Sunday, August 17, 2014

Robots, again?

This time its a viral Youtube video by CGP Grey. A million and a half views in four days. For those who don't have the attention span to sit through a 15-minute video, the script is posted at CGPGrey and concludes:
This video isn't about how automation is bad -- rather that automation is inevitable. It's a tool to produce abundance for little effort. We need to start thinking now about what to do when large sections of the population are unemployable -- through no fault of their own. What to do in a future where, for most jobs, humans need not apply.

Joshua Gans at Digitopoly presents an inadequate counter-argument to that conclusion, based on static analysis and wishful thinking: "I have faith that if it is in the interests of both business and consumers that money go from the employed to unemployed, it will. It will happen." and:
If the worker owns the robot, the quality advantage accrues to them. But in terms of their willingness to pay, there is an important difference between the two. If the capitalist does not own the robot, they can employ the worker (with their robot) as they always have done and so will they will appropriate part of the quality advantage. By contrast, if the worker does not own the robot, the worker gets nothing.
As I've been arguing in the Supply Creates Its Own Demon series, the problem is much, much more complicated than that. It can't be solved by static economic analysis. To put it as simply as possible: machines don't have the fantastic generative powers that have been attributed to them.

What a machine can do is strictly limited by the properties of the materials that it works on and is powered by and by the physical properties incorporated in it by its designer. What dazzles observers is simply the disclosure of the physical properties of matter and energy and the ingenuity of human science and applied social organization in revealing and operating on those physical properties.

The machinery debate that has been going on for two and a half centuries is a diversion. The "demon" in this debate, the alleged automaton, is an illusion -- at worst a hoax -- that distracts from the scale of human intervention required make the automaton's motion appear autonomous. The more remotely human intervention can take place, the more effective is the illusion. The operator has an alibi.

It was not, after all, the sheep who enclosed the commons and evicted the tenants.

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