change in material or manufacturing process will have to be employed to keep up with Moore’s Law, and these are not guaranteed to succeed. It might seem foolish to state that such advances could never be made. However, the creation of a computer with the processing power of a human brain could be further in the future than Drum might think.
In addition to computing power, robots that will eventually take our jobs will need to harness their computing power efficiently to accomplish their assigned tasks. Drum provides multiple examples where current computers have already demonstrated some semblance of human intelligence. Even prior to the 21st century, IBM’s supercomputer was able to defeat the world champion of chess, which had long been regarded as the benchmark for AI. More recent examples are Google’s autonomous vehicle program and another IBM supercomputer that was able to beat the top two Jeopardy! players. In order to accomplish these increasingly complex human tasks, many researchers are aiming to model the human brain. Drum mentions Henry Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology as one such researcher. This neuroscientist is leading a project to model the entire brain by 2020, which even Drum concedes is too optimistic. Nevertheless, it seems that constraining AI development to the narrow confines of the human brain may not be the best use of new supercomputers. This sentiment is echoed by Drum with his analogy of the Wright brothers not modelling their airplane after a bird flapping its wings. He aptly says, “Just as there’s more than one way to fly, there’s probably more than one way to think, too.” This approach is logical given that computers use radars, cameras and global positioning systems to collect information around them, which differs from what humans perceive using their five senses. Since the inputs are different, it should be expected that the process using those inputs would be different as well. Drum sees this departure from human mimicry as a step in the right direction and makes a final prediction that 2040 will be around the time when AI will be completely ready to displace humans from the workplace. However, he does not provide an explanation of how this date was derived, making it quite difficult to agree with him. Moreover, the fact that there was no discussion on how robots will acquire the fine motor skills necessary for a wide range of jobs casts doubt over his prediction. In any case, the creation of industrial robots is irrefutable, but the timeline provided by Drum is again overly optimistic given current technology.
The advent of industrial robots will likely cause the vast majority of the working class to lose their jobs. Unlike the Industrial Revolution, these robots will replace both physical and cognitive functions, leaving no replacement jobs available to humans. Therefore, any discussion on whether robots will take over jobs must also examine the economic impact of this issue. As companies start replacing more and more employees with robots, the business owners who own these robots will become more powerful. The share of income belonging to capital investments will rise while labour’s share decreases, and this phenomenon is known as capital-biased technological change (CBTC). Drum lists the five characteristics associated with CBTC and indicates that all of them started to appear in statistical analyses over a decade ago. One important consequence of this is the collapse of the consumer society. Just as the Industrial Revolution enabled the working class to generate surplus money for discretionary purchases, the Digital Revolution will cut wages and reduce appetite for these nonessential products. Drum’s observation that “robots might be able to produce goods and services, but they can’t consume them” is congruent with this sentiment. Therefore, a new system of wealth distribution needs to be established—one that is not solely based on the exchange of labour for payment. It will be the responsibility of the government to tax capital gains at high rates in order to sustain their social welfare programs as more people begin to rely on them. Drum presents a few interesting twists on how the wealth could be redistributed. Since everyone is currently endowed with a body and brain that is traded for income, perhaps an endowment of capital is also required to level the playing field. To further this idea, he posits that everyone could also be guaranteed a share of overall robot production, or even be provided ownership of a few robots. Although these methods are plausible in theory, the main challenge in implementing them will be the government’s inability to sufficiently tax capital owners. As demonstrated in the Panama and Paradise Papers, wealthy businessmen and politicians will take extreme measures to avoid taxes and will not hesitate to continue this practice even after being exposed. Regardless of how the elite might feel, a fundamental change in the economic system will likely be required to prevent a social upheaval from the working class if industrial robots become the norm.
There is no doubt that the technology required to create industrial robots will not be developed in the future after examining the progress society has already achieved since the dawn of the Digital Revolution. It is now simply a question of when such robots become practical in size and cost, which will lead to the mass adoption of these systems by business owners. Although Kevin Drum selects 2040 as the answer to this question, his lack of supporting evidence leads readers to see this as a fantasy rather than a realistic prediction. A factual examination reveals that the robot paradise is probably further in the future than Drum claims. Although the appropriate technology must exist to construct these robots, an equally robust economic system must be in place in order for society to accept these new robot labourers. Once the technological and economic conditions are met, the stage will be set for a world where the concept of a job will cease to exist for humans.
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