Robots to Take Over US Economy by 2050?

Marshall Brain, the creater of the How Stuff Works website has written a piece discussing his belief that Humanoid Robots will take over the American Economy by 2050. His claim is that advances in robotics will produce humanoid robots that will increasingly replace humans at lower-income jobs due to their lower operating costs, producing millions of unemployed individuals.

I disagree for several reasons:

  1. While greatly appealing to SciFi writers, humanoid robots seem to be less practical than the longstanding trend of building in specific features and intelligence into existing products (e.g. washing machings, vacuums, etc.)
  2. The economy is not a zero-sum game. Massive structural changes tend to create shifts in labor, not persistant unemployment.
  3. I think Marshall greatly underestimates the complexity of solving fundamental AI/sensory perception issues for robots. (similar to underestimation of the complexity of voice recognition software)

Published by Marshall Brain at: http://marshallbrain.com/robotic-nation.htm

In 2055 the nation hit a big milestone — over half of the American workforce was unemployed, and the number was still rising. Nearly every “normal” job that had been filled by a human being in 2001 was filled by a robot instead. At restaurants, robots did all the cooking, cleaning and order taking. At construction sites, robots did everything — Robots poured the concrete, laid brick, built the home’s frame, put in the windows and doors, sided the house, roofed it, plumbed it, wired it, hung the drywall, painted it, etc. At the airport, robots flew the planes, sold the tickets, moved the luggage, handled security, kept the building clean and managed air traffic control. At the hospital robots cared for the patients, cooked and delivered the food, cleaned everything and handled many of the administrative tasks. At the mall, stores were stocked, cleaned and clerked by robots. At the amusement park, hundreds of robots ran the rides, cleaned the park and sold the concessions. On the roads, robots drove all the cars and trucks. Companies like Fedex, UPS and the post office had huge numbers of robots instead of people sorting packages, driving trucks and making deliveries.

By 2055 robots had taken over the workplace and there was no turning back.

Marshall has taken the popular approach among futurists of predicting wholescale replacement of people by “machines that are like people only don’t sleep and are cheaper.” I don’t think this is likely, as it seems to negate one of the major advantages of designing a machine – that its form can be custom tailored for the task that it performs. Examples of this kind of specialized robot can already be seen; from the Roomba vacuum cleaner, to automatic pay toilet stalls in London. In addition to a tighter integration between function and form, this allows a less expensive, gradual deployment into areas with maximum return first, as opposed to steep fixed costs advocated in Marshall’s prediction.

Agrarian workers became city workers and clerks. Many of those individuals then became service providers. Who would have thought that Martha Stewart would be able to build a multi-billion dollar empire on home design? Who would have thought Americans would spend less on food, and more on TV, and movies, and Video games? Or now that people would pay for ringtones and faceplates for cell phones? If commodity items become cheaper, people will simply spend their money on things that may have been relatively less important when people were worried about feeding themselves.

How do you build a flexible machine? Preferably one that can be instructed to perform tasks in plain English? Without step by step directions? While possible, I don’t forsee a quick breakthrough to a level where even a “substandard” human could be replaced by an out of the box robot.