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It's snowing heavily in my Vermont village right now. My first task in the morning will be to clear the deck, walkways, and driveway. To do that I will use a push broom and a snow shovel/snow scoop hybrid tool. Hopefully, there will be no ice or compacted snow that will require the use of a square-point shovel.

Someone posted a link to a debate on Reddit between the denizens of the futurology and collapse subreddits. The futurologists extrapolate from cherry-picked data and assert that ten-dollar-a-barrel oil will not be able to compete with solar power in price per kilowatt by some unspecified date in the 2020s.

A representative from the collapse group pointed out that solar currently provides less than 1% of our power needs globally, and that it's easy to double your installed base annually when your starting numbers are so small. If a human embryo continued to grow at the exponential rate of early cell division, it would be as large as a battleship by the time it was born, but those early doubling rates slow down as the scale increases.

Still, the techno-optimists insist that the real challenge facing humanity will be how to manage the abundance granted to us by robot labor and the benevolent guidance of superhuman artificial intelligence. They seem to assume that anything that is feasible and desirable will happen, regardless of economic incentives. But even the techno-utopians admit that the current economic paradigm presents an obstacle to the transition to the paradise they see as inevitable. They admit that we could be in for a tumultuous couple of decades.
P. T. Barnum is said to have claimed that anything worth doing is worth doing for a profit. That may have passed for cynicism in his day, but now it is simple common sense. To qualify as a cynic on economic matters today one would have to claim that anything that doesn't increase the already glaring wealth disparity isn't worth contemplating. Even that would ring true in certain circles.

I am self-employed, and I spend a lot of my time editing audio recordings of conversations. You could feed a learning algorithm before and after versions of all of the audio files that I've ever worked on, and I wouldn't be surprised if a piece of software that doesn't comprehend a single word of English could be trained to edit conversations as well as I do in a tiny fraction of the time it takes me.

If I made my living editing audio for a corporate employer, that thought would worry me. But since I'm editing audio for my own business and no one stands to increase their profits by replacing me with an algorithm, I expect to spend thousands of hours in the future editing audio and video. No corporation has any incentive to automate my job.

Likewise, I'm not worried that a robot will shovel the snow off my driveway anytime soon. I don't think I'd worry about that even if I thought it might happen, as shoveling snow is not something I do for pleasure or for wages. I do it to clear the snow and make the walks and driveway usable. I imagine that a snow-clearing robot is technically feasible, and it is certainly desirable. That doesn't mean it's likely to happen. No builder or trainer of robots has any motivation to deploy one to take up my labor. It doesn't matter if it's technically feasible. If it isn't profitable, it won't happen.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Jan. 28th, 2017 05:37 am (UTC)
I brought up a similar point in a meditation group a while back. Why is it that all the time saving technology we've created has only pushed us into being busier and trying to do more? Even if we had robots that were good at clearing walks and driveways, would it really give us more time to sip tea and enjoy the crisp morning?

It really is confusing when people praise automation and robotics replacing human participation in labor, since the people getting replaced will certainly not get a cut of the increased productivity. They'll just get cut.

At least when we shovel our own walks we have the satisfaction of a job well done.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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