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As robots take more jobs from humans we can expect a massive unemployment problem. Let's start planning for that now. I'll limit this discussion to the United States just to keep things simple, but the concepts should be applicable everywhere.

I'm about to describe a huge government program. Please don't leave comments saying huge government programs are never a good idea unless you have a better idea that doesn't involve the government.

So let's say the plan I'm about to propose has about a 20% chance of working. That still beats the do-nothing option of massive unemployment leading to certain doom.

My plan is to turn the United States into more of a tourist attraction than it already is by building vast networks of interconnected canals across the nation. These canals would accommodate hotel and residential houseboats. And let's say the houseboats are all computerized so you just plug in your destination and go have a drink on the top deck while the boat does the rest, including making its own scheduled maintenance and refueling stops.

I'm stealing the Google self-driving car concept and applying it to a canal network with houseboats. The boats would be aware of other boats and obstacles and avoid them.

Now let's say that by law the only boats allowed on the canals are the self-driving and highly "green" types that don't pose much risk of polluting the canals. Then the canals become a solution to water shortages across the country as well, so long as they are fed by Canadian water sources. So this project is also a partial solution to climate change and the water shortages. And because these canal routes will crisscross the country, perhaps it makes sense to build out the next generation of our energy grid along the same rights-of-ways.

I imagine all of the house boats on the canal being built with a common docking standard and individual identity beacons. If you want to dock with a friend's boat for the day, just enter the identity numbers for your two boats, wait for the confirmation, and the boats do the rest. The two boats might be miles apart when you program them, and they adjust speeds accordingly to meet. You'd use the same method to dock with restaurant boats, gift shop boats, and other service crafts.

I can imagine that a portion of the house boats are rented to tourists and another portion are full-time homes for retirees and people who just prefer continual travel. Each boat will have full Internet access so folks can work and travel at the same time.

I would think that at some point the cost of a houseboat would be far below the cost of a home because there is no land involved and the houseboats would be energy-efficient. So this could also be an answer to affordable housing.

Obviously robots would be a big part of the labor force for a massive project of this size. But you'd also need huge numbers of humans for planning and implementing. And if the human workers for the canal project are the first occupants of the houseboats, their cost of living might be so low that they become competitive with robot labor. A big reason that human labor costs so much is that our lifestyles are relatively expensive. The boating lifestyle could be designed from the bottom up to be inexpensive (yet awesome). When humans can live inexpensively, they can charge less for their labor and compete with robots for a bit longer.

This one massive project would modernize the energy grid, solve the water crisis, expand tourism, create affordable housing, stimulate the economy, solve unemployment, reduce shipping costs, and make travel affordable.

And it would touch every part of the country. Every town along the canal system would want to create a commercial center and docking area for boaters.

What do you think?

[Update: It occurred to me that you could also design the canals with power generators at the bottom that are powered by the current. And you might as well lay fiber along the route while you're at it, with wifi towers all along the route. Oh, and let's add lots of edible fish to the canals so boaters can catch as they go.]

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com (Scheduling made simple)

Time.com says my latest book is not crazy.

 


 

 
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Mar 31, 2014
It's not going to happen for at least 20 years, so no need to be concerned? Interesting attitude.
 
 
Mar 31, 2014
@nasch:

>> This is just the first result I found of someone making computers that learn: http://www.theverge.com/2013/10/11/4827280/qualcomm-brain-inspired-learning-computer-chip
There are many others.

Did you read the article? It starts with the words "Computer technology still lags far behind the abilities of the human brain" and then describes some sort of robot that performs some sort of learning that is about the same level that a jellyfish or housefly applies. Of course there are attempts at learning machines, and there have been for decades, but the results so far are pathetic. Of course they will succeed eventually but what I'm saying is that won't happen in the next 20 years, so don't worry about robots taking away human jobs until then. The robot in the article surely does not endanger the job of anyone.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 30, 2014
@NaturalBornKieler "The alternative to pre-programming would be some sort of self-learning system, but such a thing is nowhere at the horizon. There is no such thing as artificial intelligence or learning."

This is just the first result I found of someone making computers that learn: http://www.theverge.com/2013/10/11/4827280/qualcomm-brain-inspired-learning-computer-chip

There are many others.

@HippyLynne: " If you can produce the same amount of goods with less labor, why not just cut everyone's work hours and pay them the same amount as before?"

Why would a business pay you the same amount for less labor? It doesn't matter how much you're producing (unless it's because of what a great worker you in particular are compared to other workers), all that matters is supply and demand. If there's someone else able and willing to work your job for the same hours and pay you're getting now (and in this economy there's a good chance there is), your employer will have no interest in cutting their output and keeping costs the same.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 29, 2014
Scott: "I would think that at some point the cost of a houseboat would be far below the cost of a home because there is no land involved and the houseboats would be energy-efficient."
Not really sure about that. Ok, you save on air conditioning, but you add an engine and you need local energy storage, which incurs lots of losses.

I'm wondering what the difference is to the alternative of having everyone live in buses and drive along the existing road network.

Also, supposing half the population does that and three people go in one boat, you are talking fifty million house boats - who is going to pay for those? And boats need way more maintenance than houses.

Also, I think Canada will not readily agree to be sucked dry by its southern neighbour.

I liked your ocean going cities more.

Oh - and the problem of laid off workers remains unsolved.

On the other hand, if someone has no money but working hands, the price of, say robot farmed food is irrelevant. He will grow his own food, simply because there is no paying work and therefore no robot farmed food for him. If he can afford robot food, he isnot unemployed and your problem disappears.
 
 
Mar 27, 2014
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Mar 27, 2014
Sounds to me like a contemporary take on the concept behind the Canal du Midi in the South of France (and probably all the other European canals). Originally conceived to make it easier to trade across the country it now provides irrigation to hundreds of farms and is a major tourist draw with loads of canal boat companies operating on it. Initially built in the the 1600s and steadily improved until the late 1800s, if my memory is correct, it is once again being maintained and improved. Fantastic place for a holiday and loads of people live cheaply on boats on the European canal network.

It was the railways which caused the decline in the use of canals.
 
 
Mar 26, 2014
I once spent 2 weeks traveling around Lake Powell via houseboat. Your idea for making the United States a giant Canal Colony is genius. The two-weeks on Lake Powell was the best summer I ever had. If that experience could be replicated across the country through Canal vacations, I would retire right now. Maybe we could do some "Disneyesque" regional resorts (The Louisiana Swamp Redneck Adventure)? Can't wait to travel gnome my reservation!

http://thelostchileanminer.wordpress.com/
 
 
Mar 26, 2014
[My plan is to turn the United States into more of a tourist attraction than it already is by building vast networks of interconnected canals across the nation]

What makes you think tourists want canals? Take a walk to your nearest irrigation canal and tell me how scenic you think it is.

You might argue that people already flock to lakes and rivers. I would reply that they flock to *some* of them (the pretty ones) about 5 days a year. Natural beauty is a key factor and it's unlikely that a vast gov't canal project would make anything any prettier than the california aqueduct. Last time I checked, there weren't hordes of tourists lining up to visit the aqueduct.

[ ...building vast networks of interconnected canals]

Yeah, the problem is with 'vast'. Canals don't scale. Why is anyone going to want to spend 5 days floating through the Central Valley wasteland from SF to LA - so they can see Turlock? No, they're going to fly or drive or take a train. There's a reason that the only cities with a 'canal' theme are pre-18th century. That's when canals stopped being practical for transporting anything but water.

I mean honestly - can you imagine wasting a week floating to Chicago when you can fly there in 3 hours?
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 26, 2014
The increased productivity caused an increase in standard of living. Instead of people working only 25 hours per week, they wanted color TVs, iPods, computers, mobile phones, nice cars. You could certainly survive on half pay, but you wouldn't want the standard of living in the 1800s.
The typical teenager today has a much higher standard of living than King George III.
Due to robots and the microchip, it is possible to have more leisure. Do a quick search for Mr. Money Mustache. In fact you do have more leisure.
Do you know how hard life was before the industrial revolution?

We may never agree, because I hear:
- Distributing the dividends ..more evenly across society
- Providing ... retraining
- (giving) people on public assistance ...without severe cutoffs
- ... the damage caused by the loss of the hitherto taxpayer-dependent heavy industries.

In human society the correct answer has never been to take more and more from those who have, and distribute evenly to everyone else. It's not sustainable.
Since 'sustainable' is used to beat me over the head, to get me to do what you want, can I use that weapon on you?


 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 26, 2014
Houseboats aren't going to be cheaper than homes (except maybe McMansions) because doing things on water is way, way more expensive than doing things on land; energy efficiency isn't going to do much about the corrosion of your houseboat's hull (whereas a house on land will endure less corrosive stress over the same period of time). People evolved to be on land, not water.
 
 
Mar 26, 2014
I believe a system of public ownership will be inevitable, once production is sufficiently automated to "allow" a large proportion of society to survive without working. Not Communism, but certainly Socialism. Public ownership has upsides as well as downsides, and i'd rather a democratic government controlled the means of automatic production than a nest of insurance companies and corporations.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 26, 2014
Obviously, robots will displace jobs. But this will only result in unemployment for people who have put all their eggs in one basket and aren't able to adapt fast enough to the changing landscape (that's true even now albeit at a slower pace). If you can acquire skills for whatever new jobs will become available, you'll be homesafe.
I'm guessing that in reality, a significant portion of the worlds' population have unknowingly educated themselves into a corner and it will take a large investment to retool them.
 
 
+9 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 26, 2014
@HippyLynne

I feel a strong emotional appeal from your argument, but I am sceptical that it could prevail in real life. This is because in the global economy, nothing is that straightforward.

The last time I heard talk of a 'leisure society' was back in the Britain of the late 1970s, when even supposedly sensible publications like the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph told us that an 'age of leisure' was supposedly just around the corner, made possible by the advent of the cheap and ubiquitous microchip that was going to revolutionize the efficiency of commerce and industry alike. (Hence the British platitude of the day, 'Chips with everything'.) Few people were going to have to work more than about 25 hours a week, and most would be able to afford to go on vacation for at least two months every year.

Clearly, something went very wrong with that vision.

We achieved the efficiency improvements, but the average person's working hours stayed the same or actually increased (even while unemployment burgeoned); some business owners, corporations (especially banks and utilities) and speculators got very rich, very fast; most people's wages stagnated; a lot of people found their occupations being deskilled as computerization took over their functions and revealed organizational and logistical inefficiencies (or supplanted now-obsolete hierarchies of management), in addition to automating manufacturing processes; companies thus embarked on a consistent policy of shedding staff whenever they could that continues to the present moment; urban decay accelerated; and today, almost every Briton who is employed feels under greater time pressure, and economically less secure, than at any time since the end of World War II.

What was lacking in the UK was any effective mechanisms for managing the technological transition taking place in the economy at what actually turned out to be the dawn of a period of financial turbulence that had been in the making for decades. This was characterized by the newly elected (in mid-1979) Conservative government's desire to shed its expensive, mostly loss-making taxpayer-funded heavy industries, coupled with an excessively ideologically-driven belief in the efficiency of the market in regulating most aspects of the economy (a belief that was belied by the fact that in practice the British government felt compelled to intervene heavily to control the money supply, due to the continued low growth in the economy and the risk of stagflation setting in).

So as a result, despite the brief technologically-fuelled optimism of the late 70s. there was no progress in the following areas:

- Distributing the dividends from increased technological efficiency more evenly across society

- Providing easily-accessible, affordable and high-quality retraining for displaced workers who found themselves in an unfamiliar new IT-driven employment landscape

- Facilitating a smoother transition for unemployed people from dependence on public assistance back into work without severe cutoffs acting as a disincentive to obtain a new or replacement job

- Developing, in conjunction with the private sector, educators and other stakeholders, an effective and workable strategy for repairing the damage caused by the loss of the hitherto taxpayer-dependent heavy industries.

Those were some of the key public-policy failures.

Elsewhere in the UK economy, privately-owned companies (quite a few of them newly privatized former state monopolies) were finding themselves having to contend with new, more efficient competitors overseas as the world of commerce started to globalize in earnest. They were thus disincentivized from ceding any significant degree of their own efficiency gains to their employees; and in the case of the privatized utility companies, they also switched the focus of their attention from delivering efficient services to their customers to maximizing shareholder value via mergers and acquisitions and all kinds of other financial shenanigans. Some long-established private-sector industries, such as the manufacture of textiles and chemicals, suffered greatly as new lower-cost competitors in the developing world began to eat heavily into their markets.

Meanwhile, the Conservative government's deregulatory, neoliberal, privatizing, pro-capitalist and anti-union ethos also encouraged businesses to resist any temptation to relinquish more of their profits to their employees; at the same time, these workers were feeling their own bargaining power slipping away as unemployment continued to rise.

So it was a time of untrammelled greed and selfishness among those relatively few companies and individuals who were well positioned to take advantage of the new financial arbitrage opportunities opened up by privatization and financial deregulation; an uncertain one for the many companies that were having to adjust to the realities of a rapidly globalizing marketplace; and a miserable one for the several million individuals who found themselves getting the short end of the stick. Entire industries that had previously been government-operated (such as steelmaking, shipbuilding, coal-mining and car-making) were decimated overnight as government funding was slashed and the workers' unions were intentionally busted. Such a restructuring was clearly necessary, but the pace at which it was carried out was brutal. It's no exaggeration to say that it brought the economy of the country's former industrial heartland, namely northern Britain and the Midlands, practically to its knees.

Since then, the country's economic focus has shifted even more heavily towards London's financial centre; the illicit influx of (or finding a safe home for) no-questions-asked billions funnelled into it or though it by drug barons and corrupt public officials who have stolen, or continue to steal, from their fellow-countrymen back home; the ever-expanding empire of inventing, manufacturing and selling weapons to any overseas regime that wants to oppress its own people or intimidate or attack a neighbouring country; and the heavily-propagandized rise of service industries employing legions of people at rock-bottom wages – this is more or less the picture today.

For many people living in Britain, the 'age of leisure' has turned out to be the impoverished leisure of the unemployment office, or else a pauperized retirement after the value of their savings went down the tubes in some economic bust or other. In addition, almost no British employer today offers pensions with guaranteed benefits, despite the general rapid rise in company profits over the past few years. For the wealthiest few, of course, it is a different story – but then, so it always has been.
 
 
Mar 25, 2014
I have always had a problem with the idea that technology which reduces the amount of labor necessary to produce something should lead to unemployment. If you can produce the same amount of goods with less labor, why not just cut everyone's work hours and pay them the same amount as before? That would lead to people having more leisure time and spending time and money in other ways, actually stimulating the economy. If I were to suddenly make three times my normal salary for the same amount of work I wouldn't keep working as many hours. I might for a while to catch up, but then I'd reduce my work load, and paycheck, so could enjoy life.

[So, communism? -- Scott]
 
 
Mar 25, 2014
I envision a concrete trench across a desert, parallel to the freeway for ease of construction and repair, where you enjoy the benefits of shadeless sun, the sounds of the freeway, and float-by windows at the usual fast food chains.

Canal-side destinations include misplaced chain hotels -- those convenient-to-nothing settings for low-level corporate seminars ("Direct Mail in the 21st Century") and stockholder meetings meant to avoid stockholders. Also some outlet malls and Native American casinos.

At one point it was designed to wend through some attractive woodland, but that was all leveled to build shoddy timeshares or retirement homes with "Venice" in their names.

One small town will be revitalized by the canal. Some auto repair shops will pull your boat ashore, fit it with wheels, and sell you a car to pull it.

 
 
+14 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 25, 2014
The real problem is the tyranny of compounding.
Productivity per worker, after inflation, has increased 2-3% per year, for the last few CENTURIES.
Lowballing that, you can see that we double the "stuff" produced per worker every 36 years, meaning that a worker today produces 8 times as much stuff as a worker in 1906, and 64 times as much as a worker in 1798.

64 times!!!

Why did free time become so important to fill in the 1900's? Why did appliances appear in the home in the 1950's? Why did marketing become so important in the 1960's? Because we had to use all this "stuff" we were creating!
Why do we throw away a phone every year, a computer every two years, and buy new furniture every few years? Because we have been taught to throw stuff away to make room for new stuff, just to use up all the stuff we are making.
Why do we pay seniors to not work? To make less stuff.
Why do we have 20% of our workforce playing with numbers (banking industry and financial services)? So they are not making more stuff for us all to drown in.

You want to know the real scary thing? Generation Y seems to be renouncing the "buy more stuff" idea, if they don't fall for it, we are looking at a huge change in our economy...
 
 
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 25, 2014
If robots are taking our jobs then tourism will not be a solution. In order for tourism to happen there must be enough people with enough means to travel and take a vacation. Vacations are for job havers, or doing well business havers. There are not enough robot owners for their traveling to produce enough tourism to support a country.
 
 
Mar 25, 2014
What about a retirement problem as well?

You need to be working in order to save up for retirement. However when robots take the jobs, no one will be able to save for retirement.
 
 
Mar 25, 2014
Per the BLS (I used January in each number, so I could compare raw numbers without the "seasonal adjustments" which appear to be nonsense)

Working Age Population:
1/2008: 232,616,000
1/2010: 236,832,000
1/2012: 242,269,000
1/2014: 246,915,000

Labor Force ("Have Job/Looking")
1/2008: 152,828,000
1/2010: 152,957,000
1/2012: 153,485,000
1/2014: 154,381,000

Employed
1/2008: 144,607,000
1/2010: 136,809,000
1/2012: 139,944,000
1/2014: 143,526,000

Unemployment
1/2008: 8,221,000
1/2010: 16,147,000
1/2012: 13,541,000
1/2014: 10,855,000

When you pull back the curtain, our working age population has increased by 14,300,000 people over 6 years. In that time Employment has DECREASED by 1,100,000 jobs.

You can see a trend of job growth in recent years, but it's inadequate to cover job loss in the greater recession scale, and even as a "trend of job growth" over the past few years just nurses abysmal employment levels relative to population growth -- with no overall improvement.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 25, 2014
Here's an article from the Nate Sliver team, discussing the probability of if (when?) low end jobs will be replaced by robots:

http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/your-new-fast-food-worker-a-robot/


Summary: low end workers better start digging canals!
 
 
 
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