Fat Humans and Hard Working Robots?

Leisure by the sea

Reduced working hours, outsourcing of food production to robots, automation of manual labor and goods production points point to a future where humans would have more time on their hands – time for leisure and the freedom to pursue their talents. Is this how we perceive our regained Paradise? Will robots in the labor force, will our work be reduced in actuality? Then, if robots picked our laundry, what will humans do in the future?

Today, I read an interesting article that reflected on the future of humanity in terms of a machine driven economy. A country’s GDP* is calculated taking into account productivity in relation to the “amount of labor you have saved”. The author, Kevin, goes on to detail the three industrial revolutions (first, steam, second – electricity and third, computing) and the future of human time and leisure when everything gets automated. How would productivity be calculated when humans are taken out of the equation. He proposed a new benchmark for measuring productivity, one that takes into account products of human creativity, and rather, our creative pursuits itself. “Civilization is not just about saving labor but also about “wasting” labor to make art, to make beautiful things, to “waste” time playing, like sports. Nobody ever suggested that Picasso should spend fewer hours painting per picture in order to boost his wealth or improve the economy. The value he added to the economy could not be optimized for productivity. It’s hard to shoehorn some of the most important things we do in life into the category of “being productive.””

In another point, Kevin refers to a research paper by Robert Gordon, where he concludes that the United States has peaked in terms of economic growth. “He is trying to argue that the consequences of the 2nd Industrial Revolution, which bought to common people electricity and plumbing, was far more important than the computers and internet which the 3rd Industrial Revolution has brought us. (Gordon’s 1st Industrial revolution was steam and railroads.) As evidence of this claim he offers this hypothetical choice between option A and option B.”

With option A you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows 98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002. Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3am on a rainy night, your only toilet option is a wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse. Which option do you choose?

Kevin goes on to refute Gordon’s analysis, saying “…farmers in rural China have chosen cell phones and twitter over toilets and running water. To them, this is not a hypothetical choice at all, but a real one. and they have made their decision in massive numbers. Tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, if not billions of people in the rest of Asia, Africa and South America have chosen Option B. You can go to almost any African village to see this. And it is not because they are too poor to afford a toilet.”

Kevin has made several problematic assumptions about rural Asia, choice, and the collective aspirations of humanity. However, the article motivated me to think about several points, chief among them, the idea of choosing between practical necessity versus convenience, and secondly, that in the future, leisure would be the barometer of an economy’s success. But I disagree with Kevin when he posits that the villagers chose to go without sanitation, sewage disposal and waste management systems, and in fact, went a step further by choosing cellphones and internet connectivity, with its incumbent Twitter and social media sites.In India, villages and small towns do not have running water, plumbing or sanitation systems because it’s expensive to set up a village-level infrastructure of its kind.

It’s also the government’s mandate and duty to set up waste disposal systems. Bureaucracy, budget, corruption, priorities, and a huge population of more than a billion means that vast swathes of habitats are neglected, where as cities and metropolises are favored. Secondly, villages and small towns have no exposure to the idea of running water or toilets! They have carried on the tradition of using water pumps affixed in common areas, and using the village well to take care of their drinking water needs, and flowing rivers and small lakes for their utility and consumption. It is only cities with their municipal corporations and planning committees who are equipped to plan sewage, waste and sanitation infrastructure. We are just 60 years into Independence from the British. So, we have decades of change, progress and growth waiting to sweep tier 3 cities, small towns and villages, and this is not just an isolated example.

Taking the case for China, what the article doesn’t mention is the specific websites the farmers and rural community make use of with their mobile internet. Twitter was used as an example, one of several Web 2.0 technologies that was created in the last decade as part of the 3rd Industrial Revolution. The farmers, potters, weavers, dyers, hunters, artisans, woodcutters and teachers don’t choose to access Twitter. They would most probably want to check weather conditions to keep their crops safe, or check out seed prices, or check for water levels. The kind of information they access is not entertainment, it’s life saving! It is definitely cheaper to buy a phone today that comes with 3G or GPS connection. Mobiles are also used by health officials to deploy messages and we have seen tremendous adoption by African villages towards mobile health apps. All this points to an increasingly affordable market for mobile phones. There will come a time when developing countries will reap double the benefits that their developed counterparts couldn’t: they would have access to the best in computing, mobile, wearable A.I. technologies, along with running water and toilets, complete with paper rolls!

What really concerns me about the future – of which I am sure most of us reading this today will no longer be part of – is the widespread trope of projecting increased leisure time for humans as a sort of default aspiration.

It is assumed that what we most crave is leisure, fun and games. Secondly, humans being ‘innately creative and talented’ would welcome the freedom to put their ideas into practice. An obvious question is, do all humans really have talent that can be considered “waste-worthy” products of leisure? We are already seeing a level playing field with more people having access to technologies that help enhance or bring out their talents.  In this respect, this article by John Quiggin manages to capture the nuances of the debate:

An essay called ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,’ written in 1930 by John Maynard Keynes, the renowned economist, “…makes a case for leisure, in the sense of time free to use as we please, as opposed to idleness…Keynes offered something quite new: the idea that leisure could be an option for all, not merely for an aristocratic minority.” As Keynes observed in his essay, ‘From the earliest times of which we have record — back, say, to 2,000 years before Christ — down to the beginning of the 18th century, there was no very great change in the standard of life of the average man living in the civilized centers of the earth’. The vast majority of people lived lives of hard labour on the edge of subsistence, and had always done so. No feasible political change seemed likely to alter this reality.”

But as the article goes on to narrate, this utopian Golden Age vision remained just that through both the industrial revolutions. As factories and industries sprung up, labor conditions worsened, work hours increased and wages were uneven and insufficient.

“Unconstrained by seasons or by the length of the day, working hours reached an all-time peak, with the number of hours worked estimated at over 3,200 per year — a working week of more than 60 hours, with no holidays or time off. There were small increases in material consumption, but not nearly enough to offset the growth in the duration and intensity of work.” As Quiggin puts it, “…40 or so years later, I am a grandparent myself, the year 2030 is rapidly approaching, and Keynes’s vision seems further from reality than ever. At least in the English-speaking world, the seemingly inevitable progress towards shorter working hours has halted. For many workers it has gone into reverse.”

In the 1900s, technological progress kept pace with Keynes’ vision: “The household appliances that first came into widespread use in the ’50s (washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and so on) eliminated a huge amount of housework, much of it pure drudgery. By contrast, technological progress for the next 40 years or so was limited. Arguably, the only significant innovation in this period was the microwave oven,” writes Quiggin.

Today, a lot more of us are able to take beautiful pictures or design graphics than a decade ago. Tools are aiding our leisure, in effect. Then, apart from art, music, films, dance, cooking or writing, we would have other forms of creativity in future – highly specialized and niche at the same time. There’s the other point that many of us love our work. We love being productive, we thrive on having definite goals and challenges to take up each day. We might not be creatively bent or want to indulge in gardening. Where would that leave us in the future?

The animation flick Wall E was chilling in its portrayal of how humans will be rotund in their obese obsolescence while robots pick up their laundry. With no manual labor, we are reduced to creatures that consume. The movie actually made me think of Adam and Eve in a mythical paradise. Without the need to hunt for food, to study, to build structures, to weave clothes, to take care of children, to nurture trees, pet animals – without the motivation for survival – what would they have done? Just keep exploring the heavenly gardens? For how long? The market tries to sell us this vision of a free, happy, labor-free future, controlled and protected by robots. Am not sure we will be any good if we are not harnessing the resources around us. We will stagnate. From the perspective of evolution, we thrived and survived because we pushed our physical and intellectual limitations to overcome natural adversities. We were able to adapt and invent new technologies because of the way we are wired – towards seeking, creating, being useful and molding the natural environment to our changing needs. Am not sure a placid, non-needy human can survive its own future.

* GDP – Gross Domestic Product – is the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period, though GDP is usually calculated on an annual basis. It includes all of private and public consumption, government outlays, investments and exports less imports that occur within a defined territory.


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