TED Conversations

Arne Strout

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If menial labor is necessary for society to function, can society be made more equal by robotic automation?

It is an intrinsic part of society at large that certain jobs will have to be done. Thankless jobs, and jobs for which no-one feels they need to pay a premium. For example, a stock broker may make many hundreds of times as much money as a waste management engineer, or a garbage man, but our societies cannot function without garbage men. If these sorts of "undesirable" jobs could be offloaded to automated AI driven robotics would that improve society over-all or would the resulting shortage of jobs cause more harm than good? Can we automate the tasks required for a basic level of human dignity (housing, food, clothing, plumbing, water, electricity) and still gainfully employ everyone?

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    Nov 24 2011: hasnt worked so far.
  • Nov 23 2011: There is a cost effectiveness element to your question. The question is not "Can a robot be built to perform the task?", but " Can a robot be built, operated and maintained such that it is cheaper to pay a robot to do something than it would be for a man to do it?". Harvesting food, providing care to humans (children, sick, elderly), and even military assignments all involve tasks in environments that would be very difficult for robots to function. We may find that the support network of people required for such a robotic force (if it were possible) would exceed the number of people doing the job without the robots, but the amount of training require for these people to be part of the support network would be much greater. It is an interesting philosophic question, but there will have to be some pretty major break-thrus in the area of the cost of robotics before automating the thankless jobs is cost-effective.

    A spin-off question is " Will the cost and wages associated with the thankless jobs escalate as a result of a generation of people thinking they are too good to do menial work?"
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    Nov 22 2011: This revolution has already begun.
    Countless stupid jobs, or dangerous ones have already been given out to machines.
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      Nov 23 2011: True. I can see it happening. My question is, can society remain stable within such a system. Will the increased wealth from robotics serve to increase the general well being of society, or will it serve the elite who own the facilities that house and maintain them and who control the dispersement of their production, leaving the ordinary citizens with very few employment prospects due to their inability to compete with a roboticized workforce. I personally lean toward the former, but I can see the danger of the latter.
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        Nov 23 2011: The thing is that robot technology or technology in general increases our wealth i. e. the amount of things we can do.
        So jobs are suppressed in a process that enables new jobs to be created.

        For instance, it's wednesday morning. I'm not going to work today. There is plenty of food within arm reach around me. I'm writing this. Then I'll do a bit of music. Possibly, I'll make some money out of my compostitions one day.
        But not so many generations ago, I would've needed to work every single day to keep my family from starving, or being cold and getting sick, or attacked by rival tribes. I would never have had the opportunity to get food out of singing.

        Sure there are elite who were born with enough wealth to throw out the window, but this has always been so, ever since we've been more than barely surviving. It will also probably stay that way. But we should acknowledge that today's poor, in modern democracies, are wealthier than most people have ever been in history.

        If anything, I think our progress is reducing the gap between the rich and poor classes. We are mislead by our currency, since we think about billionaires and broke people. But let's keep in mind that both are now equally unlikely to starve, both have freedom of speech, both benefit from healthcare. Also, the difference in the technology available for both is progressively decreasing, as you might see a bum with a cell phone not that different from Bill Gate's cell phone.