Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Robot Explosion

Again, using our collapsed calendar, the population in this country, during the last three seconds, has increased from an estimated 5 million to an approximate 197 million. The significant increase had its beginning with the Industrial Revolution. There are now about 40 times as many human beings in the U.S.A. as then.

  Far more startling is what has happened to the robot population. During this same period robots have increased at least 135 times! That the robot explosion has had something to do with the lesser population explosion is incontestable. But let us begin by putting the robots in their customary frame of reference: the employment-unemployment problem.

  Means are often confused with ends. Thus, when we focus on the employment-unemployment picture, as I do in this chapter, the tendency is to overlook the fact that job-holding by itself is, as a rule, but a means to the satisfaction of wants. The growth of any individual’s physical and mental faculties does, of course, demand exercise, but having a “job” isn’t always necessary for that; these faculties can be and often are more exercised by the jobless—coupon clippers, for instance—than by job holders.

  So, we’re not seeking employment merely for the exercise. Human labor for its own sake is seldom our aim; we labor in order to enjoy its fruits in the form of food, clothing, and shelter, or to satisfy other physical and spiritual hungers. And one of the most essential qualities of being human is the urge to be relieved of burdensome effort and freed to pursue more desirable objectives. It is this urge, when men are free, that causes the invention of mechanical slaves—our tools and machines; they free us for something hopefully better. This is also why we specialize and trade.

  In a world which has an infinite amount of work to be done, involuntary unemployment is inconceivable—provided the market is free. Unemployment is always the result of price (wage) and other coercive controls. Automation, as I shall attempt to demonstrate, has nothing whatsoever to do with it. Our mechanical slaves—labor-saving devices of all kinds—stem from the recognition and pursuit of higher wants than mere survival; they are the means toward such ends. Let us therefore try to clear away some of the confusion that attends the employment-unemployment problem as related to automation.

  Shall Our Robots Rule Us?

  Whenever we come into possession of a source of mechanical energy equivalent to one man’s energy, we have added to the work force a mechanical slave, an automaton, a robot.

  No question about it, the robots, at first blush, appear to cause unemployment. Take the automobile, for instance. It disemployed buggy and wagon workers, whip and harness makers, stable hands, and a host of others. True, some went to work for the auto makers but, nonetheless, the automobile—automated travel, the product of automation—made for unemployment. So goes the chant.

  Regardless of that first impression, we know that robots do not, in fact, cause unemployment. For instance, we have experienced an enormous outburst of automation, yet a high percentage of the population—about 80,000,000—is on the work force; today’s many areas of acute labor shortage refute the notion that automation causes unemployment.

  Quite possibly we could settle the whole question in our own minds by merely reflecting on primitive automation: the wheel and a domesticated animal. The ox-drawn cart, instead of putting the owner out of work, gave him higher level work and multiplied what he could produce and thus consume.

  Or, consider the story of two men who were watching a huge steam shovel removing earth in preparation for the building of Hoover Dam. Said one, “Think of all the men that shovel is putting out of work!” Replied the better economist of the two, “There wouldn’t be a single person working on this project if all that earth had to be removed by men with their hands.”

  Yes, the automobile disemployed buggy workers, but in the same sense that the ox-drawn cart relieved primitive man from doing everything by hand. Failure to see this point leads many people to believe that automation causes unemployment.

  If robots are the cause of unemployment, then the telephone—automated communication—must have wrought havoc. The fact? The operating companies employ over 700,000 people, and several hundred thousand are employed by the suppliers. But surely, some will contend, automatic dialing disemployed a great number of switchboard operators. The fact? There are nearly 50 per cent more operators today than in 1940. Why? Because automatic dialing made possible so much more use of the telephone than before. If the present volume of conversations had to be connected manually, at least 1,000,000 switchboard operators would be required. Of course, this is a fictitious “if.” The manual operation would be so inefficient relative to automatic dialing that the volume would require no such number.

  If automation caused unemployment, then it would follow that an addition to the work force of any mechanical energy equivalent to one man’s energy—one robot—would disemploy one man. However, this is contrary to observed fact. Today in the U.S.A. each worker has perhaps 135 mechanical slaves—helpers or robots—working for him, each contributing energy equivalent to the energy of one human worker.1 If each robot displaced one worker, the unemployment figure would be 135 times the present work force—10,800,000,000—an utter absurdity.

  If these robots do not displace workers, then where does all this extra energy go? Should we discover the right answer, we will know whether they are the workers’ friends or foes and whether we should try to encourage or discourage their proliferation. Let’s try to find the answer.

  My grandfather, recalling the 1850’s, used to repeat, “Many times have I walked thirty miles in a day.” His boast recently came to mind as I flew from New York City to Kansas City (1,100 miles) in two hours. It would have taken grandfather about 280 hours of walking to negotiate that distance. He would have been on his way to Kansas City for thirty-seven days. Only 365 round trips would have taken every day of his long life.

  Grandfather, in his early days, had only his own energy at his disposal—just one manpower. Now assume that he had walked to Kansas City, taking 280 hours. I made it in two hours by jet. Isn’t it clear that something has to account for that 278 hours miraculously, one might say, put at my disposal? What made this possible? It was, among other factors, the billions upon billions of robot days that assisted in the construction and the operation of that jet!2

  But these robots did more than give me 278 hours unavailable to Grandfather. There were 100 passengers on that flight, a freeing for other use of 27,800 hours. Further, that very same jet may be good for 25,000 such flights or a total freeing of 695,000,000 hours. And that jet is only one of hundreds of commercial jets. Add all the commercial prop jobs and all the private planes, and the liberated hours become astronomical. Anyway, that’s where some of the robots’ energy went, without putting anyone out of work.

  The Uses of Leisure

  We must, of course, keep in mind that the energy of robots going into airplanes is but some very small fraction of all automated energy. But the statistics do not matter; what is important is that we understand what these robots do for us and, also, to us. For one thing, they multiply our opportunities for unique, enriching experiences. When taking the family for a drive at 60 miles per hour, speculate on why the trip is possible and what is propelling you at this speed! Think of the situation were only shank’s mare available. Or why you can read a book instead of washing the dishes, or write a poem instead of foraging for food. You will, perhaps, stand in awe of and give some credit to the robots for relieving you of the necessity of sloshing around in the rice paddies or scrounging for rabbits so you won’t starve or, yes, from making buggy whips.

  Or even more: perhaps these robots have something to do with your very existence. Less than 400 years ago this land we call the U.S.A. had only an Indian population of perhaps 250,000, certainly not many more. Why so small? It was not because of the Indians’ inability to breed, nor because of unfriendly climate or infertile soils, nor for any lack of natural resources. It was because a foraging economy would not support more than then existed. Assuming no improvement over that type of economy—no robots except some horses—the chances are at least 800 to 1 that you would never have known adult life.

  But back to Grandfather: he never saw Kansas City; indeed, through his teen years, he never went beyond his walking orbit. I, on the other hand, have visited Hong Kong, as far from home as I can get; my air mileage alone is now equal to eighty loops around the world. Grandfather didn’t have time enough to do very many things. I have the time to do a thousand times as many things, and by reason of your and my mechanical helpers, the robots. This, of course, explains why timesavers multiply busy-ness—there are so many more things we can do. For good or ill, we are far busier than our ancestors ever were.

Grandfather never talked over a telephone in his life. I reach my son—2,600 miles away—in 10 seconds; I have talked across the Pacific, to Buenos Aires, Gander, London, Mexico, and to every nook and cranny of the U.S.A. If the robots have disemployed me, it is from the limited opportunities Grandfather experienced. There is a better way to put it: the robots have liberated, not disemployed, humans.

  Automation Follows Labor Shortages

  Robots put people out of work? On the contrary, robots become economically feasible and appear in our lives only as the result of a scarcity of human labor to accomplish all the tasks we want done. It doesn’t pay to do by machine what can be done more cheaply by hand. Businessmen tend to mechanize or automate after, rather than before, laborers have moved away from a particular job.

  For example, our operation at FEE calls for three large mailings every two months, requiring 20 workers for two days on each occasion. When we began two decades ago, we trained local housewives for this part-time work and paid the hourly minimum wage of 80 cents. Afterward, the minimum was raised to $1.00 and later to $1.25. Now assume that FEE was on the brink of bankruptcy, that is, at that critical point where a few hundred dollars would tip the scales toward institutional survival or closing, and that the latest minimum wage raised our costs to that point. What to do? We bought some robots in the form of a machine: press a button and it automatically collates, stuffs, seals, and stamps, doing the work of the women, quicker and at lower cost. True, the part-time women lost their “pin money” jobs but the rest of us were saved from losing ours.

  Most people will say that the robots disemployed the women, a grave error. The culprit was none other than the minimum wage law—governmental interference with the free market. It was bad law that sent our women back to housework. As these costs of governmental intervention rise year after year, more and more employers are faced with failure. The robots have performed a remarkable and incalculable rescue mission.

  There isn’t anything wrong with automation per se. The serious problems cropping up are not because of the robots but because of the people who are blessed with them. These problems, as near as I can fathom them, have their origin in an imbalance between technological know-how and economic, political, and moral wisdom. The former is remindful of an explosion; the decline of the latter amounts to apostasy. This is dangerous, for an increase in the robots we command calls for a commensurate increase in understanding and virtue. It isn’t at all promising to put a chimp at the wheel of a truck, a truck driver at the controls of a jet, or a people in command of a powerful system of robots the interworkings of which they but dimly understand. If we aren’t to be done in by our own creations, what then is it we must understand?

  The Fruits of Freedom

  The kind of automation that proliferates opportunities as to varieties of employment and, at the same time, multiplies the kinds of goods and services that may be obtained in exchange for the fruits of one’s labor, is exclusively a free market phenomenon.3 Such automation, as is so often demonstrated, cannot be transplanted into or copied by authoritarian societies. Robots that serve the masses are first the outcroppings of freedom and then of capital formation, and cannot exist where these two absolute essentials are absent. For instance, steel mills have been built in Russia, India, and other socialist countries, the effect on the masses of people being further impoverishment. Automobiles are not being produced for the masses in Russia; only the Commissars can have them. And so it goes. The point of all this is that if we substitute the governmentally planned economy for the free market, the mass-serving robots will tend to disappear until they become as scarce and useless here as they are in the USSR! This is only a part of the understanding that must accompany our increase in technological know-how. There is much more.

  As only casual observation reveals, automation spells specialization—in our own case, to a fantastic degree. This, in turn, increases interdependence. Is it not self-evident that all of us—no exceptions—have become dependent on the robots but also on the free, uninhibited exchanges of our numerous specializations? In a word, we are at a level in interdependence that can only be sustained by a highly intelligent, perceptive, and moral people. It should be plain that when we extravagantly automate and do not at the same time know more about, and practice with increasing scrupulosity, the economic and moral facts of life, disaster lies ahead.

  One can hardly imagine a societal situation more chaotic than one with specialization on the increase as freedom in transactions is on the wane. As robots increase and augment our specialization, so must there be an increase in free and willing exchange, freedom of choice, the free market. As robots appear, coercion—governmental control and rigging of the market, for instance—must correspondingly disappear. Simple reasoning as well as all the evidence attest to this fact. Yet an alarming number of people in all walks of life, even businessmen, are blind to it.

  Unused Minds Deteriorate

  For reasons not easy to explain, understanding appears to be decreasing as robots are increasing. Is there, perhaps, a correlation between struggle and sound thinking and, conversely, between easy affluence and intellectual decadence? Of one thing we are certain: our robots confer more and more material satisfactions with less and less effort on our part.

  The present trend is toward increasing material affluence in return for decreasing effort. Literally millions of individuals are approaching a something-for-nothing way of life. Obviously, it is difficult to keep mentally rigorous when the robots are doing one’s work. Indeed, mental rigor may be impossible unless the individual experiences a cultural growth commensurate with growth in affluence. This is to say that the individual may vegetate unless he realizes that the purpose of wealth is to release him from drudgery so that he may more vigorously pursue those potentialities and aptitudes uniquely his own. If the robots are to induce our getting away from or out of life—vegetating, rather than getting ever deeper into life—growing, then the late Dean Inge’s observation is indeed prophetic, “Nothing fails like success.”

  The struggle to overcome is the genesis of becoming. It is the law of polarity, the tension of the opposites, that spells growth, development, progress; at least this appears to be Nature’s dictum. Men need new frontiers to explore and occupy and transcend, not in the form of politically contrived obstacles—heaven forbid!—but in the form of challenges worthy of the mind of the individual human being striving toward his potential. When the struggle for existence is eased, higher level struggles must be substituted: expanding awareness, perception, consciousness, in a word, difficult, hard-to-achieve, intellectual, moral, and spiritual goals. This is by way of saying that disaster cannot be avoided unless a growth in wisdom be up to and on a parity with a growth in technological know-how.

  Obstacles as Stepping-Stones

  But here is the rub: material hardship, once overcome, does not and cannot serve as the obstacle, the tension, the springboard for this required growth in wisdom, this flexing and expansion of the intellectual and spiritual faculties. Material hardship is an obstacle supplied by Nature, or, if you prefer, by the environment. But once it is overcome, man is on his own; he has to make his own obstacles in the form of rationally constructed goals. And is not this creating of our own obstacles, perhaps, the profound lesson we should learn from the robot explosion?

  The robots presuppose our knowing how to live with them. They, as an auto, TNT, sulphuric acid, a jet plane, are dangerous in the hands of those who do not know their properties, of those who are unaware of automation’s deeply significant meaning. The robot army, in its present dimensions, requires, at a minimum, an understanding of private property, free market, limited government principles—economic and political enlightenment—far superior to any such understanding ever achieved up to this period in history.

    Next, we might consider the point of reference we should use to determine whether this explosion has us on or off course. How are we to tell? Growth we are having, but is it healthy or unhealthy? Should we measure our progress by so-called national growth or by individual growth? . . .

Deeper Than You Think - Digital Book

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