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Busy signal

I'm busy editing a manuscript right now, and when I finish I have to head for a crime fiction festival.

So, while I'm gone, here's the extremely scary and deft HAMDAS-R robot, mashed up with a calm and happy soundtrack by Bjork. (You may need to enable flash video if you routinely run Flashblock in your browser, like I do):

Press Play and welcome your new robotic meat-flensing overlord

(Incidentally, what makes Mayekawa's HAMDAS-R so impressive is not that it's got a bunch of robot arms doing stuff to products on a production line, but that the products in question are not identical cookie-cutter items like automobiles; in other words, it's processing differently-shaped items at high speed.)



Lovely. Well engineered, and presumably decently coded software.

I foresee see a steadily reducing supply of jobs for which it makes economic sense to employ a human, especially at 1st world wages. Is there a solution to this, or is it not going to be a problem?


For meat-deboning, or manuscript-editing? I expect there's plenty of overlap...



covers automated writing of news stories with appropriate slants depending on the target audience.

On the labour supply side, there are people who find meat-deboning intellectually challenging enough that they're not going to find manuscript-editing a viable alternate profession.


The way we are heading looks like 99% unemployed or minimum wage with 1% making a lot of money ie a far wider gap than exists anywhere at present. A recipe for revolution.


I can't wait for this to show up in a movie.

Boss: No, Mr Bond, I expect...

Henchman: Um, Boss, it's too late.

Boss: What? Call the company immediately, I want a pause inserted for my deadpan one-liner.


@4: Beggars In Spain seems more and more prophetic, delta the minor difference that we don't actually have a cadre of Space Plutocrats to save our asses. Guess I better read the rest of the series to see how things turn out.


Well, automation has been around since the industrial revolution, and it certainly hasn't led to a reduction in the number of jobs required thus far.

In this specific case, surely we're not going to bemoan the loss of pork-deboning jobs? I've had some crap jobs, but that looks worse.


The obvious one is growing taxes on the people who own the machines, and growing subsidies to the people who cook and study and parent and sing and philosophize and mountain bike and do a hundred other useful but non-renumerative things with their time. It may not be coincidential that the people with money have spent the past 30 year engaged in intense propaganda that high taxes are sacreligious ...


I remember in the mid-90's at a bank I was working at the use of the term "technoslave" got to be a sackable offense (the renumeration for us techies steadily declining even then).

The nightmare scenario of 99.99% of us subsisting on reasonably bearable subsistance wages whilst the 0.01% trade planets looks ever more believable.

Which is not to detract from the brilliance of the featured industrial robot.

That kids is what a real robot looks like, not "Gort", "Data" or even "Robbie".


I hope I'm aware of the fallacies of luditism, but I'm concerned that machines are needing steadily falling numbers of acolytes to deliver ever greater productivity, at ever more complex tasks.

Especially for less skilled, more repetitive tasks, automation is very attractive. Some humans might never aspire to anything more challenging, so there are at that point no jobs that it is rational to employ them in. As automation improves, the bar for human employment has scope to rise.


I agree. Structural unemployment is the event horizon we can't see past. (Singularity in the Vinge sense, not techno-rapture sense.) There's not going to be enough "knowledge work" to go around and I think that's a wanky phrase to begin with.

The Mexicans ain't taking our jerbs, it's the machines. And the upshot isn't going to be 10 hour weeks and comfy standards of living for everyone, it's going to be riches and plenty at the top and nothing for the rest of us.

This can't end pretty.


Jetsons vs. neo-feudalism

Orwell had an observation (which my google-fu can't find) that you are only paid what is necessary to take part in keeping the machine of technology going. The middle-class arose not because of any social justice or moral imperative but from economic necessity -- we had a need for machinists and mechanics, chemists and educators. The peasants came in off the farm because the 19th century machines could not run themselves. Their children ascended to middle-management because they were required. It used to be that 90% of the population was directly involved in agriculture. Population was required.

If the machines can run themselves, how many high-paying specialties are really required to sustain civilization? How much of the rest of us will be surplus and unnecessary?

This used to be considered the luddite fallacy because there was always more work to be had. We're going to automate ourselves out of existence.

Orwell: "Working men 'work', beggars do not 'work'; they are parasites, worthless in their very nature. It is taken for granted that a beggar does not 'earn' his living, as a bricklayer or a literary critic 'earns' his." But what is work, Orwell asks. A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by doing sums. A beggar works by standing outside in all kinds of weather and getting varicose veins, bronchitis, etc. "It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course - but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless."

I don't know where this is going but it's sobering and frightening.

Consider the following video to depict what's going on the boardroom of the factory that meat-flensing overlord resides in. Powerpoint and nightmares.


The hypothesis is that there is enough wealth creation to give everyone a tolerable standard of living, but too much of the pie is taken by the super-rich, less than 1% of the population.

For the UK, a quick Google gives a per capita GDP of $39600. I don't think I need remind anyone that GDP is a flawed measure. Also, watch exchange rates. But that is about GBP 25300, GBP 480 per week.

That is roughly twice minimum wage. And it's the total population, of all ages.

I don't think the problem of few "real" jobs needs to force the unemployed into poverty. But look at the rage and fury such an idea can produce. If people don't need to work, they won't work.

Yes, they're rational economic actors.

But, oh boy, just think of what will come crawling out of the woodwork.


Except they're automating from the top down, too. Radiologist friend-of-a-friend has been involved in trials of computer vision for oncology diagnoses. Another friend has been involved in research in autodetecting bowel cancer lesions. If it's routine and not AI-hard, there are people looking at automating it. And if it can't be automated, it might be crowdsourceable - how much investment in customer support is saved by hosting a forum where users can answer each others' questions? I ask this as someone who has discovered how to fix an issue with one of my own employer's programs by searching Stack Overflow...


@13 “If people don't need to work, they won't work. Yes, they're rational economic actors.”

But that is wrong of course. Most middle-class people put at least ten hours a week into a hobby, working at least as hard as at their day job and often producing lots of useful goods or services (just not ones that pay very much). When they retire, their output usually increases even though they are getting old and tired. The trap to avoid is the unemployed sitting on the couch watching TV and feeling useless all day. One of the unthinking assumptions in the Anglosphere is that only things we do for pay are "useful" or "work."

This isn't a new problem either. Agratian societies usually have a problem with underemployment: there are too many people to work the land efficiently, but no other work for most of them, so a lot of people sit around and drink or beg. One solution was to encourage the growth of towns, and to encourage those towns to hire the countryfolk for piece work.


" The hypothesis is that there is enough wealth creation to give everyone a tolerable standard of living, but too much of the pie is taken by the super-rich, less than 1% of the population."

Oh come now folks... Cheer UP!!

Here in the UK, as a Jr. Grade Technician in Higher Business Education back in the latter half of the 1960s - long before the PC was developed - I was once a member of the Institute of Work Study Practitioners ... who stood Boldly, with stop watch in hand and clip board to the fore - and with sore feet - in those far of days of Yore so that, in turning ourselves into machines that recorded work,
" Piece Work " other, lesser, people could be more efficient machines that soon were to be replaced by real Machines. Membership was a three month block release course that I did whilst I was doing my real job because my Seniors thought it was a Good Idea and I thought that it was a Good Idea to do as I was told until my promotion to Higher Grades was confirmed.

" I hope I'm aware of the fallacies of luditism, but I'm concerned that machines are needing steadily falling numbers of acolytes to deliver ever greater productivity, at ever more complex tasks. " ?

Yep ..'twas ever so I'm afraid and way back when/then, as recorded History began, there were probably Institute of Work Study Practitioners Members equivalents making sure that the labourers who were heaving Slabs of Stone steadily up the latest Pyramid were following best working practices, and would also have the right attitude to the virtues of WORK and not being idle scroungers ...Isn't this a GREAT PYRAMID ! they would have been encouraged to cry, since they were " All In This Together " and thus bound to be enthusiastic about their station in life.

However, since, " Things Can Only Get Better "! WE can look forward to ...


" Los Angeles, November 2019 " ...

' A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies! A chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure! '


Sunday before last there was a story in my newspapers business's section. It said they was going to be a big round of job loses because technology can now do what office workers and middle management dose. These are the people who said the blue collar layoffs were from their not being their not being better educated. What will they say now when its their jobs going away? Just call me Ludd. Ned was right about what would happen to his kind of people.


And Watson Mk2 will do what most lawyers do - look up relevant case law and make a case.


"I foresee see a steadily reducing supply of jobs for which it makes economic sense to employ a human, especially at 1st world wages. Is there a solution to this, or is it not going to be a problem?"

Well, IF that happens (and it's still a pretty big if at this point), there are people who have spent considerable time thinking about this and exploring the possibilities...

Read 2000ad some time.


Link doesn't work for me; it just sits there and says "Loading..." no matter what I click. I tried it in 3 different browsers. :(


Tubedub link also failed for me. This soundless youtube may be the same video:


I'm not sure you are thinking it through, economically. As more tasks are being automated, while there are less jobs for humans, the prices are falling too. Not just because the margins are better, but because people have less money, so you have to lower prices to keep the demand.

In the extreme case where everything is automated and there are no jobs, the prices are zero. And you need just one automated plant being common good to bring down the entire dystopic slaves-and-masters scenario.


There's an argument, rooted in anthropology, that there are two distinct classes of objects to be valued. There are things which you can trade and barter, and which don't depend on money, and there are things which cannot be exchanged.

Very approximately, the right to publish a book can be sold, but what UK copyright law refers to as the "moral right of the author" is in the second class.

That cashless economy was still visible in rural England when I was young and the idea of hitchhiking has some of the elements of it. (It was partly a side effect of National Service, but giving a lift to a soldier was seen as normal by my father's generation.)

On the other hand, money seems to be entangled with the things that cannot be traded and, paradoxically, the value of money in ancient societies may be an accounting fiction to allow compensation to be paid, in tradeable goods, for loss of the untradeable.

And that suggests that people only need money to deal with not-people, courts and governments and corporations that don't participate in the cash free social economy of gift-exchange, deferred barter, and the like.

The problem is that some of these not-people may be the only way we have of carrying out large projects.

And, related to that, money allows us to feed Charlie, and give him new shiny, in return for his story-telling, much as somebody such as Egill Skallagrimson recieved gifts for his poetry. Money lets us do this as a diffuse, barely organised, collective. Nobody has to risk angering the poet with a too-generous gift.


"I foresee see a steadily reducing supply of jobs for which it makes economic sense to employ a human"

Mechanization and automation has been used to increase productivity per worker for at least a century and a half. Some of the workforce has been moved to "developing" world countries because some mechanization + low wages is cheaper than a high degree of mechanization.

In the "industrialized" world this move has not been followed by a large decrease in number of jobs. Rather, the workforce has been reallocated to other jobs that allow them to purchase the output of the ever increasing global industry. An important point is that if the number of jobs were to decrease, so would the ability of consumers to purchase the industrial output, which again would decrease both the volume of industrial output as well as the investment in improved technology.

Many of the new jobs are being mechanized and automated as well, but I would be surprised if other jobs did not come along. If new jobs did not come around, the number of unemployed would skyrocket, and it would be long term unemployment. This would cause all sorts of civil unrest. Solving that conflict would be hard, either requiring lots of new jobs or heavy investments in police to strike down the unemployed (incidentally, also creating new jobs).


Most of the work is "makework" created by bureaucracy, laws, health and safety, marketing etc.


"I would be surprised if other jobs did not come along."

My current visualization of the Macrocosmic all isn't revealing many jobs to me that it's worth employing people to do rather than automating. I am concerned about ensuing civil unrest, as well as my personal ability to keep buying books and food.


Being worried about unemployment (both personally and for society) is obviously fair enough. However, our current situation is caused by a global recession and financial crisis, not an explosion in automation. Why should the long-term trend for automation suddenly cause a net loss of jobs? What's changed?


The way I see it, the only positive way out of this is completely breaking the Western capitalist mindset. Protestant Europeans going into native societies were disgusted by the idleness they found. Look at these people fishing, laying about, making love. Why, there's work those hands could be put to, making us money!

Quoting from the Civilization song, from the position of a skeptical native rejecting western ideas...

They hurry like savages to get aboard an iron train And though it's smokey and it's crowded, they're too civilized to complain When they've got two weeks vacation, they hurry to vacation ground (What do they do, Darling?) They swim and they fish, but that's what I do all year round

The current western mindset is horrified by the thought of someone not putting in a 50 hour week to get ahead. No matter whether or not there's any work, if you don't work, you don't eat! Just as Christ intended.

My dad is a conservative Republican through and through and feels that anyone accepting welfare should be put to work, even if it's just digging a hole and filling it up again. It's the discipline of work! The dignity! The civilizing influence of sweat and stink. And it's only proper to constantly be wanting more. I want a bigger house, a newer car, a younger wife. This I must have! And I will sacrifice my enjoyment of life to take my reward.

Can you imagine the howling and outrage of putting in place the Second Bill of Rights? Conservatives right now are doing their best to dismantle every social safety net in the UK as well as in the US. In the States those measures went in because FDR knew we were courting the risk of revolution. Naked, ugly capitalism was destroying us all.

Bread and circuses only work so long as you can afford to pay for them. You can hold the people down only until the point where security measures cease to work. The tipping point can be surprising and sudden.


We're getting better at automating/creating smarter systems, both robotic activities as shown in the OP, and pure IT systems that only handle bits and bytes, see Watson for example.


Well, world GDP divided by world population equals about ten thousand US dollars each, and for 17 of the last 20 years, that's about what I've lived on. Those 17 years weren't that bad, I ate, had a roof, clothes, a tiny car even, and a reasonable PC with interweb access.

The catch is that if you take a million dollars per annum, then a thousand other people had to get by on 9 grand, and at that level of income the extra thousand bucks is a big deal. Dentist or not-dentist. Shoes, or cold wet feet. Vaccinate that kid...or cross your fingers.

In the end, the obscene incomes of the 1% are tantamount to mass-manslaughter (and a trillion tiny assaults), and if the accused can't convincingly pretend they had no idea, then I guess it's murder, and from there it's a short way to looting/robbery and calling it self defence. Oh boy! The future is looking bright! If only I was a machine, maybe I could get a job boning hams and looking shiny...


How do you think the economy can keep expanding by (say) 3% a year if the population does not rise by 3% a year? The reverse is that if the economy is static unemployment may well increase by 3% a year.


Possibly the 1% crave the excitement that comes in an ill-run civilization, eschewing dull prosperity...are they looking to be "King of the dung heap"?


"We're getting better at automating/creating smarter systems, both robotic activities as shown in the OP, and pure IT systems that only handle bits and bytes, see Watson for example."

We've been getting better automation for hundreds of years. We've been getting better at IT for 70 years (more if you include mechanical information processing systems). It's not a new phenomena.


POINT-ONE per-cent please! Not 1%

Then your allegations become true facts.


And let precision get in the way of a good rant? You are correct, most of the top 1% are fellow travelers at worst.


Eerily reminiscent of that particular sequence in Quake IV when you are turned into a Strogg.


If the machines can run themselves, how many high-paying specialties are really required to sustain civilization? How much of the rest of us will be surplus and unnecessary?

Coming in late as usual, but . . . didn't we just do generation ships a few months back? And wasn't it the general consensus that you need at least a few tens of millions of people, if not hundreds of millions?

The current speculation seems to run directly counter to the older one. So either one of them is wrong, or the time scales are off. Maybe not good enough tech to run a star ship with just a few hundred or thousand people for the next couple of centuries, maybe, but a thousand years on all bets are off.

In which case, automating the human race into extinction is definitely a long term concern, not a near term.


The nightmare scenario of 99.99% of us subsisting on reasonably bearable subsistance wages whilst the 0.01% trade planets looks ever more believable.

Along with the concomitant nightmare scenario that technical progress stops well short of the legal maximum in this universe. It's happened before, after all (or so I believe); Greek civilization didn't go any farther with steam technology than the aeolipile and a few other toys at least in part because those things simply weren't useful in an era when slave labor was cheap and plentiful.[1] And even assuming a practical Archimedes who could get steam or electricity to do useful work, well, the established order tends to view any change as bad. Say, powerful people whose wealth is dependent on cheap slave labor.

Now consider a not-so-distant future where commercial and tourist space flight is a reality, where medical technology is good enough to keep people alive and healthy for centuries on end, etc. . . . but only if you have a few hundred million dollars to blow, this year, next year, and every other year after that. Those who make less than a million a year? The teaming, useless, nonproductive hordes? They're out of luck, poor Galtian undersods. No off-planet adventures for them and almost invariably dead in less than a century in any case.

Now imagine a bright naive young thing in that milieu trying to raise money for research that just might lead to longevity for everyone at the price of only a few hundred or a few thousand dollars a year. Picture the pursed lips of a representative of the Overclass, the judicious placing of fingertip to fingertip as they inform our researcher that they're not sure that it's . . . wise to have so many people living extended lives. Or judicious to introduce table top fusion and cheap space flight to the masses; they'll behave crassly and spoil the view Out There, don't you know (and besides, they're too dumb and insensate to appreciate it properly). Grim stuff if you're a techie.

[1]So long as you were one the Top People who deserved such things. And had the requisite jack, of course.


re the HAMDAS-R, why am I reminded of Resyk from Judge Dredd's Mega City One?


It could very well be that yes, you need a minimum of tens of millions to hundreds of millions working people to run a civilization... but those millions of people can produce stuff enough for tens of billions of people.

You would still find yourself with an enormous surplus of workforce, that you need to provide for somewhat or face social troubles on a really big scale.

41: 37, #38 and #40 - Total blue sky moment, but maybe you need more people to develop a civilisation to a certain level than you need to sustain it there?

Hmm. You know Health and Safety are largely engaged in making sure people aren't killed and maimed at work, right? The odder things blamed on HSE are usually not their fault but are due to people suing for damages etc.


Easy - just increase the money supply by a percentage per year. In a modern economy there isn't a correlation between economic figures and population growth because economic growth is driven by capital investment not by increasing numbers of peasants farming more land.


... or are given as reasons for people to not do things they don't want to. The HSE is possibly blamed for as many weird things they aren't responsible for as the EU is.


I'm pretty sure that anyone who has been paying attention will have seen an instance of a jobsworth or lazy manager using "No it's a health and safety issue we can't do that" as an excuse for not spending money or for their office politics. But too many people are cowed by this approach and don't realise just how simple H&S is.


The other common excuse is "It's against our Data Protection rules".


I am currently entangled with both health & safety and DPA excuses.

In the case of H&S I am pointing out the obvious: the piss-poor communication has meant that the entity which claims the H&S problem prevents them from providing service has endangered my health and safety. It took four weeks to get a straight answer on what was wrong, and I am not entirely convinced that the claim was valid.

Meanwhile, the GP practice I am registered with has a computer system which can't talk to anything else around here, such as the local hospitals. Which seems somewhat contrary to the overarching requirement of the DPA to keep accurate records.

Sorting that one out is not trivial.


I would thank you all to remember that a lot of workers fought for a very long time for the health and safety laws we have now. Your minor inconveniences are much more tolerable than lots of people actually dying whilst doing their jobs.

My dad was flying off Brent Charlie the day of the 1986 helicopter crash - - it was pure chance that he was flying off on a different Chinook. That crash was caused because not enough care was paid to "health and safety". So yeah, I think health and safety's quite important thank you.


Indeed so, and I consider those who rail against honest H&S rules as being odious little Daily Mail reading shits.

At the same time, it's rather sad that the whole H&S regimen is being devalued by jobsworths who invent fake H&S rules as a reason for not doing something they don't want to do.


My brother works in H&S (not for HSE). About a third of his time is site visits where there are fingers on the floor or worse, a third training people to avoid accidents, a third dealing with people's nonsense claims.

I can't read his trade journals without feeling rather ill. It's appalling what some employers think they can get away with. Some staff are idiots too, but the biggest problem is people being asked to work in very dangerous conditions, disengage safety interlocks to increase productivity, that sort of thing.

He used to have a band called No Hat No Boots No Job, which I think is good enough for Scalzi (the name - the band was rubbish).


It fails because the Bjork music "video is not available in your country" ™. Try this one instead:

(This version is also a little bit better dubbed)



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on July 16, 2012 2:44 PM.

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