43 comments on “Timmy elsewhere

  1. I’d profoundly disagree with something you’ve written there, Tim.

    “it’s not large companies that create jobs, it’s new and small ones.”
    No. New & small companies do not create jobs. Not net jobs. Each job in a new, small enterprise is created because something is being done more productively than somewhere else in the economy. So the jobs lost elsewhere will be greater than the jobs created. It’s the opportunity cost thing. And there really are a vanishingly small number of things to be done that don’t displace something that’s already being done elsewhere.*
    The new jobs are created out of the general increase in wealth, the increase in individual productivity produces. And there’s nothing there to say where those new jobs will be created. They’re just as likely to be created in a large company as a small one. (Successful small businessman treats himself to new car.)

    *Of course the State can create a job at the stroke of a pen because it’ll be doing something that hasn’t been done before. ( Or likely needed to be done.) But it’ll be needed to be paid for. And the wealth to do so comes from the total of wealth available. So another job will vanish to compensate.

  2. These new “textile mills” will destroy the jobs of the cottage weavers! Oh noes!

    PS businesses don’t create jobs. They recognise the existence of a job that nobody is currently doing, and they start doing it.

  3. I’m not sure I’m going to even pretend to understand b(n)is’ argument or Tims, I do know that if you replace someone who bashes metal with a robot you can train the metal basher to do something else in days. Not sure you can do it quite so quickly with more highly skilled people, once the robots are replacing technical writers, scandium dealers, oilfield risk assessors, and porn cartoonists. Maybe they can make metal bashers out of us all, not that metal bashers are needed any more.

    And the economic progress thing, it’s all well and good, but it is true that increasing wealth can detract from the experience of what it is to be human. If we reach that true communism where we can consume all we want for zero input of human labour, what will there be left to strive for? You will find a lot of people busy in their palatial workrooms trying to further perfect the design of the (already perfect) wheel for the sheer reward of doing it. Others out starting civil wars (presumably between robot armies) for the hell of it.

  4. If we ever do reach the stage where demand saturates, then work hours will simply reduce, gracefully, to an eventual utopian zero point. This is a Good Thing, not a Bad Thing. We seem to be a long way from saturating demand though, so not something anyone alive today can dream of.

    If we reach that true communism where we can consume all we want for zero input of human labour, what will there be left to strive for?

    “Communism”?

    Anyway, the argument that jobs themselves are a Good Thing because they give you something to “strive for” is not one I care for much. The thing most people “strive for” at work is to not be bored out of their minds; it’s a myth of a relatively small proportion of the population who have these “career” things that they think are “fulfilling” or some such nonsense.

    The rest of us can think of nothing better than having all our time to devote to family and friends and writing that book about ancient Japanese architecture we never seem to be able to make time for.

    The only purpose of a job is production. If production, one day, were achieved without any human intervention at all, it really would be Utopian.

  5. Yes, communism, I think even Tim backs me up on that one – we will have something akin to true communism when no further human labour of any sort is needed to meet all of humankind’s desires.

    In purely economic terms, people do actually value production, not just consumption, and I think the Smithian argument misses this point completely. Perhaps because in Smith’s days almost all work was mind and body-destroying shite, and there was no prospect of those with actually rewarding jobs losing them to the massed ranks of the underclass/Indians/robots.

    Well, not everyone takes pleasure in creating and doing stuff, but enough people now do for this to have economic effects – e.g. it’s cheaper to hire people to jobs with high non-monetary rewards. In fact in today’s labour market (as opposed to Smith’s), this is so important that I suspect the sum total of human happiness would actually be reduced, if some of those highly rewarding but not highly-rewarded jobs (nursing the classic example) are taken over by the bots. But since it’s only the consumer that matters and we don’t care about the producer the displaced producer can go have their morning cup of vodka.

  6. @BiG
    ” I do know that if you replace someone who bashes metal with a robot you can train the metal basher to do something else in days. Not sure you can do it quite so quickly with more highly skilled people, once the robots are replacing technical writers, scandium dealers, oilfield risk assessors, and porn cartoonists.”

    I’m grateful you’ve confirmed something I’ve always suspected. The more “highly skilled” people are the less capable they are of performing any useful function when their skillset is no longer required. I’d imagine this applies particularly to lawyers, accountants etc etc etc Us humble hewers of wood & drawers of water will always find something to remuneratively occupy ourselves with.

    Which in part answers your point. With reference to the “zero cost of stuff” society, One thing the recently deceased & socialist* author Iain Banks had right in his Culture novels. Stuff costing zero does not mean people have no value. It just means you can’t value people against stuff. If it costs a dozen Lamborghini’s to get your hair cut by a garrulous, amusing barber, it’s probably overvaluing the cars.

    *I do like that as a phrase. Gives a warm glow.

  7. @ your PS, ian.
    That’s essentially what I’m saying. It’s what people need creates the opportunity to supply the need. The wealthier we get, the more we need. That’s where the jobs come from. Not from producers producing.

  8. Yes, communism, I think even Tim backs me up on that one – we will have something akin to true communism when no further human labour of any sort is needed to meet all of humankind’s desires.

    It doesn’t sound much like communism to me, which is about production (owning the means thereof). If on the other hand it is “true communism”, then bring the true communism on, is what I say.

    In purely economic terms, people do actually value production, not just consumption, and I think the Smithian argument misses this point completely. Perhaps because in Smith’s days almost all work was mind and body-destroying shite, and there was no prospect of those with actually rewarding jobs losing them to the massed ranks of the underclass/Indians/robots.

    It’s not a “Smithian” argument. It’s the recognition that currently people work because they have to, and people always have worked because they have to, and if you can get paid for doing something you actually enjoy, fair enough, but dont pretend that any significant part of the labour force work for that reason. It’s a joy of a relatively minor cultural elite.

    But since it’s only the consumer that matters and we don’t care about the producer the displaced producer can go have their morning cup of vodka.

    Indeed. Or go and spend some time educating their child, walking the dog, perfecting their guitar playing, or doing any of the other innumerable things they’d do if they weren’t stuck on a Tesco checkout.

  9. B(n)iS>

    “The more “highly skilled” people are the less capable they are of performing any useful function when their skillset is no longer required. I’d imagine this applies particularly to lawyers, accountants etc etc etc Us humble hewers of wood & drawers of water will always find something to remuneratively occupy ourselves with.”

    I don’t think that’s really accurate, except maybe insofar as those doing practical jobs have already self-selected for practicality. It would take a while to retrain a highly skilled person to the same level of skill in another task, whatever that task might be. Equally, it wouldn’t take too long to train an accountant to bash metal or whatever.

    For what it’s worth, my CV is split fairly evenly between high-level thunking work, professional stuff, and practical/hands-on bashing, humping, fixing, and clattering. I can’t say I’ve found it more difficult to pick up, say, business process analysis than, I don’t know, gas-fitting. I’ve also not found a lot of difference in the earning potential, either.

    Also for what it’s worth, I know various extremely well-paid fairly young* professionals, contractors, and so-on. The best paid of them all is a Polish painter – although it helps that he doesn’t pay much tax. (* I don’t count the older ones who’ve made partner by now or whatever.) When you can make the equivalent of £200k a year working 35 hours a week painting flats and houses, it’s clear there’s still plenty of value in certain kinds of manual labour.

  10. @Dave
    “Equally, it wouldn’t take too long to train an accountant to bash metal or whatever.”

    Is this all accountants or, say, one particular accountant picked at…er…random ?

  11. B(n)iS>

    I was thinking most accountants, a typical accountant. I mentioned self-selection before, and I’m sure that at the extremes there are people who are just really bad at swinging hammers, and they’re a lot more likely to have become accountants than hammer-swingers.

    Actually, I’m reminded of something from when I was a kid. My dad’s a professional in a similar profession to accountancy, but he’s very good at fixing/building stuff too. One of his colleagues is just about the least practical man on the planet. After my dad took apart a fridge, made it work, put it back together, someone commented that [colleague] couldn’t have done that. My dad responded that of course he could, because the chap was extremely systematic and persistent: first he’d have bought a book on refrigerator repair and learned the contents, then he’d have read a repair manual for the specific refrigerator in question, then taken it apart making lists and diagrams and labelling each piece as he went; finally he’d have replaced whatever was broken and reversed the process.

    I find that it’s rarely hard to do a job as well as a specialist, but it’s very hard to do something you’re not suited for or skilled in with the same speed.

  12. There will still be employees required.

    Once the metal-bashing-bot commences bashing, you will need (aside from those producing the bots)::

    a) A maintenance engineer
    b) An IT guy
    c) A Bot Manager
    d) A Bot Director
    e) A processes guy
    f) Etc

    g) A back-up metal basher (human, Polish preferred)

  13. @Ian B,

    We already have a very substantial proportion of the work force not working because they don’t have to – they can live off the productivity of the remaining productive workers instead. And a substantial proportion of those are people quite happy with their situation – in other words the limited amount of consuming you can do on zero productive activity is already enough for a lot of people to put their feet up and be happy with what they have.

    In a world with zero cost of stuff you will have no garrulous conversational barbers. Since they can just go and pick 12 lambos off the street why would they want to work for it? A world of no work (rather a world where the incentive to work is so pitifully small that few will) will completely change the nature of human interactions. Might even be better, I’m not really into sci fi enough to comment.

  14. @JackC,

    Read somewhere recently (can’t remember if it was the Torygraph or Frankfurter Allgemeine) that the driverless taxi could become the first non human-owned business concept. A cab that “owned” itself, hired out to customers via a smartphone app, bought its own petrol, booked itself in for maintenance and repairs, and even calculated how much to save out of its fares to pay for its own replacement (or two replacements) at the end of its working life.

    Is there any good reason why that couldn’t happen? All it would take is some philanthropist to pay for the first set of cars and then set them loose.

  15. @BiG
    “In a world with zero cost of stuff you will have no garrulous conversational barbers. Since they can just go and pick 12 lambos off the street why would they want to work for it? ”

    It’s obvious isn’t it. They’ll cut hair for someone will provide a service to them.
    Tell you one profession’ll be working.
    The oldest.
    I introduce you to the new currency unit. Backed by true gold. The Hooker Pound

  16. @BIG re the driverless, self-owning cab, I guess it’s a long way off but it’s an intriguing idea.

    No, I can’t think of a reason why it’s impossible.

    I can think of a few why it’s unlikely.

    I also think they would very quickly be vandalised, in the UK at least. Having no legal owner – there’d be no comeback (as English law stands) providing no ancillary damage or harm were caused.

    So we’re probably talking autonomous armoured personnel carriers, with purely defensive GPMGs and chain guns (or perhaps some more futuristic lazer/stun gun thingy) to keep the 23rd century Luddites at bay.

    Re Ian B and the purpose of work, I agree with you and I don’t – this is another of those tricky things that the two halves of my brain just cannot align.

    Sure, I would love to be entirely (instead of just mostly) idle, with all my needs catered to by robot farmers and restaurateurs.

    I just predict masses of unwanted kids, loads of layabouts on street corners, and fat women talking bollocks to each other all day.

    Sort of like Liverpool, but everywhere.

    The Devil really does make work for idle hands where some people are concerned. Sometimes the old timers had it right.

  17. I think the myth of the need for work has a pretty clear traceable history to Protestantism, particularly Calvinism, and their negative impact on Western philosophy. The idea that idle hands do the Devil’s work is pretty clearly indicative of that. It presumes a fallen nature of mankind, and so on.

    There’s no reason that an absence of work will cause “idleness”. It’ll just mean devoting life to what you want to do, rather than what you have to do. Wealthy people seem to have, throughout history, coped with that pretty well. It’s also hard to see why it would produce a particular surfeit of “unwanted” kids. It might however result in more parents who actually get to parent their kids, rather than handing them over to State institutions for the lions share of the time, and who actually see their kids for more than an hour in the evening and at weekends (when they’re more interested in resting from the work week than parenting).

  18. Interested>

    Cheaper than armoured personnel carriers would be to employ someone to sit in the cab and… no, wait…

  19. @b(n)is,

    The robot sex thing has been done in sci fi many times. Lawnmower man wasn’t it, featured a virtual reality sex scene (OK, not robots). Didn’t some Korean guy invent an empathic electronic sex partner? And pretty sure I saw a mainstream scifi flick recently featuring robotic hookers of both sexes. Why settle for an imperfect man you have to develop an imperfect relationship with when chiselled stallions can be had for a mere 12 lambos per multi-orgasmic session?

  20. BiG-

    Because the emotional reward of sex is not just physical release. Which is why better paid prostitutes market themselves on things like “girlfriend experience” and pretend to enjoy themselves. It’s one of the least automatable jobs there is.

  21. I think extrapolating any of this much beyond a 20 year horizon is a fool’s errand. That’s the point at which we going to see (I believe) a move away from an exclusively biological substrate. I don’t fully buy into Ray Kurzweil’s singularity, but I think that the timescale over which one can make meaningful predictions is definitely getting shorter.

  22. @BiG
    Sounds like you read too many comics.
    I can’t think of more than one serious scifi author has dealt with sex with robots. That was Iain Banks, again, whose character specifically instructs the mechanism intended to perfectly impersonate her it was not to have sex with anyone it encountered.
    Quite a few have explored the reverse. A human body with the consciousness temporarily disconnected, so the subject could be rented out as a “meat puppet”.
    Blade Runner’s characters were artificial humans & the story revolves around the problem of them not being robots. A recurring scifi theme.

  23. @IanB
    If you’d ever spoken to WG’s on the subject, you’d find the guy there “just to get the itch scratched” is a small but welcome minority of customers. Most are after some form of emotional charge, the GFE being one of the easier to cater to. They are, after all, primarily actresses.

  24. There’s been many more than one serious author who’s dealt with the subject. You could make an argument that Ovid’s Metamorphoses is an early approach. It’s a moot point anyway. Is a sufficiently advanced android/gynoid, engineered to exhibit ’emotions’, any less real than a call-girl paid to exhibit them? How do you know that anyone you meet, or meat, isn’t faking it?

  25. A woman meets a man in a bar. They talk; they connect; they end up leaving together. They get back to his place, and as he shows her around his apartment, she notices that one wall of his bedroom is completely filled with soft, sweet, cuddly teddy bears. There are three shelves in the bedroom, with hundreds and hundreds of cute, cuddly teddy bears, carefully placed in rows covering the entire wall!It was obvious that he had taken quite some time to lovingly arrange them and she was immediately touched by the amount of thought he had put into organizing the display. There were small bears all along the bottom shelf, medium-sized bears covering the length of the middle shelf, and huge, enormous bears running all the way along the top shelf. She found it strange for an obviously masculine guy to have such a large a collection of Teddy Bears, but doesn’t mention this to him, and actually is quite impressed by his sensitive side.They share a bottle of wine and continue talking and, after a while, she finds herself thinking, “Oh my God! Maybe, this guy could be the one! Maybe he could be the future father my children?”She turns to him and kisses him lightly on the lips. He responds warmly. They continue to kiss, the passion builds, and he romantically lifts her in his arms and carries her into his bedroom where they rip off each other’s clothes and make hot, steamy love. She is so overwhelmed that she responds with more passion, more creativity, more heat than she has ever known. After an intense, explosive night of raw passion with this sensitive guy, they are lying there together in the afterglow. The woman rolls over, gently strokes his chest and asks coyly, “Well, how was it?”The guy gently smiles at her, strokes her cheek, looks deeply into her eyes, and says:”Help yourself to any prize from the middle shelf.”

  26. Lots of things are always in short supply – nice area to live, attractive women etc. Just because things (cars, electricity) become infintely cheap, people will still have to work to have the things in short supply, we can’t all live in a nice area (by definition) and we can’t all have the most beautiful wife (by definition) etc.
    We already see people working much harder than necessary to have the things that are in short supply, house in kensington, better school, better doctor etc etc etc.
    Work will be with us for far into the future as we can see.

  27. Is a sufficiently advanced android/gynoid, engineered to exhibit ‘emotions’, any less real than a call-girl paid to exhibit them?

    Yes, because it’s much easier to fool yourself that the latter’s responses are genuine. It’s like waiting staff who are friendly; they might actually hate you, but they might actually really enjoy their job and being nice to you. So you can choose to believe the latter.

    A major part of the male sexual experience which is often overlooked (particuarlly I’ve noticed by the current epidemic of “Game” fans) is that it provides validation; which is why women fake orgasm. You simply can’t get that validation from something programmed to respond, any more than from paying somebody to laugh at your jokes regardless of whether they find them funny or not. In order to succeed, you need the chance of failure, or at least the illusion of the chance of failure.

  28. Lots of things are always in short supply – nice area to live, attractive women etc.

    The latter won’t be a problem in another century or so. This is going to be the century of biotechnology.

    The land problem will remain, for the foreseeable. The only other things that can remain in short supply are individuals things like paintings and Elvis autographs, and that I suspect means that free commodities may make for a significant bespoke economy, like hand crafted furniture and shit like that.

  29. Clarke’s Third Law, revisited: any sufficiently advanced sex-bot is indistinguishable from a real hooker.

    “You simply can’t get that validation from something programmed to respond” Sez who? This seems to be another one of your arguments from personal incredulity.

  30. Well no, it’s an argument from observation of how people are. Of course, I could be mistaken, but I think if you have a counterargument that demonstrates that it would be more useful than a simple “sez who?”.

    Okay, look at it this way:

    In general, women choose whether or not to have sex with men (men are generally askers, women are choosers). Thus, a male who fails to provide satisfaction doesn’t get asked back for a repeat performance. Therefore, such a male will lose sexual opportunity. Therefore, males are psychologically wired to desire evidence that they have performed well. Therefore, they feel satisfaction at getting positive feedback. Just as in any other performance related situation, people are gratified by positive feedback.

    Now it might be wrong, but it’s a reasonable suggestion, isn’t it?

  31. This conversation reminds me of the story Weizenbaum told of his experience with Eliza operating in the persona of a psychologist/therapist, when many of the people he knew begged for more time with Eliza to talk their troubles through. The ‘Eliza effect’ is quite powerful, and induces the illusion of an emotional response even when the person consciously knows that it’s only a simulation. “I had not realized … that extremely short exposures to a relatively simple computer program could induce powerful delusional thinking in quite normal people.”

    Given the number of Japanese men marrying their computer girlfriends, it’s clearly not beyond the bounds of human experience, and the idea of robot hookers is not implausible. There’s evidently a strong cultural component to it, though, and it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste.

    However, one can perhaps foresee a niche market in providing ethical alternatives to those unfortunates whose interests cannot legally be satisfied with normal adult human relationships. Although it does raise an interesting question. Would necrophiliacs be disturbed that their robot corpse girlfriend was not actually alive? Zombies would appreciate the irony.

  32. NiV-

    I think the Eliza Effect is significant, but overstated. I remember writing similar programs in the early 8 bit days and initially they are superficially convincing; but the user rapidly constructs a mental model of the “mind” they are dealing with and realises its limitations. (Hofstadter wrote some good stuff about this in Godel, Escher, Bach about how one becomes bored with something not when one has seen everything it can do, but when one has mapped its behavioural space).

    So initially the illusion might be quite strong to a naive user, but would fade quite rapidly. Weizenbaum was dealing, with Eliza, with very naive users with negligible experience of computers, attributing more to the program than somebody with modern everyday experience would.

    It’s like the striking difference in computer games playing “AI” opponents compared to real humans in a battleground; not only in the way the battle develops, but in the sense of achievement in defeating another real person.

    This of course is presuming programmed responses. If we crack the Hard AI Problem, this argument doesn’t apply.

  33. Eliza? I first played Eliza on a VAX mini-mainframe in 1978. The same sort of outlay on hardware gets you tens of teraflops now and will get you a petaflop soon. Saying what can and can’t be done with technology almost always founders on the inability of the human mind to think in terms of exponential growth. Twenty years from now, $1000 will buy you something with much* more raw computing power than a human brain. Increases in processing speed do not just appear as quantitative changes but as qualitative. We simply don’t have any mental hook on which the hang the idea of a grapefruit-sized piece of hardware being capable of 10^22 operations per second. People are already interacting with software agents as if they were people. Throw a trillion times as much hardware at the problem and see what happens. There’s nothing particularly special about three pounds of fat and blood vessels. Except no doubt Ian will still have his handy Voight-Kampff app to tell if he’s talking to a cyborg (or he’ll ‘just know’).

    * i.e. several thousand times

  34. The AI problem isn’t a quantity problem, it’s a qualitative one. We’ve known for decades that it’s not a matter of processing. Thought as we experience it is because the brain doesn’t work like computers do. So getting a computer to model it is going to require simulating however it does work. But we have no idea how to do that, as yet.

    We will do one day. And then it will be artificially intelligent. And then as I said, my argument won’t apply.

    But you can process data at zillions of petaflops per second and, on its own, that won’t produce any consciousness at all. And it’s consciousness you need before you’re getting an opinion, rather than a programmed response.

  35. You may be able to process at “zillions of petaflops per second”, but if the software continues to be supplied by Micro$oft it’ll still perform like a 286 with a couple of dry joints. 🙂

  36. The other issue with location, location, location is that by then we’ll have safe (and thus legalisable) aerial personal transportation. Flying cars, that is. In which case it’ll be quicker to get to a major social hub to partake of its services from deep in the countryside than it currently is to get from outer London to inner London.

  37. Ian, you’re still making what I believe is a big mistake: saying ‘is’ and ‘will’ about things that you (or anyone else for that matter) cannot possibly predict. You say AI is a qualitative problem and not a processing power one. You say we will have flying cars. I say anyone who tries to predict technology more than 20 years out is likely to look pretty silly 20 years from the date of their prediction. Hell, five years is a long time. Will we have flying cars in 2035? Will we not? Will most cognitively-undemanding jobs be performed by robots and software? Will they not? I don’t know, but fortunately I know I don’t know, which is why when I see forecasts from government bodies talking about a pension crisis in 2040 or whathaveyou I laugh at the hubris. We do know a few things, which is that Moore’s Law still has over a decade left in it at the moment (this is like oil reserves having been a few decades’ worth for many decades). So raw processing power per constant dollar will be about 2-3 orders of magnitude higher even if we don’t make any further breakthroughs. But that’s where the limits of predictability run out. How that extra power will be wielded is not something that can be forecast with any degree of confidence.

  38. “So initially the illusion might be quite strong to a naive user, but would fade quite rapidly.”

    Indeed, but how long does one normally engage with a prostitute? Do they have a particularly wide conversational range?
    🙂

    “The other issue with location, location, location is that by then we’ll have safe (and thus legalisable) aerial personal transportation. Flying cars, that is”

    Virtual ones, I suspect.

  39. @IanB
    Flying cars? You do have a short memory. We did this before with personal jet-packs. The energy density required to fuel them precludes them from being practical.

  40. We can power them with little nuclear piles.

    The flying cars thing is just speculation, wishful thinking, whatever.

    The qualitative matter of human consciousness isn’t. The mistake of confusing one trick that the human brain can work out how to do (algorithmic logic using precise data) with thought itself is why AI still hasn’t paid off.

  41. The land problem will remain, for the foreseeable.

    Well before the end of ‘the forseeable’, we’ll be able to build any kind of land where you might want to live. At current growth rates, the resources of the solar system could build everyone the kind of place they want to live for thousands of years to come. Heck, even Britain has about an acre of land for every Briton, the government just bans them from building on it.

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