- I didn’t react to the “cost of materials and energy” argument as forcefully as I should have. I really, really, really don’t think this is going to be an issue. Machines are much more efficient than humans — that’s sort of the whole point. It’s not at all a subtle difference, but rather a massive leap (they don’t call the first sweeping wave of automation a revolution for nothing). The price of technology continues to fall. And the energy costs we’re talking about are slight: keeping a Roomba charged takes about a third as much power as illuminating the lamp on your nightstand — and that’s if the lamp is using a compact fluorescent bulb.
- Tim’s discussion of our hardwired preference for other humans is an interesting one. But I’m not sure this is a problem that will be as resistant to engineering as he thinks. Consider Paro, the robot seal. By all accounts he works pretty well at soothing nursing home patients. Tim’s probably right that people would prefer — and pay for — a human R.N. rather than Rosie the Robot in nursing scrubs. But if a suite of relatively simple assistive technologies is cheaper than either — partially automated showers, biomonitors, pill reminders and the like — they’ll probably settle for that.
Human labor remaining competitive with robots seems to assume that one of two things will happen.
First, wages for unskilled labor could be pushed even further down. Presumably this is supposed to happen as average income continues to rise. I’m not sure how this can be considered feasible, either practically or ethically — we’re basically talking about reinventing the serf.
Second, robots could become dramatically less economical due to some sort of resource or energy shock. But given robotic efficiency (and the reality of their still-falling prices), it’s hard for me to envision this happening except in the sort of catastrophic scenario in which maintaining human employment levels would be the least of our worries.