The Robots Are Coming! The Robots Are Coming!

“Technology will get to everybody eventually.”

Jarod Lanier said the above during an interview with a writer from, the news and entertainment website; this during Lanier’s book tour for his latest publication: Who Owns the Future?  Lanier is the internet apostate I wrote about earlier this year who once championed open-source culture, but who now suggests that digital technology is economically undermining the entire middle-class.

He offers this startling example of as much in the ‘Prelude’ to his new book:

“At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only thirteen people.”

images-1Lanier is suggesting that the musicians, video store clerks and journalists who have already seen their livelihoods erased or eroded by the internet are just the canaries in the coalmine, members of the first wave of economic casualties.  Soon the driverless Google cars will be taking down taxi drivers, caregivers will be replaced by robots, and all diagnoses of illness will be arrived at online.  The digital revolution is coming for us all, and it’s not a matter of if, but when.

The same chilling note is struck in a terrific article by Kevin Drum in the May/June 2013 issue of Mother Jones.  Drum points out that the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been steady but not spectacular since the invention of the first programmable computer in 1940.  That’s because the human brain is an amazingly complex processor, and even today, after more than seven decades of exponential increase in the power of computers, they are still operating at about one thousandth of the power of a human brain.

The thing is, exponential is the key word here.  Anyone who has ever looked at an exponential growth curve plotted on a graph knows that for a long time the line runs fairly flat, but with the doubling effect that comes with exponential growth, the curve eventually begins a very steep climb.  Many people believe that we’re now at the base of that sharp rise.  Henry Markram, a neuroscientist working at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne thinks he will be able to successfully model the human brain by 2020.

He may or may not be right in that prediction, but again, if he is wrong, it won’t be about if, only when.  And when we combine that eventual reality with Lanier’s telling Kodak-to-Instagram employment factoid above, there appears to be grounds for genuine concern.  Finally, after many years of dire (or celebratory) predictions, labor may be about to go into real oversupply.  If these ideas are at all accurate, robots will soon be displacing human employment just about everywhere you look.  Accountants, teachers, architects, the last of the assembly-line workers, even writers; we’re all vulnerable.  As Drum sees it, capital, not labor will be the commodity in short supply in the near future, and that bodes well only for those folks who already have plenty of capital.

One of the conditions that follows from an oversupply of labor and an increased demand for capital is of course that wealth will flow from those earning salaries to those holding the capital.  The proverbial rich will get richer, the poor poorer.  And this condition is of course extant and growing, especially in the U.S.—an escalating income inequality between the 99 and 1 per cents.

History tells us that times of high unemployment are times dangerous to us all, often leading to unrest that in turn leads to illusory socio-economic solutions— communism, fascism, anti-immigration laws, etc.  What to do?  Well, anticipate the problem, first of all.  Our leaders need to make some contingency plans.

A tax on capital?  Not likely any time soon, certainly not in America.  But if indeed the coming economic reality is that more and more people will be without work, while a select few citizens will be ever more wealthy, the concept of ‘income redistribution’ needs to come into play, one way or another.  And orderly, democratic economic reform beats the hell out of rioting in the streets.


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