Austerians' Next Target: Universal Healthcare
By the Shark-Filled Rivers of Schwabylon

How Germany will Handle the Rise of the Robots

Kevin Drum has an insightful piece predicting that artifical intelligence will be here before you think and will radically change the economy:

We've moved from computers with a trillionth of the power of a human brain to computers with a billionth of the power. Then a millionth. And now a thousandth. Along the way, computers progressed from ballistics to accounting to word processing to speech recognition, and none of that really seemed like progress toward artificial intelligence. That's because even a thousandth of the power of a human brain is—let's be honest—a bit of a joke. Sure, it's a billion times more than the first computer had, but it's still not much more than the computing power of a hamster.

This is why, even with the IT industry barreling forward relentlessly, it has never seemed like we were making any real progress on the AI front. But there's another reason as well: Every time computers break some new barrier, we decide—or maybe just finally get it through our thick skulls—that we set the bar too low. At one point, for example, we thought that playing chess at a high level would be a mark of human-level intelligence. Then, in 1997, IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer beat world champion Garry Kasparov, and suddenly we decided that playing grandmaster-level chess didn't imply high intelligence after all.

So maybe translating human languages would be a fair test? Google Translate does a passable job of that these days. Recognizing human voices and responding appropriately? Siri mostly does that, and better systems are on the near horizon. Understanding the world well enough to win a round of Jeopardy! against human competition? A few years ago IBM's Watson supercomputer beat the two best human Jeopardy! champions of all time. Driving a car? Google has already logged more than 300,000 miles in its driverless cars, and in another decade they may be commercially available.

... True artificial intelligence will very likely be here within a couple of decades. Making it small, cheap, and ubiquitous might take a decade more.

In other words, by about 2040 our robot paradise awaits.

...This isn't something that will happen overnight. It will happen slowly, as machines grow increasingly capable. We've already seen it in factories, where robots do work that used to be done by semiskilled assembly line workers. In a decade, driverless cars will start to put taxi hacks and truck drivers out of a job. And while it's easy to believe that some jobs can never be done by machines—do the elderly really want to be tended by robots?—that may not be true. Nearly 50 years ago, when MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum created a therapy simulation program named Eliza, he was astonished to discover just how addictive it was. Even though Eliza was almost laughably crude, it was endlessly patient and seemed interested in your problems. People liked talking to Eliza.

...Increasingly, then, robots will take over more and more jobs. And guess who will own all these robots? People with money, of course. As this happens, capital will become ever more powerful and labor will become ever more worthless. Those without money—most of us—will live on whatever crumbs the owners of capital allow us.

This is a grim prediction. But it's not nearly as far-fetched as it sounds. Economist Paul Krugman recently remarked that our long-standing belief in skills and education as the keys to financial success may well be outdated. In a blog post titled "Rise of the Robots," he reviewed some recent economic data and predicted that we're entering an era where the prime cause of income inequality will be something else entirely: capital vs. labor.

So, by 2040, we will have robots intelligent enough to perform hundreds of tasks that used to be performed by humans. Let me put on my heavy, black-framed armchair-sociologist glasses and predict how these developments will be received in Germany [snark]:

  • 2035: A spate of articles on American robots will all emerge at the same time in German mainstream publications with titles such as: 'A Terrifying Experiment in the "Land of Opportunity"', 'Alienation in the Post-Human Age: As American as Apple Pie', 'Turbocapitalism and the Terminator', and 'Racial Injustice, Robocop-Style'.
  • 2037: Germany's leading philosopher, Hans-Jürgen Quasselkasper, pens a 35,000-word essay in Die Zeit in which he denounces the introduction of robots as an 'assault on human dignity, the very fundamental value of our Constitutional order' and calls for strict limits on robot labor. It is hailed as a 'bold intervention' by all broadsheet newspapers, and is read in its entirety by 563 people. Pope Kevin II issues an encyclical denouncing the spread of robot labor. The Evangelical Church of Germany issues a statement setting out its 'profound concern' about robots.
  • 2041: German politicians from across the political spectrum, but especially the Greens, call for strict legislation regulating the use of robots and preserving 'humane values' in the workplace and society. The German parliament passes a law prohibiting the import of foreign-made robots into Germany.
  • 2043: To those who complain about the protectionist law passed in 2041, German politicians and elite journalists reply that Germany is 'not going to join the chorus of simple-minded people crying Halleluja! about this promising but dangerous new technology' and that 'countries who prematurely embrace these innovations without considering the risks will one day rue their short-sightedness'.
  • 2045: The European Union convenes a Working Group on Robotics and Society to draft a set of guidelines to 'harmonize the use of robots with European social values' and 'protect the dignity of the worker and patient'.
  • 2035-45: German manufacturers, realizing the staggering profit potential of robots and well-prepared to compete internationally, begin manufacturing robot nurses, robot factory workers, sexbots, robot soldiers, and robot schoolteachers for export to the rest of the world. They're about 10 years behind the U.S. but they establish their niche, and billions in profits flow to Germany.
  • 2043-47: The furor about robots dies down as German-made robots begin be used in Germany and Germans begin to realize just how profitable they are. The federal Parliament quietly revokes the 2041 law. Lobbying by German and other European high-tech firms ensures that the European Union Working Group's final recommendations are non-binding blather.
  • 2047: In Berlin, German Federal President Jimi Blue Ochsenknecht proudly opens the high-tech exposition: 'Germany: Leader in Robotic Innovation'.