I’ve been listening to Robin and Russ talk and the flabbergasted first impression of Robin’s ideas is starting to wear off. I can just about start to think clearly about this.
Robin’s basic idea is that there have been about two technological revolutions in human history: farming and the industrial revolution. Following each of these, the pace of economic growth increased by an order of magnitude.
What, he asks, could cause the next such revolution and how will the economy look following it?
The farming revolution was all about food production. Suddenly we can produce a lot more food, a lot more reliably than before. Self-sufficiency diminishes and the manufacturing and service sectors are born.
The industrial revolution is pretty tricky to summarize. Suddenly productivity advance exploded (relative to before). Capital substitutes for labour in a meaningful way and, again, the jobs of the past need far fewer people. That seems a horribly inadequate explanation; maybe the vocabulary of economics just isn’t up to the task here. I’ll move on.
Robin’s next insight is that most of the economy is now in the service sector. To increase growth rates by another order of magnitude, we’d need to find a way of making human interaction more efficient. That’s a puzzler.
The short version of the rest is that cheaply replicated robots will take over these tasks.
The trick is that there is something necessarily human about much of the service industry; so, if robots are going to do it, they’d need to be more or less indistinguishable from humans. There’s an embarrassment of Sci-Fi examples here. My favourite is Battlestar Galactica.
Robin makes some points about the science of this, the upshot of which is that the most likely way we get there is by scanning and emulating the human brain. The idea is that we then get lots of replicas of particular individuals. To paraphrase a favourite meme of mine, the logic goes something like this:
1. Copy individuals’ brains
2. Enslave the copies
4. Everyone gets rich.
To me, Robin rather casually brushes off the nastier historical precedents of slavery. He thinks the results of this process is a subsistence wage for everyone (really? we’ll stand for that?) and outrageous returns to capital for those that own something. Dude needs to read 19th century reactions to Marx to see how people will jive with THAT little nugget.
I’d quibble with the political economy here and say that we’d probably have a ridiculous social safety net and society becomes more of less socialist if suddenly everything were super-duper cheap. Welfare for all!
Hard work thinking about this without turning it into a TOTAL bullshit slinging contest. Too many assumptions. I understand why Tyler Cowen likes the guy so much.