Russ Roberts

Kelly on the Future, Productivity, and the Quality of Life

EconTalk Episode with Kevin Kelly
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Kevin Kelly talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about measuring productivity in the internet age and recent claims that the U.S. economy has entered a prolonged period of stagnation. Then the conversation turns to the potential of robots to change the quality of our daily lives.

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0:33Intro. [Recording date: January 4, 2013.] Russ: Topic for today is a pair of recent essays you've written on productivity, technology in the future, and as always we'll put links up to those essays, other topics. The first essay is called "The Post-Productive Economy." You are reacting to an essay by Robert Gordon that's titled "Is U.S. Economic Growth Over?" His answer is basically yes. He argues that the third industrial revolution hasn't had much effect on productivity, or at least its effects are over. The first revolution was steam and railroads; the second, electricity and indoor plumbing and so on--they had huge effects. The third, computers, the web, cell phones, seems to be over, at least according to Gordon. Its heyday was the 1996-2004 period, and we should essentially settle in for stagnation. It's a very interesting paper. He makes the point that growth is not the norm for humanity. Until about 1750 we were pretty stagnant. That stagnation seems to be the norm. He argues that many technology improvements have a one-time effect. Just to take one example, we can now travel 600 miles per hour in a steel tube called an airplane. Yes, it's faster than a horse. But that number isn't going to be increased much in the future, at least for a while. But you disagree with Gordon. You are more optimistic about the future. Why? Guest: For two reasons. I think Gordon underestimates the degree to which change has already happened. Secondly, by his own calculation, he says that it takes almost 100 years for these revolutions to play out their full effects, and we're no where near 100 years into this third revolution--which, he describes it as being about computers and the internet. And thirdly, I think he is missing in his calculations the true nature of this third revolution which is far more about the communication aspect of it than it is about the computation aspect of it. And we are just at the beginning of that. And then fourthly, I think his metric, or measuring the economic power is incorrect as applied to this new third revolution, because I think one of the things that is changing is actually how we measure our growth. So I think that the nature of the change, the nature of how we dictate our success, is changing. And he misses that, as well. Russ: Let's start with the age effect. He, as you point out, starts his revolution of computers and technology of a recent sort in around 1960. Which I suppose is when the first computers start to come into the world. And your point is that that's the wrong date. Why? Guest: Well, Gordon does not actually give a good reason or criterion for how he is deciding when these three revolutions start or even end. They seem to me to be kind of gut, intuitive, non-quantitatively determined. Russ: Well, they have to be. Guest: And so, he marks the third one as at the beginning of commercial computation. And my argument is that that's probably not a very good place to begin for the third revolution. I agree with him that not much happened with computation alone. I think both the economic and particularly the cultural changes in these electronic gear began with the networking of these devices, from mainframe computers and personal computers and then mobile devices. And that all the kind of transformative effects that we've been seeing and feeling are really all due to what happens when you network them. And in a certain sense it's the Networking Age, rather than the Computer Age, that we should be trying to look at. And if that's so, then the real networking of things did not really begin in earnest until the 1990s. There was some--even internetting. But I know from having resided on the internets very early in the 1980s, it was pretty lonely. There was not much happening. So it was the 1990s really, when the Web began, that this stuff began to be felt. But even if you calculate it from the 1980s, that's still 20 years later than when he was trying to calculate it, from the 1960s and the beginning of commercialization of computers. Russ: It's been a classic measurement question in productivity numbers as to why--I don't have the numbers at my finger tips but this is in the 1980s and 1990s, well before the networking part--why computing hadn't had a large, measurable effect on the productivity numbers. Why we didn't see a spike or at least some kind of large jump. There are a lot of different arguments about that; I'm not on top of that literature. But you are arguing that that maybe isn't so surprising; that the real--and by the way, I should add, part of the reason I think that was raised is that a lot of corporations were spending a lot of money adding computing to their capital. And so people were saying: If they are spending all this money there must be some bang for the buck; Where is it? And of course, as you point out, some of that took a while. It took awhile to figure out how to use computers effectively in manufacturing and personnel management and other areas. Guest: Exactly. In fact, it was Robert Solow who made the quip that we see the effects of computers everywhere but-- Russ: in the data. And there was a fellow actually, a guy named Paul Strassman, who wrote a book called squandering computers. I don't know if that was the name of the book--he was from Xerox and he was preaching, and I would say this was late 1980s, the fact that there was no economic case for all these companies spending huge amounts of money for computers, which were very expensive at the time. And it was hard to argue with his numbers. Because in fact there were large outlays for computers and it didn't seem to really benefit the total economic case. And in fact I even remember doing an interview with Peter Drucker, who made the case in the early 1990s that from his perspective there had been no money made in the computer industry. He meant in terms of as being a net gain to the economy. And he made the point, too, that it would take a long time until there was a net gain in terms of the total amount of money spent and the total amount of difference made. So, I think that the facts are pretty clear that there wasn't much to the gain in those years. And I see it more as kind of laying a foundation of change. And change not just in terms of having the hardware and the iron turned on, but a change in the way a company is structured. Just sort of preparing the way in which software would play a new role and communication would play a new role in the structure of an organization. So it was a type of investment if you want to think about it-- Russ: Oh, for sure. Guest: in organizational change necessary; and it took a generation of economic or corporate lifespan to prepare for that.
9:50Russ: Just to take a personal example on this point on productivity--I've told this story before; forgive me, listeners, for retelling it. But I had my first personal computer in 1984, which was a Mac. And at the time, if my memory is right, it could only create a 12-page document. If you wanted to make a 20-page document, you had to combine two 10-page documents. Of course, it crashed; a little bomb would show up on the screen. You had to learn how to use it. And my Dad was a very happy user of a yellow pad and a pencil. And I'm sure he thought I was wasting my time learning to use this technology that really, you had to kind of talk yourself into that it was a time-saver. You had to say: well, if I want to do a second draft it's easier. But it had all these huge costs. And my Dad--thank God he's still alive at 83--is still using a yellow pad. He does have someone enter his essays and articles and letters into a computer. So he never got used to using a keyboard, even. And I know many people over the age of 75 who were in that world. They still use a pencil; they still use a yellow pad. Nothing wrong with it. It's a very, very effective technology. And you could still argue that there are many time-wasting aspects to computers. But the productivity increases just for research alone have been so extraordinary. Obviously you can save time from traveling to the library, traveling out of your country--data, articles, resources, references. So, that was a good investment by me, I think. Guest: Yeah. And there's lots of these examples we can think of in real life and past life where you are required to invest into learning and during the learning curve you are not as efficient or graceful or accomplished. But at the other end of it--it's like learning how to type or something. When you begin to learn to type you are going to be much slower than writing it out. But you can type faster than you can write, once you get good at it. Russ: I do have to concede to my Dad that the real reason I bought that computer was because I thought it was cool. It really wasn't that I thought that in 2012 I'd be on the Internet. Guest: Right. But I'd like to come back to that, because I think that's actually a very, very important point. And we can use different words for 'cool.' But I think that we often--a lot of our economy now is about cool things. Not just things that make you able to do things faster.
12:30Russ: Well, let's turn to that, because that was one of your other criticisms of Gordon. I've forgotten 2 and 3, but 1 and 4, the last one being he doesn't measure what necessarily we should be measuring. And one of those things--'cool' is I think the wrong word--'exhilarating', 'inspiring.' Talk about why you think productivity per se is the wrong measure to evaluate this revolution. Guest: Because--when I look at the long course of human endeavor and civilization, Gordon is correct that for a very long period of time, the growth in, say, living standards or progress, however we want to describe that, was actually very minimal for very long periods of time. Russ: Life was nasty, brutish, and short. Guest: Yeah. And for most of human history, for the bulk of it, people were starving. Or always hungry. This is the recurring theme throughout--Malthus was correct. The population would always kind of expand just to the point where people were on the edge, constantly. And it wasn't until our greatest invention, the invention of science, the Enlightenment, and a whole network of other ideas, where we were able to actually solve that problem, of food, and in its surplus start to create new things. And we--beginning in the 1700s, 1600s, wherever you start to map that--there was a huge uptick in many things, including human population, which suddenly could really start to expand. And there was expansion of other things, and this kind of sense of accelerating change--in lifespan, education, literacy, economic wealth, all these kinds of things. And if we look at that on a centuries' scale, it's kind of peculiar, because there are things that are kind of coming out of nowhere. There is this generative, a generation of things that did not exist before. There's huge amounts of money that now flow around. Where did that money come from? Basically it was created out of nothing. And so there is new things being created. And I think the purpose, in some sense, of what technology is for is to create new things. And by definition when we create something new, we don't have very good ways to measure those things--because they are new. And in a certain sense, if we want to just kind measure the newness of the economy, that's also hard. Because if they are truly new, they may be served completely beyond anything of our experience, and we don't have a good way to measure newness. So, what I'm suggesting is that being able to make things that we already know that we want with less time and less resources is part of the story. But it's only part of the story. It's not the whole story. It's the basis of how we got started to begin with: we were able to grow more food with less time and less resources to make sure everybody had it. And that was the beginning of our prosperity. And it's still the foundation of it. And new technology allows us to generate the things that we want using less time and less resources, and therefore less money. Leaving the surplus to do other things. What are those other things we want to do? In brief, it's to invent new things. Russ: Yeah. Guest: So, inventing new things is really the real engine. And as productivity does continue, it means that the making of new things becomes a larger and larger part of what our civilization and economy is about. And yet, productivity, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is only measuring the old part. Which is how to do things that we know how to do more efficiently. Well, as you say, we struggle to measure new things. The classic issue in GDP accounting is boring, equally important price indices, when we are trying to measure our standard of living and prices aren't constant, is quality change. So, when quality improves we have trouble making comparable adjustments. For example, a TV today until recently is much cheaper than a TV of 60 years ago, where 'cheap' means: how long does the average person need to work--how many hours does the average person need to work--to earn one? But now a lot of TVs today, some of them are more expensive. And that's because what they do is so extraordinarily different than what a 1960s black and white TV did. It's not just, oh, it has more channels, it last longer, it takes fewer people to make it. It accesses things in your house and in the world that you couldn't have imagined--literally couldn't have imagined--in the 1960s. Guest: Another example would be a phone. What's a phone now? It's like not really a phone--it's really different. Is a phone--are we being more productive in our making of a phone? Well, it's a ridiculous question, actually.
18:45Russ: The other way to think about it, that your example makes me think about, is entertainment. I was just re-watching Shakespeare in Love the other night, which is one of my favorite movies. And you think about England in Shakespeare's time--what proportion of the population was involved in something called 'giving other people a pleasant evening of just entertainment'? And the answer, I think, would be a few hundred. Those would be the actors, the people who worked on the stage. There wasn't a lot of lighting, but whatever they did--curtain work and constructing and other things. There were a handful of people who could be playwrights in that time. And you compare it to how many people today. I mean, just look at the credits of a modern movie, and look at how many people worked, obscure to us and certainly people before modern times, but unless you are an expert or inside the industry you have no idea what these jobs are. The number of people who would be described in a perimeter of times as 'unproductive.' You call it, I think in your paper, as "wasteful." But you put it in quotes. It's not related to food, housing, and clothing. It's just nice. It's just cool, fun, exhilarating. It's just beautiful. The proportion of people doing that in modern times is just enormous, vast. And I don't think we are capturing that. Even though they are making a living. They are in GDP. As you point out: It's hard to make that comparison when these are new things. Guest: Right, exactly. I'm a little hesitant to just talk about fun and beauty, but a term that's maybe more in line with economics would be to use the words 'to explore.' And 'to experiment.' You can kind of recast art if you wanted to in terms of exploration and experiment, because those words also apply to both research and science. So, there's a real typical dilemma in medicine which is that if you were rational you would only ever take the most perfected medicine that has been proven. But if everybody only ever accepted the proven methods, there would be no advance. So at some point you actually have to give an experimental drug or procedure to somebody, where there is no guarantee that this is going to work; there's a very high risk; it's not proven. And so that is inefficient in a certain sense. You are for sure going to lower your statistics on that one. Russ: Yep. Probably. Guest: But we pay that tax. We pay that penalty of decreasing the perfection, decreasing the optimization in order to have long term growth. And what I'm suggesting is that as we speed up, as we accelerate, that portion that we spend on the non-optimization is growing. And that in fact it is becoming more important to us. Because, optimization is really for machines. It really is something that mechanical things--it's really not something that humans really want. We really don't tend towards optimization. And I'm suggesting that whenever we have an optimization problem or something, we really send it to the machines and mechanical systems and leave us with this playfulness, experimental, exploration, art, beauty, all these other things that are non-optimizing. Russ: Well, let me ask you a difficult question, but I think it's the right one. You may not be able to answer it but I'd like to hear what you think of it. Tyler Cowen, somewhat akin to Robert Gordon, has argued that we're in the Great Stagnation, as he calls it; we've picked all the low-hanging fruit. And, similar to Gordon, we've dissipated and exhausted all the potential gains from this technology and now all we are doing is improving Flickr. Or allowing Flickr to give you a black background instead of just a white background. Those are the kind of technological improvements that we're up to now. The smart phone is done. The internet is there. And all these gains have happened. So, my question is--again, somewhat unanswerable: What could we possibly imagine is yet to come in this revolution that will take it up another notch or two or three. Let's forget whether it can be measured or not. One of the things that's extraordinary to me about the world we live in is that it's certainly true that 100 years ago people couldn't imagine the things we're doing now. And when you are talking about health--I imagine describing computer-driven laser surgery to someone 40, 50 years ago. It's impossible. But what might happen in the next 50 years that we would think would be unimaginable? And that's why it's an unanswerable question. Where are we headed that might give us some of the amazing changes that we've seen in the past but yet are still to come? Guest: Let me address the stagnation question, which actually I have more sympathy for it in a certain sense than you might suspect. But maybe in a slightly different angle. I think it's entirely--let me put it this way. I think if you calculate the number of hours, person-hours, hours worked, the number necessary to discover something new--that's increasing. Like, if you go back in history it would be like Michael Faraday and Thomas Edison. These guys were going into the basement and discovering things every night. A lot of the kind of inventions and stuff done a couple hundred years ago were low-hanging fruits. Even things like discovering electrons and photo-voltaics, discovery was a low number of hours of investigation. If you look at a modern paper, the Higgs boson, something like that, the number of hours that has taken people to divine that mystery of the universe, it's enormous. And I think, as we go forward, that we have in a certain sense reaped a lot of low-hanging fruit in terms of discovery, and it may be that the number of hours it will take to, say, understand gravity, discover the graviton or whatever, or anti-gravity, is going to be enormous. So there may be a sense in which what we are seeing is that the low hanging discoveries have been discovered and that it takes, like the credits on a movie film, it just takes an enormous number of hours and energy to discover the next thing. Russ: An army. Guest: Right. And I think it's no coincidence if you look at the average number of authors in a science paper, it kind of continues to go up and up and up. And that's in part also because we now have the tools, that allow that kind of cooperation, so they are working hand in hand. So, I'm sympathetic to the idea that there are low-hanging fruits. However, I haven't read Tyler's books, so I don't know exactly what his arguments are. But responding again to Gordon's paper and his arguments about the stagnation, and again come back to two reasons. Yes, we may have a temporary moment of stagnation as the next thing kicks into gear, and what is that next thing? What could possibly be greater than all the things we have already invented? I think, for myself, I think the answer is that we are making something at a global level that has not existed on this planet before, that is categorically different, that's immense in power. And that is this, if you think of all the things in the world that are on the network, all the devices that are connected to each other, all the people in the world that are now part of a kind of a global culture and a global economy, and if we continue going in that direction we are making a planetary something that will have effects at the planetary scale. And global warming is sort of one bit of evidence--that already our technology is planetary. But it's only one of many indices that will reveal themselves, that we are making this sort of planetary thing. With all the world economies interlocking, with information and processing all being kind of distributed in this cloud where we have kind of global citizens watching the same movies, listening to the same music, studying the same things in school, using the same devices. I think this is where we need to look for this amazing thing that's going to start to emerge.
29:36Russ: Well, I'm not as--I don't know about that. That's a hard sell. And of course it's inherently speculative. I guess what I would think about is, we think of all the things that we enjoy day to day. We just did a recent episode with Esther Dyson on this issue of attention, and what we pay attention to. So many things that we pay attention to are not monetary. Again, a measure I think of our incredible wealth. But as that happens and as the tools for sharing change, I think the potential to create extraordinary things, it changes in a non-discrete way, in a quantum way. To take an example from my own life, I made this rap video about Keynes and Hayek with film-maker John Papola. And the two that have been made have been seen over 6 million times on Youtube. And I think about what it would have been to do that 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, 25 years ago, 15 years ago, we'd have made a video; we'd have put it on a DVD, and then we'd have tried to sell it in the back of magazines. Distribute it to schools. It just would have been--the scale of things has changed so dramatically and the ability of talented people, of which there are an almost infinite number, to bring their creativity to bear using technology to make videos, to make music--the things that move our souls--there's never been a more creative time in human history. Guest: What's interesting is that doesn't even get counted in GDP, because you're probably giving it away for free. Russ: Oh, absolutely. Guest: So that whole thing, the 6 million views, your creation of it, is not even registered. Russ: And just to give it a little bit of pretension--I mean, I don't want to go too far--those two videos I hope don't just add up to 17 and a half minutes of entertainment. They encourage people to learn about Keynes and Hayek and change what happened in some classrooms because kids watched it, talked to their teachers and fellow students about it. I think those changes, besides--again, I don't want to downplay delight. I love delight. I think delight's glorious and can be transcendent when it's the right kind. But I think the ability to get people to think and share ideas with others is just glorious. I'm not saying we're going to cure cancer because of that, although I think we will. But there's just a lot more stuff going on there that we can't imagine. Guest: Right. And that was another point of my piece, in my argument against Gordon. I think often times those ideas that are generated through the use of technology will seep into the society at large and eventually will have an impact on the productivity of things, in a very indirect way, as they become established. Okay, you did a rap video about Keynes and Hayek. Well, that, sooner or later will flow down, be seen by millions and millions and have some impact on people's approach to setting up policy in terms of funding. And it will eventually have some impact on productivity. Russ: Well, that's a lovely thought. But I don't know if that's true, even a small effect. I think your other point is the more important point, which is: I don't care if it has an impact on productivity. Right? Measured productivity, anyway. I think as economists we are not just accountants. Part of our job is accounting. But a lot of what you are talking about is intangible, non-measurable, and as you say, I think the key point is not just you get more from less. You get different. And different is the great thing we get because we can afford to get it. We don't just want better food. We like it; we are going to get that; it's already close to free. Poverty in the United States and in much of the world--unfortunately not all of it--the cost of food isn't the problem. The problem is other things. And so, those revolutions, they have played out. It's different, not just better or cheaper or more from less. Guest: Right. Exactly. And so measuring difference is extremely difficult because it's new. I'm not an economists but what I would urge a young economist who is kind of interested in revolutionizing or understanding economics was to focus on how do you measure things that haven't been measured before. How do you measure possibilities. How do you incorporate in that kind of infinite game of constantly heading into new territories as the measure of what you are aiming for. As the goal. That would be fabulous. Russ: Yeah. I encourage that as well. And I encourage equally, young economists out there to remember that not everything valuable can be quantified, and if you can't ever measure it that doesn't mean it's not important.
35:29Russ: I want to shift gears here. I want to move to your second essay, which is related to the first. You wrote an essay for Wired called "Better than Human." And you note that that's not your title. One of the strange things about writing in print or for the web is often you don't get to choose your own title. Everything else you get to write, but they write the title. For some reason. Evidently, you wouldn't have chosen the phrase "Better than Human" to describe the future world of robots that are coming. But you start off in that essay by making an analogy to farming, an analogy I've also used. I think it's a phenomenal analogy. You start off by saying: Imagine a world where 70% of us lose our jobs, and why is that relevant for farming? What's the connection? Guest: In the first agricultural revolution in America, at the peak, 70% of Americans were living on farms. And now there's less than 1%. So, all those farmers, over a long period of time, have lost their jobs. To talk to those farmers back then and try to console them, they would have found it very hard to believe that there was anything for them to do. Russ: They also would have presumed there would be mass starvation. If only 1%-- Guest: Exactly. Right. How does this work? You are telling me a fantasy. They would be rolling their eyes and saying you are making this up. And you'd say: No, no, no; there's less than a percent of you on the farms and we have more than enough food--we are too fat. And we are doing all these other things. So there would be great concern among themselves as to the improbability of having anything to do, of having work. And I'm saying: Well, 70% of everything that we're doing now, all the jobs, people who are accountants and mortgage brokers and pharmacists and all these folks--those jobs are going to go away in the next whatever-it-is, the next 50, 90 years. Russ: And they are not just going to India and China. They are going away, period. Guest: Exactly. Right. In fact, there was a whole section of stuff I wrote that did not get in, but one of the points was outsourcing was just sort of the first step to robotization. So anything you could imagine being outsourced would eventually make it to the cheapest coolie labor, basically, that we could come up with. So, these jobs would be taken over by machines. Which, by the way, is exactly what happened to the farmers. It's not that farming went to India and China. It's that the farming went to robots. We mechanicasized it. We invented all these machines that are almost robotic and becoming more so every year, including ones that now self-drive. They go up and down the fields and there's nobody driving them. I mean, they are robots, computers driving them. In fact some of the last remaining hand parts of those picking strawberries are also, there are now robots that are very close to being commercially placed, the pickers. So that metaphor, the parallel of the unthinkable happening to farmers is going to happen to us. And it's just as unthinkable to people today as it would have been to the farmers of a century and a half ago. Russ: And so an example in my world would be teaching. It's not obvious that 50 years or 10 years that there should be--there might be for political reasons--but there should be teachers. Maybe. I think there probably will be teachers. Guest: There will be teachers, but fewer in number. And again, farmers have not disappeared. The numbers have. There are people who call themselves farmers. There will be people who call themselves teachers. But there may not be as many of them. Russ: And they will be doing very different things than a teacher of today does. Because of the opportunity to learn online and share knowledge from the best teachers. Going back to my earlier point, it's possible to imagine that a handful of the best teachers will do all the teaching. Just like, as Nassim Taleb pointed out in one of his books, a handful of singers sell all the albums. In the old days you could make a living as a singer because that's how you got music. You had to go down to your local hall to hear the best music in your neighborhood. That's not true any more. I hope that will happen in teaching. I hope that the world's best teachers will teach millions rather than 30. Guest: But let me just stop there because I think the essence is a little bit incorrect. Yes, there is this head of the curve where a few people are selling lots of the hits. However, you go on Youtube, how many people are actually singing and have an audience? More than ever. Russ: True. Guest: And I think this is what will happen with teaching, is that yes, the kind of professional teachers become few and they do a lot of the head; but you have the long tail teaching in which we see this happening, again, in people doing Youtube tutorials. I am just astounded about what you can learn or see on how to learn something, how easy it is, and how quickly the next generation is going to the web and places like Youtube to be taught. Whether it's something academic, like how to square a circle or something, or how to finger a piano piece. That's where they are going to learn. And so in a sense, teacher duties are distributed widely to the long tail. Russ: Yeah, great point. Totally agree. I'm talking about the urge to hear the greatest voice. It can now be delivered via Youtube, for example.
42:05Russ: But anyway, let's talk more about robots. There were a lot of changes in robotics recently that give us a little taste of how that world could change in our lifetime. What's happening? Guest: The main thing that's happening is that a number of technological advances in perception, cameras, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and stepper motors and things like that, have converged to make a personal robot possible. And a personal robot is a robot basically that anybody can program and instruct. The situation in the world right now is that most of the robots are industrial robots. They are extremely expensive, and they require basically a Ph.D. to train and program. And so this is very akin to the mainframe computer of old, which was big, bulky, and you had to wait in line to give it your instructions in batch mode, and you couldn't change it while it was running. Russ: And you had to be a specialist-- Guest: You had to be a specialist to talk to it. And if you were someone who used it, this person was kind of a priest in between you and it. The personal robot is the equivalent of the personal computer, the PC, which is that it is affordable generally to anybody. You can do it. And also, like the PC, it will be considered a toy at first. It seems toy-like in terms of its capabilities. It's not very precise. It's very limited. And there is a sense to dismiss it, like the early PCs, as: What are you going to do with this? Russ: Yeah, like my 12-page Mac. Guest: Exactly, right. And so, but, what happens is, like the PCs, yeah, they were kind of toy-like; but they were getting twice as good every year and half as cheap. And so in a decade you have this amazing thing. And this is what's going to happen with the personal robot. At first, it will be the equivalent of putting your recipes on it, like you did the PC. There will be people who are mostly in small businesses who want to pack up boxes or fairly limited kinds of things like assembling parts. Doing very, very specified repetitious things. But they'll be able to do them at a price that's cheaper than hiring a person. And not just a person in the United States but even an outsourced person. And so, we have Foxconn which now makes all the Apple products. One of the largest employers in China, with a million plus employees. Who are becoming a little unhappy and restless with their jobs; and Foxconn says: We're going to buy 1 million workbots in the next couple of years. And basically to do all the jobs that even the Chinese migrant workers don't want to do. The reason why I mention that is that basically this means that these robots will be cheaper than even Chinese and Asian laborers. Russ: Well, just like they are now. There's a lot of robotic assembly, mechanized assembly, in China relative to 25 years ago. I remember talking to someone who outsourced sweaters from China, and 25 years ago a factory in China was a bunch of women with knitting needles. That was a sweater factory. That's not what Chinese sweater factories look like these days. Guest: No. Right now, all the manufacturing, it's mostly assembling that's being done. And one of the reasons that's been slow to roboticize is that it changes. It's flexibility. And this is what these personal robots are going to shine in--the way you program them is you either stand in front of them and show them what you want done, or you move their arms, showing them what you want done. It's kind of a show-and-tell rather than programming language. And that makes it very fast to change what they are doing, to shift them around, to give them a small job where they work for a few hours and then you tell them something different. And that's what humans-- Russ: we're good at that. Guest: We're really great at that. Russ: Wash the dishes. Rake the leaves. Guest: Yeah, exactly. It'll be a long time before you have household personal robots. But maybe not as long as we're thinking. Just in the same sense as how long was it since the first Altair or Commodore to the iPhone. That was maybe a couple of decades. And that would not have even been perceived as possible back in the 1970s and 1980s. So, that, though, is--we think of physical things but what I want to emphasize in this revolution is--there are robots and there are bots, and bots are kind of software things that are AI-ish-- Russ: Artificial Intelligence-- Guest: that are going to be doing many of the jobs that people sitting in front of computers are doing today. And so it's not just the factory workers or even the farm workers that are going to have their current jobs replaced by this, but even people who are sitting in front of computers. And things like Siri, we get the voice activation thing inside of an iPhone, or Google spoken software, these are kind of hints at how fast these are going to accelerate as these things get half as good and twice as cheap every year.
48:29Russ: So, I have to fight off the urge to think about Sleeper, Woody Allen's movie. Put that movie to the side, mentally. And I want to ask a scary question which came up in a podcast I did with Robin Hanson, which is a reference to the singularity, the possibility that artificial intelligence will advance so far that essentially there will be nothing that we can do better than robots. Whatever that means--robots, it will be more than things we just think of as robots. That will be, as you say, there will be graphic design done by robots; it won't just be robots sitting at a computer manipulating the mouse. It will be something unimaginable. And that therefore there's going to be nothing left for us to do well. Except for the people who know how to design and improve robots, they'll live well; but the rest of us will struggle and we'll be a dime a dozen, or a dime a million. And as a result--his vision of the future is fairly bleak. Even worse than Robert Gordon's, I would say. And he's not alone. There are a number of people who are worried about machines, artificial intelligence, technology "taking over the world." And my view--and I want to get yours--but I want to get mine down because when I talked to Robin Hanson he pushed the view that we are just chemicals and it's just a matter of time before all the chemicals get figured out. And I just, having done some reading since then I don't think that's a universally held opinion. But I guess, to give his view its due, a robot, artificial intelligence, will eventually create a cleverer and more beautiful version of the Keynes-Hayek rap videos that I did with John Papola. And all these creative things that we think, that's going to be our specialty--that's going to be gone. So, are you worried about that? Guest: No, I'm not. My reasons may be a little complicated but let me see if I can state it briefly. Russ: Take your time. Guest: The basis of my non-worry comes from the fact that I think the idea of universal computation is a myth. And by universal computation is the belief that starting with the mathematical idea called Turing-Church hypothesis, which says any computation is equivalent to any other computation. The full version of that is: Any computation is equivalent to any other computation given infinite time and space. Russ: Slightly different. Guest: And the problem is in the real world all computation is finite. Bound by time and space. Which kind of comes to the point that the matrix, the substrate, the foundation that you do your computation on matters. And that means that the kind of intelligence that you'll get when it's based on silicon, even if you are trying to do an emulation of the kind of computation that happens on wetware-- Russ: That's you and me. Guest: That's you and me. Because of the fact that you want this in real time, is not going to be the same. And so what that means is that intelligence is not a single dimension. It's multi-dimension. There are many, many different ways in which you can be smart. And not just you. Your calculator is smarter than you right now in arithmetic. It doesn't freak you out just because it's a different kind of intelligence. And so what we are going to do is, there is really almost no reason to make human-like intelligence because we can do it so easily in 9 months. Untrained workforce. Russ: Yeah. Guest: What we want--this comes back to differences. What we want is to think different. We want different kinds of thinking. And the whole point of the AIs that we are going to be making is they are going to be thinking differently. And that's tremendously valuable, because lots of things also puzzles and mysteries we are going to figure out may not be solved with only human intelligence. We may need other kinds of thinking to get there. And so what will happen is we may fill the world with a million different species of intelligence, some of them vastly superior to us in that dimension. But humans will have an unimitable type of intelligence. And we, being humans, will really like that kind of stuff. So we will continue to amuse ourselves with this type of intelligence. And so I'm not worried about our place when there's a million other kinds of intelligences. Because I think that we will still find our own kind valuable to ourselves. And reward it. And we'll find the other ways of thinking to be extremely valuable and we'll continue to make and invent new kinds of intelligences, including those that are super-intelligent in that direction. Russ: I suppose the pessimistic view is that--well it starts with chess. First, early computers couldn't beat a person, and now it's very hard. They are really good at it. They will soon, maybe they already have--not my specialty--but the best computer will easily beat the best human being in chess. And you could say: Well, chess is not important. It's not; I don't think it's is. It's nice but it's not important. But soon then they'll be better at poetry and symphonies and music and movies. And there'll be nothing left for us. So, you don't think that's going to happen. Guest: Well, no, I think it is happening. I think we are constantly redefining what humans are good at. Well, humans play chess. Well now we saw humans don't play chess. They play checkers. They play Jeopardy. Oh, well, that's not really bad. So I think we are really onto a whole century of identity crisis at the species level, of well: What are we good at? But and so I think this is going to be a long-term, painful identity crisis, where we kind of keep saying: Well, what are we really good at? I'm not saying it's necessarily going to be happy the whole way, because I think this is painful. I'm just saying that the robots are not going to take over and kill us all and turn us into slaves. Or batteries, like in The Matrix. I think that what we are going to be doing is like anybody else. When you are growing up you spend an awful lot of your 20s and your teenage years trying to figure out: What am I good at? What is truly mine and mine distinctively? And it usually takes your whole life to finally come to that. It's not an easy journey. But I think you'll get there. And I think the same thing is happening to us as a species. We are saying: Oh my gosh, we thought that we were a chess playing, Jeopardy playing, checkers playing species. But it turns out that actually that's really not our movie. We're something else and it's going to take us maybe a century to maybe come up to a better idea of what humans are good for. Russ: Well, there's one issue about what our standard of living is going to be in this world. The other issue is what is going to give our lives meaning. I think a lot of us find our meaning in our work. We find it in our family, in our religion, in our play. We find it in lots of ways. I think there are different dystopias that come out of this vision--utopias. But the dystopia is: We'll be so rich that we'll just sit around and surf the web all day. And that may be a very depressing existence. It may be a very fat existence, in terms of calories available and how much we have to work. But I think the other challenge will be where we get our meaning from. Guest: Well, actually I propose a place for that meaning in my book, What Technology Wants, and I am suggesting that the meaning will come from understanding that what technology is is an extension of the same self-organizing life force that runs through life and actually began at the Big Bang, at the beginning of the universe. And what it's moving us towards in all things is towards increasing possibilities and options. And when we make stuff, invent new things, with technology, we are participating in that long arc that runs through the universe and out and beyond us of increasing options, freedoms, choices, and possibilities. And that that actually can give us some meaning in our lives.

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COMMENTS (31 to date)
rhhardin writes:

IBM 7090 time cost $600 an hour in 1963 ($4500 an hour in today's dollars), which limited swift expansion.

Today's typical laptops are 10,000 times faster and have 20,000 times more memory, which limited the usefulness in general for even those dollars.

Still, it was great for little scientific problems.

Running one was definitely a play for pay job.

Steve Sedio writes:

This is a better look at the future I mentioned in my Dec 11 post on the podcast with Chris Anderson.

We started as hunter/gatherers working as many hours as it took, yet many starved to death. Now, we spend about half our life working 40 hours a week (the rest is in growing up, and in retirement), yet can support 1 person in 3 getting money from government for not producing.

That is because our individual productivity is far more than our consumption. If I produce 10 times more value than I consume - we don't need 9 people working.

When supply exceeds demand, price falls, to a static condition like cost plus. Those that can make breakthroughs in costs increase profitability, until another makes it and costs drop again. We are reaching an economic stability like that that occurred just before the ag revolution, and agiain, just before the industrial revolution. The difference is our products keep improving. As with the ag revolution, just not enough for another revolution.

As far as what do we do for work. As I see it we are stuck in a 40 hour work week world, where benefit packages require 32 hour a week or more.

We could just create a welfare system where everyone can live comfortabley off the backs of those that work. That is a non-starter on many levels.

Time to reduce hours even further.

Assuming a 20% real unemployment rate, shift to a 8 hour a day, 4 day work week, opening 20% more positions. The ideal 4 days on, 4 days off would run into problems with Religiius days of worship - a bigger ball of snakes in that). Instead of dealing with too many societal issues at once, probably better to set a 24 hour work week, 3 on, 4 off.

As to the question "what are we good at"? Simple, creating things better than we are, then making the results even better.

Do I see that changing? Not really.

Robert Kennedy writes:

I certainly agree with the guest's comments about computation vs communications. I've been working with computers since about 1970, starting with IBM mainframes. The computational power of IBM mainframes and other larger computers allowed and still allows companies to increase productivity in a myriad of ways. In general, these computers helped companies complete known tasks more efficiently. (I'm not sure if I agree with the cost benefits comments made but I'll leave that alone! I was certainly a cost for those companies) But until networks matured, all of this computing was siloed. If we wanted to exchange data with even another building, we cut tapes and transported them. The maturation of network hardware & software & protocols is what opened things up. I would suggest that the Internet became mainstream in the mid 90s. Even Windows 95 could only connect to the Internet if one fiddled with various software addons & configurations. In my eyes, the world wide interconnectedness of the Internet has been with us for less than 20 years. Not long enough for all of the fruits to appear.

Jim Feehely writes:

Hi Russ,

I remain unconvinced that unidentified and unimaginable new technologies will solve our problems and produce unspecified economic growth. Stagnation is just as probably the consequence of the western world approaching 'enough'. We clearly have 'enough', but it is distributed very inequitably.

It is the economic obsession with economic growth as the sole objective of developed societies that is very clearly destroying the environment that is one of the pillars of our quality of life, as distinct from the more barren 'standard of living'.

The conversation we should be having is: 'what does acceptable prosperity look like in a no growth environment.' If we do not have that conversation globally, then we can only hope that technology allows to emigrate to other planets to satiate our irrational obsession with economic growth, consumption and inevitable environmental destruction.

Regards,
Jim Feehely.

Michael Tolhurst writes:

I find that Mr. Kelly's claim that 'networking' is the real change that recent technology has brought, and that its full effects are yet to be felt, is very compelling.

Certainly I agree that such networking can make access to various cultural products that are easily reproducible in 0s and 1s and transmitted over fiber-optic cables available to most people in the future. This will certainly make one aspect of our lives potentially richer.

What I'm less convinced on is how this networking revolution will help us have more 'stuff.' That is, all those other goods that can't be reduced to data.

The sense that myself and many of my cohort coming of age in the great recession have is that we will be poorer than our parents. Granted, this counterbalanced by youtube and cheap netflix, but it is not clear to me how networking would respond to all aspects of a potential stagnation. Robotics might be a response, but robots take energy, and energy costs are likely to increase in future. Might we actually live in smaller houses with more family members, be less likely to own cars, pay more for food and have fewer consumer goods... while at the same time having a wealth of access to information? Is that a future consistent with the expected arc of the networking revolution?


Also as a side note, while I am concerned about the environment, as a 'younger person' I find the exhortations of boomers to engage in society wide belt-tightening frustrating. While I agree with the sentiment, it seems really easy to say that when one has had the benefit of several decades of environment shredding growth to build up a personal economic cushion against future austerity!

Russell writes:

Gordon lists 6 headwinds that are a drag on long-term growth. While gov't debt is included, he makes no mention what I consider to be the major drag on economic growth going forward: the sheer size of government. IRs #1 and #2 took place during times when government was positively tiny compared to the beast that burdens us today. Take a moment and consider the damage today's gov't would have done to either of the previous IRs.

To the extent that IR #3 has created growth, it's been in spite of the government beast and the fact that the internet has, until now at least, been fairly unregulated. The only reason I am at all pessimistic about future innovation and growth is because no matter how hard I try I cannot imagine our government giving up power or control. If that ends up being true, our future growth will indeed be much worse than it could be.

RHC writes:

A few points.

What would it have cost you to get 6 million views of your video 10 years ago? If that isn’t a direct increase in productivity I don’t know what it is.

There are a few elephants in the room in this conversation. The first ones are technological; the explosion of automation in AI and robotics that we are just starting to see and molecular nanotechnology which will allow us to build anything we want basically for free. Free being the cost of very raw materials or recyclables. Both are technologies that will lead to Post-Scarcity economies within 50 years.

Kevin Kelly's position on the robotics revolution is that it will replace most of what we do now but create a whole new set of needs, opportunities and jobs. Things will be different but we will all still get up in the morning and go to work.
I think this is ridiculous proposition because it fails to ask and answer a central question. Why do people work? I think the answer is that the vast majority of people work because they have to. They have no other choice. Spending the majority of one’s waking time working is the essence of living in a scarcity based economy. Even in the West not working on a full time basis is not a real option for the 90% of the population. In a world with the kind of dirt cheap productivity automation and nanotech are going to bring, no one will need to work for the same survival reasons they have had to for the last 10,000 years. Even healthcare, (which I think of as the last new expensive basic need after food shelter, clothes) within a generation or two is going to be cheap. The point is that when it comes down to it most people if given the choice will relinquish work as the focus of their lives.

As far as people losing meaning in their lives when they don't work I think that question reflects cultural conditioning more than anything inherently human. We will invent amazing hobbies, sports and games. We will socialize, we will create, explore etc.. Some people will work to own a Titian, a particular stretch of beach or other truly scarce things.

To me the central question is can the current mechanisms of wealth allocation built into our current version of capitalism accommodate the change to post-scarcity in a non-violent way. People motivated to get really Rich don’t seem to ever get enough. Who owns the robots and their output, not to mention patents and mineral rights will make life interesting for at least a little while.

Shayne Cook writes:

To Michael Tolhurst:

Your statement ...

"The sense that myself and many of my cohort coming of age in the great recession have is that we will be poorer than our parents."

... caught my eye, and surprised me. I had to respond to it.

As one who has far fewer years to my future than I have to my past, let me assure you that will NOT be the case. And I will provide an absolute, money-back guarantee of that statement.

The reason I can make such a certain claim regards your future is not at all complicated.

First, you shall inherit everything that all previous generations of human beings have already built for you - for free.

Second, and vastly more significantly, you inherit the absolute right to determine for yourselves what enriches you, and what impoverishes you. And with that right, you inherit not only the right to reject any part or all of your legacy, but the absolute right to construct for yourselves only that which will enrich you.

Make the best of it, lad.

Craig writes:

Does anyone see more than a superficial similarity between Keven Kelly's expansion-of-choice idea and Nassim Taleb's "optionality"? Reading Antifragile I couldn't help being reminded of What Technology Wants but couldn't really synthesize anything from the surface similarities and haven't found example of either author citing the other. (For Taleb's part maybe Kelly's writings on technology might ring too close to "neomania" to bother looking into.)

Eric writes:

I really find the application of Malthusian ideas quite tiring, especially as some find that they can apply the idea that any resource can be called limited (whether it is or not) and therefore we must start to panic NOW. First it was food, now it is the ability to come up with new ideas and innovations - a la "the Great Stagnation."

I spent time trying to find it to add detail, but Google failed me, so I must quote the anecdote from memory. In the late 1800's, about to choose his future course of study as he enrolled in college, a now quite famous physicist was counselled by some at-the-time 'great' (and now totally unknown) physicist to avoid physics as a course of study because all that could be discovered had been discovered and physics was, essentially, done.

I'm glad that Kelly tried to express his disdain for the idea that humans are stagnating or will stagnate, and commend him for his closing thought.


Cody Boyte writes:

At about 25 minutes in you were talking about how no one could have predicted computer based laser surgery 40 years ago. Interestingly, Arthur C Clarke nearly did in 1964: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxYgdX2PxyQ

Roger writes:

Excellent Econ talk!

Please allow me to add on to what others have already contributed...

First, I would reinforce that even if it takes much longer now to discover a new material or production method, the size of the network can still make this more cost effective. The reason of course is that networked combinations increase even faster than the discovery slow down. The new materials and techniques can be applied to every other past invention in pair or larger combinations.

Second, I think the robot vision is going to be very real. Twenty years ago most of us thought people with computers were wasting their time and money. Now most of us have multiple computers or devices. I think I have a PC, two Macs, a tablet and three iPhones. Imagine the world where everyone has multiple robots at their service that are getting twice as good and half the price every year.

Third, think of what the world will be like where robots make robots, which process raw materials, and which deliver these goods and services to our personal robots. I agree this is a post scarcity economy.

Finally, consider the progress in virtual reality. Again, every year we will see massive improvements in alternative reality. How long until the virtual trip to the Himalayas is avually better that the real trip. It will be free to boot.

Great stagnation? Not. The problems won't be related to diminishing growth rates in standard of living. The problems will be in personally keeping up with these changes in wealth and possibility.

John Berg writes:

Michael Tolhurst’s note rousted me from my despondency over the results of the last election to regret with him the potential loss of his cohort’s “stuff.” To be honest, I actually regret more than Michael’s loss my children’s and grandchildren’s loss because I had intend them to enjoy my legacy.

As I wrote in an earlier message, I consider myself to have benefited from the sacrifices of the “Greatest Generation.” As others have written, Michael benefits from several intervening generations and what a mixed set of motivations they have offered while I’ve watched and lived a good life here in the US. At times I have regreted that I was not in a higher percentile of the US Adjusted Gross Income bell curve but as I moved further out on the “tail” of the Age bell curve, my one regret is all the “stuff” I’ve accumulated and must now shed. Consider: I have accomplishments, memories, flash sticks, DVDs, CDs, computer media, and books which I enjoyed and must leave behind to a cohort who, judging by how they voted recently, have no concern for cohort that follows them.

John Berg

Mort Dubois writes:

Clearly we are in a revolution as to the production of physical goods and services, although I think that the problem of getting robots to interact with the environment we have built, which is designed for the convenience and understanding of humans, is underestimated. Can you imagine training a robot to cut your grass, and conveying all of the situations where the basic plan would need instant alteration (like a small child wandering in front of the mower, for instance.)

What is more worrisome is the problem of getting our government and economic institutions to reform themselves in response to the changes in the nature and cost of goods. These sectors have shown no ability whatsoever to change in the face of an evolving economy. If there is ever a need for innovation, it's here, but I don't see any mechanisms by which innovative ideas can be put into action.

Last thought: the disappearance of jobs might well highlight for us the value of work aside from the mere output and wages it generates. Work is a social activity, and society derives a huge benefit from the need for constant interaction, performed cooperatively and (hopefully) politely, between its citizens. Once jobs disappear we might well see the value of simply having a job, of having a place to go every day, and a widely understood status. Humans were designed to work and be part of groups. Our society is currently organized in such a way that people's work is a big part of their self-definition of the group they belong to (along with their country of origin, their family, and their affinity groups.) Will those other ways of self-defining be sufficient? We will know soon, and might well regret that knowledge.

An interesting and provocative podcast. Thank you!

Mort

AJ Knock writes:

Life, the Universe and Everything.

I found Mr. Kelly's argument about the flowering of productivity in the info age uncompelling. The other day as I walked through an office area I saw multiple people on their phones texting and more at their computers surfing the net. Did productivity go up or down?

The real gains are improvements in industrial automation as well as more efficient inventory and ordering. But this ends up throwing people out of work. The result is more people working in the service industry and for government "make work" boondoggles.

Near the end of the interview, the point being danced around was: what do people do with their lives? In the US, we have our material needs met and now have garages full of junk. Do we need more stuff, more material wealth? Or do we need to step back from the rat race and figure out what is important. This is not an economic issue it is a spiritual one.

Finally I can't help but comment on the dissing of great minds of the past, on whose shoulders we stand. Mr. Kelly's comment about "the low hanging fruit being picked" under cuts brillant accomplishments. I would argue that the true education level has surely dropped in modern times since people are so distracted with gizmos, gadgets and entertainment.

Scott Campbell writes:

Artificial intelligence is going to enable not disable humans. The brain is an infinitely complex organ never to be replaced by digital wherewithal. However it is a finite repository of facts and figures because we can not remember everything or compare more than two things at once.

That is where A.I. comes into its own. As the world's information is indexed and as our profiles are recorded and refined over time it will be possible for me to wear my google glasses or see the information on my contact lenses and have reference to anything and everything, at that moment, that is a possibility filtered by my statistical means, mode, medium, and average. I will make my educated choices determined by by propensities and preferences. We will all find ourselves elevated to the maximum of our intelligence, guided by the will of our personality factored into our possibilities.

The challenge will be to explore the unknown either by plan or by incident. Depending upon our risk aversion and will to be a forerunner life will be exactly as we wish it would be. Obviously chance and inequity are factors that will continue to enrich our lives and make progress desirable.

john berg writes:

Forgive me a rhetorical device:

Was it the Talmud that said that the purpose of life is to know and serve God in this life and the next? Is it possible that the former task is NP? Would that mean even if we never solve the former task, that would not relieve us of the latter? Has Goedel implied even Artificial Intelligence won't permit us to complete the former?

My reading of Science Fiction in the Fifties lead to many dysutopias and utopias. During my life we had philosopher longshoremen and scholar Taxi drivers. Russ has already examined the good as an educator the Internet could do. But we would have to terminate the conflicting Federal Department of Education and end all Federal grants to institutions of higher education. Certainly we have proven that the power to grant (redistribute) taxes is the power to destroy.

John Berg

[broken url removed--Econlib Ed.]

Steve Sedio writes:

Mort's post got me to thinking.

What happens to the work environment we don't need to work to survive? What happens to the petty politics, when the one being schemed against can walk down the street and find a "company" that appreciates their talents? What happens to the disgruntled employee, when the don't have to show up to work? One of the (300+) earlier podcasts metioned slavery was losing out to sharecropper farms, because the share cropper was more motivated. What happens to the work environment when every there is motivated to be there?


What happens to economics when supply always meets / exceed demand?

John Berg writes:

Ah, youthful hubris.

How old is the fable of the goose that laid golden eggs? And what happened to the goose?

John Berg

Chris F writes:

I found most of this discussion to be pretty painful to listen to, frankly. I think Mr Kelly vastly underestimates the scale and speed at which technology is going to displace humans. The next big innovation isn't going to be "global connectedness" or anything of that nature - it's the invention on human-level AI. Once that happens, we are simply obsolete.

I found the comments about Church-Turing computability to be incoherent. Kelly's argument was that because computation is necessarily constrained by space and time, it follows that AI must be qualitatively different from wetware ? Groundless hand-waving nonsense. All evidence thus far indicates that the human brain is doing nothing that can't be emulated in software.

To claim, as Mr Kelly did, that there'll be no demand for such machines because it's easier to create a human the old-fashioned way (in a mere 9 months) is utterly absurd. It takes 20 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to create a human mind, with no guarantees as to the quality of the end product. Once I can download a genius-level intelligence from the net, and run a hundred of them in parallel at many times normal speed - why the heck would I want to waste money hiring a human ?

I could go on, but you get the idea - EconTalk is one of the most informative and insightful podcasts out there, but this episode was disappointing.

Chris F writes:

By the way, I'd be fascinated to hear an EconTalk interview with Martin Ford (author of 'Lights in the Tunnel') on the topic of technological unemployment. He's someone who really seems to understand the issues and has some compelling arguments to make about the collapse of demand in a robot economy.

@Mort Dubois - we already have robots that can do a decent good job of cutting your lawn ! They're getting better every year. Soon they'll be able to prune your roses and rake your leaves...

Mort Dubois writes:

@ Chris F: I know that there are robots that can mow a lawn, and I have robots at work in my factory, so I have some sense of what they can do at this moment. What I'm asking is whether it will be possible to incorporate ethical or aesthetic thinking into robotic programming, which is where humans differ from robots. Let me modify my example regarding a small child running front of a lawn mower. The size of a human child is sufficient that it would be easy to tell the mower to stop. Suppose, instead, that a rabbit has built a nest in your lawn, low to the ground and unsensable by the robot? (These exist, we have them in the woolier parts of my lawn.) Nest full of baby rabbits, oncoming lawnmower doesn't stop: what a mess. I would guess that most people, operating a lawn mower manually, would make decisions that prevent the baby rabbits from being chopped up. This may be an extreme example, but if you think about most of the decisions we make as we go through our day have a social, esthetic, or moral component that will be very difficult to describe using computer code. We learn these things from our parents as children, from our peers as we interact with them, and from our society at large. Unless robots can successfully replicate that type of decision making, and I very much doubt that this can be done, then they will be useful tools, rather than replacements for human beings.

Chris F writes:

@Mort - thanks for your reply, and thanks for your helpful example. It seems that we differ on the eventual limits of machine intelligence. My personal belief is that there's nothing which humans can do which can't in principle be replicated in software (including moral and aesthetic judgements). I'd be quite happy to be proven wrong on this - I suppose that only time will tell.

I agree with the rest of your points - I too am deeply worried about whether existing systems and infrastructure will be able to cope with the coming changes. I think we're in for a very difficult couple of decades...

Mark writes:

Some things made obsolete by electronics:
1. Internal memos/mailroom jobs -> email. I know plenty of packages must be distributed by snailmail, but mailrooms aren't anything like this anymore: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zU3Hs36FIrw (not that they ever REALLY were, of course.)

2. Typists -> Printers. Need 100 copies? We'll send that down to the room full of typists who type out copies in septuplicate or greater. These jobs are gone. We use "robots" to do that.

Possible in the next 10 years:
1. Truckers/Taxi drivers/mailmen/UPS/airline pilot/cargo ship operator -> Self-driving vehicles

2. Forklift driver -> Kiva http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KRjuuEVEZs

I'm sure you can thing of many others. The question of this podcast, it seems, is not "why aren't we all super rich?" The real question is why don't we realize how super rich we are? Would you prefer to live as a rich person in season one of Downton Abbey, or as a middle-class person today? Perhaps many would choose to be super-rich back then, but the decision isn't as automatic as it might seem. Today, you won't get cholera, or polio and live in an iron lung, and you have to consider all you'll be giving up!

Don't forget that the Arab Spring was made possible by Facebook. Where is that in the calculations? What is information technology doing politically in China today? If IT brings people (eventually?) out from under the thumb of ruthless dictators isn't it a different sort of revolution? How will we quantify that?

Adam S writes:

Good podcast. I agree with Kelly about the development of the network as not yet being fully realized.

In many ways, the world communication network is still very undeveloped. Try making a phone call in an elevator, for example. Wireless 4G networks are approaching broadband speed and stability, and the equipment for cell networking is also becoming cheaper. After listening to this podcast, I sat back for a minute and thought about a world where you had 5 signal bars on your phone no matter where you were. That's a really amazing concept. Granted, it won't lead to massive productivity gains in every sector tomorrow, but someday very soon a farmer in the poorest part of Africa will be able to upload his idea on Youtube with his smartphone, others around the world can comment on it, and theoretically they could change the world within minutes. Never before was that even remotely possible.

OK, so that's a lot of lofty speech for sure, but the idea of being on a global network regardless of where you are geographically is very significant. In undeveloped countries, it might directly influence whether or not people need to move to cities for work, and therefore change how entire urban economies function.

And all this is almost guaranteed within the next decade or so. Coupled with more obvious advances in nano and AI, I don't think we're headed for a stagnation anytime soon.

Becky Yamarik writes:

Interesting podcast and thought provoking. What it made me think about in my own worklife is the unrealized promise of the electronic medical record (EMR). I read recently that RAND had predicted that the EMR wd save lots of money and make medical care better and now everyone is mad at them b/c it hasn't worked out that way. Having worked with maybe 4 different EMRs and been in institutions during the transition from paper to EMR, I agree that they don't make us better or more efficient right away, like you were talking about on the podcast. It seems a bit like what Kahneman writes about in Thinking Fast and Slow, that human thinking is generally lazy and so when working with an EMR, we treat it and work with it just like a paper chart, so nothing really changes in the way we interact with it. Ironically the only EMR that felt "better" to me was the Veterans Admin system b/c you could reach back thru a patient's entire history thru multiple institutions and it was all there. .

thanks again for interesting listening. . .

Raja writes:

Obviously the measures of productivity in play here are wildly and woefully flawed.

However, aside from that point I'd propose that while the productivity of those of us in the productive sector of society has increased exponentially and continues to do so at an accelerating rate, the unproductive sector has grown in lock step, if not more. This unproductive sector, you can guess it, would be govt and govt-sponsored boondoggles, including TBTF banks, GM, most legal work, Solyndras, the military, prisons, large swaths of so called academia, etc, ad infinitum.

In other words, Atlas's burden is getting heavier.

Jennifer Yoon writes:

Dear Prof. Russ Roberts,

Thank you for a really good podcast. If you are reading this, I want you to know that I listen to all EconTalk podcasts that I download, and about half of them 2-3 times. I am also trying to listen to the archived podcasts.

Kevin Kelly's interview was very intriguing. I agree that we will eventually start innovating again and start to improve the material well being of the average citizen. I do not believe we have exhausted all major innovations that can improve our standard of living. Nano level manufacturing which uses tiny amounts of raw materials (from recycled sources), and new energy from natural gas and solar should allow at least 100 more years of rapid innovation.

But I disagree that the threat of extreme economic inequality from robots taking almost all desirable jobs is so easy to dismiss. I also read Lights in the Tunnel and find the vision frightening. New economy jobs seem to pay much less than middle class factory jobs used to. We are far from a post-material economy where a comfortable existence can be had with an entry level job, even with a college degree. A typical user's blog or video post may get several thousand views, but that does not pay the rent. We can find delight for free online, but still need to eat.

I am less worried about finding meaning if all paid jobs were to go away, as long as we live in a post-material world. In the past, almost all Science was done by noblemen, who did not work for a living. Today, many people compete in amateur competitions. People in traditional societies also socialized by providing personal care for themselves and their family and relatives. We will fulfill our innate need for connectedness and for spirituality by once again spending more time in community activities that gives us a sense of belonging and elevation.

At least in my personal case, I have no need of a job to provide me with a purpose or identity. I find much that I care deeply about outside of a job. But I became depressed after 3 years of unsuccessful job search in this current recession. I am anxious about my ability to provide material comforts for myself and my family, today and in the future.

Bill writes:

This guy knows all about 'cool' (technology):

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/dec/15/will-i-am-want-to-write-code

Dallas Weaver writes:

There was a common comment about the lack of apparent productivity impacts by computers in 60's through the 80's. Could that result be in how the productivity is counted.

The chips that were used to create the first Apple, TRS-80, and PC computers were actually "controller" chip sets, not computer processors (they came latter as the market developed). They were mass produced for many industrial application and were responsible for dramatic improvements that would show up in the productivity statistics for manufacturing and other industries. Everything from fuel injectors for cars to the new rides at 6 flags were possible because of these chips, while friends were using TRS-80 to run machine tools with a huge productivity jump.

Matthew Bogosian writes:

Slightly off-topic, but worth a laugh: http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/e1abab3c2b/god-made-a-factory-farmer (parody of the Dodge Superbowl commercial).

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