Kent Pitman

Kent Pitman
New England, USA
Philosopher, Technologist, Writer
I've been using the net in various roles—technical, social, and political—for the last 30 years. I'm disappointed that most forums don't pay for good writing and I'm ever in search of forums that do. (I've not seen any Tippem money, that's for sure.) And I worry some that our posting here for free could one day put paid writers in Closed Salon out of work. See my personal home page for more about me.


FEBRUARY 21, 2011 4:22AM

Humanity in Jeopardy!

Rate: 26 Flag

Well, the Man vs. Machine exhibition Jeopardy! tournament is over I for one welcome our new computer overlords and we've seen the outcome. The humans got trounced, in other words.

Ken Jennings, first of the two humans, wrote underneath his “Final Jeopardy” response:


If you don't know, this particular phrasing about welcoming our new overlords is a meme with a rich history of usage. He intended it as a joke, but it still begs the question, what do victories like this herald?

IBM has declared it to be a victory for “humankind.”

I'm less certain.

As in the excellent movie Desk Set, with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, questions are raised about the feasibility and appropriateness of replacing people with machines.

Both in the movie Desk Set and in the aftermath of this Jeopardy! challenge, the spin we are to accept is that such innovation heralds not a replacement of people by computers but instead an amplification of the usefulness of people in world because computers will be there to help.

Yet the message of the marketplace is not that at all.

As a matter of definition, a “jobless recovery” is an economic boom that occurs in conjunction with sustained or increased unemployment. But why does it happen? There are a lot of opinions about that, but for my purposes here I'm going to risk oversimplifying a bit and blame a lot of it on the push for automation. Many companies would rather pay a fixed cost to buy a machine that can do your job—or enough of it—than pay for you, who needs salary each day and every day you're employed.

In some cases machines can't do the jobs of people, but companies or the market itself decide they can offload the burden onto their customers. A travel agent used to provide a lot of value beyond booking tickets—answering questions, organizing things, etc. Going to Orbitz or Expedia isn't the same as going to a travel agent. But there's no money to be made on the difference, so jobs for travel agents dwindle away. Bank tellers are being replaced by ATMs. Even customer support is increasingly handled by programs.

Could highly skilled professions like medicine be next? Doubtless if they do, the spinmeisters will tell us that it's OK if medical professionals lose their jobs to computers because they are obviously very smart people and can be easily retrained to do some other technical job. But if we get that far, I don't think that will be true.

We watch with eager excitement now to see these cool programs do cool things. But so what? It will save some company a few dollars to be able to provide their service cheaper if they don't have to employ someone, but what will that someone do instead? “Oh, they'll get another job where they're needed more,” comes the answer from those spouting the mindless dogma of the Capitalist religion. But it's not true. They aren't needed more at another job because all jobs are doing the same thing—automating.

At some point we need to start to ask ourselves: Is automation really the goal? And if so, what will people do?

Or even more generally, just because we can do a thing, must we?

Mind you, I'm not a Luddite. I've worked in technology all my life. I do technology for a living. I'm not anti-technology. I believe in the power of technology to do good.

But I am pro-wisdom and pro-thought. I'm not a subscriber of the quasi-religious notion that the “invisible hand” of the marketplace will magically guide us to acceptable social outcomes.†

Technology alone does not solve social problems. What will we do with the technology, and who will watch out for those adversely affected?

Is the Grand Plan to replace people with computers that “think” and robots that “do?” Because that seems to be industry's plan. Or, perhaps more properly, it seems to me the inertially inevitable consequence of a market without a plan.

I'm not even talking artificially intelligent machines. Watson isn't artificially intelligent, yet was capable of outdoing humans at the task it was designed for. Computers will be a threat to humans—they already are a threat to humans—in the workplace even without achieving Artificial Intelligence.

And if we do replace people with computers in the workplace, where will people get their money come from?

Unlike in Star Trek, where people who have no job seem to just somehow find useful things to do and end up fed and clothed and housed anyway, the situation in the real world is not so idyllic. All the money in the world seems to be accumulating with the owners of fewer and fewer companies because those companies rely less and less on people and more and more on the kind of advanced technology that Watson represents.

We hear political rhetoric all the time about how the people with the money don't want to share that wealth with people who “aren't contributing.” But what are people to contribute in a world that can increasingly do without them? Is the plan to simply play this selfish game until all the money is held by one person? What will be the value of all that money if there is no one left to buy from?

There's a lot of fussing about the Technical Singularity, a point at which computers are smart enough that they don't need people any more. But that's not really my concern here. I actually think computers could one day be intelligent, but I worry about effects involving smart computers that will happen long before then.

I think we're going to hit an Economic Singularity much sooner—a point at which computers are not yet truly smart but are sufficiently useful in industry that really none of us have jobs. A few of us will race around faster and faster in a deadly game of musical chairs, vying for the last seat at the employment table. But to what end?

How is this expected to end? Are we content to just ride the wave without asking questions about where and how that wave will crash?

If you got value from this post, please "rate" it.


†A fair reading of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations might lead one to believe that even he doesn't believe the invisible hand can do its job without government oversight. He himself suggests a legitimate role for government to invest in the common good and protect citizens from social injustice, though his remarks on such issues of morality seem less often quoted by many who seem prefer to cite him as an advocate for the unfettered free market.

Text and fish graphics © 2010 by Kent Pitman. All rights reserved.
Image of Jeopardy! is a photograph taken of my home television screen,
used here on a theory of fair use.

This is Part 3 of three-part series. The other parts are:
Computers in Jeopardy1 (Part 1, published 15-Feb-2011)
Just-In-Time Jeopardy (Part 2, published 16-Feb-2011)

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I don’t see this as a problem of a “push for automation”. Automation can only be seen as a good thing in terms of improving quality of life for human beings. What I see in the issues you raise here are the failings of capitalism in general. The primary problem here is clearly the need for “money”. I don’t know what the solution is, though. We certainly are not prepared to move away from such a system at this time.

Of course, humans still must design, build and program the machines.

Regarding the fewer and fewer hands holding most of the wealth; that wealth might find a day when it simply has no value as you also suggest. If people can’t buy things, then capitalism simply evaporates as a viable entity in society, this is, of course, the lesson of the famous board game; Monopoly.

What amazes me is how so many people don’t see that the concerns you express here are already occurring. I contend there are two ways to maximize profit; increasing sales and decreasing overhead. The best ways to cut overhead are to reduce the payroll (reduce the labor force) and cut corners on quality. Those are the overriding effects of capitalism that we’re seeing in the world today. I don’t see that technology has any value unless it serves people; if it only serves profits, well …

How do we move away from basing all value on profits?
Caracalla, yeah, it is depressing. This reads like a predictive piece but really is almost just a discussion of the status quo. The predictive part seems pretty reliable unless something is done. No one I've shown this to so far, even those who seem to have a kneejerk desire to disagree with it, has been able to offer a strong counter-argument for believing the trends I'm describing. I'm hoping that if someone wants to disagree, they're going to offer some pretty darned compelling reason and not just a heap of abstract political dogma.

Rick, I expected someone to talk about designing and building the programs, but I can't really believe that an ever-increasing number of billions of people will be writing programs. As more and more companies by each other, the world becomes more and more homogenized, allowing for greater and greater efficiency of the market and a need for fewer and fewer variations in “needs.” In theory, everyone else could turn to the arts in celebration that our needs are all met, but I don't see that as even remotely likely. It seems more likely that people will see resources increasingly unevenly distributed and want to turn to finding reasons to keep it that way. Maybe that means lots of jobs in the armies of the world, so no one has to blow up any precious machines. That will not end well.
And Rick, I do agree with you that if there were a workable solution, it would be in notion of changing something really fundamental about how business valuation is done or something fundamental about what we tax or something like that. I'm not really trying to make such a suggestion just now or pursue any particular agenda. Right now I'm just working from what I see in the market's behavior. I'll move to thinking about how to react once I've wrapped my head around the problem. One things, sure, though: The existing market will resist fundamental changes with its every last dying breath (all the while blathering away about how it's doing this in the name of the people), so if that's the direction a solution lies it's an awfully steep road forward.
As the push for automation and replacing human continues, I have fears for the people who have no skills in technology. So many now have little or no skills in this area.
Will Watson rule the world someday?? I have my doubts. will the marketplace outsource the human beings?? It already is doing so. Look what happened in Detroit. Car assembly went to robotic arms doing the jobs of so many autoworkers.

The idea that technology will save the world is insane. There is not enough rare earth elements in this world for all to have computers.
I don't know all the answers Kent. Just questions.
Good observations, Kent. I'm reminded of some science fiction stories from the so-called Golden Age, in which it was imagined that with computers and robots to do all the grunt work for us, we'd all lead happy lives as artists and philosophers. Not quite.
Technology has been and will be the pacifier for humanity for a while, but I belive that it will be the ultimate destruction of us. I have thought of many possible scenarios and remember a reading from my youth with trepidation about a so called supreme ruler, who is but an artificial intelligence without compassion - like WATSON - who can push the doom button as easily as naming Toronto an American city.

Thoughtful piece, rated highly.
Increasing automation and the use of technology no doubt accounts for some job loss. But the interesting thing is that some other advanced industrial nations have been less affected by it.

If you're talking about income inequality or decreasing upward social mobility, two things related to job loss, the U.S. is worse off than Europe and other advanced nations. With unemployment, as I recall, the U.S. and Europe are around the same, but in Decmber 2010 the unemployment rate in Japan was only 4.9 percent.

Were automation and technology the main culprits, we would have seen similar effects across all of these countries. But we don't, and this leads me to believe that there are other factors at work -- government policies, for example.
I've wondered about this situation since I was a kid reading sci-fi. I loved the vision of the society where automation made work obsolete. But even at age 12, it seemed to me that getting there was impossible. There would be a transition time when 1/2 the populace still needed to be employed, and 1/2 didn't need to be. Explain to me how that situation would actually play out. The 1/2 that had to be employed likely wouldn't be generous enough to stay employed while the rest of society simply lived off the "free" goods and services.
One more observation: the whole "retraining" meme is fascinating. When a highly educated person spouts it, I'm tempted to challenge them to demonstrate the feasibility by doing.

Highly-skilled professionals often take 4-10 years of full-time school to acquire their skill set, and often innate interest / cognitive ability plays a huge part. If Fred is a highly skilled doctor, for example, there's no reason to believe he can become a computer programmer if his job is eliminated. (And that's completely ignoring the question of whether he has the means to go back and retrain for several years.)

If Fred *does* manage to acquire the skill set, how long will it take him to work his way back up to a decent salary in a world where he'll be competing with 21-year-olds fresh out of college who have the same level of programming skill but far less need for salary?

Sadly, I agree with you on many of your thoughts, Kent. I'm a generally cheerful, optimistic person, but I also strive to keep my eyes open as to long-term trends. No accelerating system can continue on the same path forever without some kind of phase change.

As long as growth is the metric of economic success, and the benefits of increased value production flows mainly to the providers of capital, the system will continue to concentrate wealth, continue to squander resources, and continue to find reason to eliminate people from the equation.
"Jobless recovery." That's absurd. It's pure nonsense. What it means is, "Businesses are profitable even though individuals aren't." If we stated it like that, our national conversation might be a bit more substantive.

We have come to believe that "the economy" is somehow measured as the health of business's bottom line, even when many American businesses don't even employ a majority of Americans any more.

The economy exists as a way of jointly providing all of us who participate a decent quality of life. "The economy" is only worth having if it provides us all the opportunity to contribute, and in return, enjoy a share of the goods and services we've all contributed. Right now, "the economy" is doing a rather poor job based on that definition.

(Something like 86% of corporate workers are "disengaged" from their jobs, according to the Gallup G12 polls. That says to me that we're not providing people the opportunity to contribute in ways they find meaningful.)

I actually think that much of our economic growth has been spurred by jobs eliminated by technology. The displaced then invent new products and services, do marketing in an attempt to convince people that the products/services are valuable, and create a new set of inventions. Most of the new products, however, don't really contribute to quality of life very much.

Do we really need a new brand of soap? Really? The fact we can create one and convince people to buy may just mean we're good at psychological manipulation.

As I watch the Internet and computers take over, I'm actually hard-pressed to find value in most cool new technology. It's fun, and it's cool, but basically, it's just a toy. iPhones? Yeah, fun. Love 'em. But I got along without them just fine for most of my adult life, and if I'm being honest, I can't say I ever *needed* one. It's a fun toy.

Hopefully, our jobless recovery will spur folks to do more entrepreneuring, and they'll invent a whole new set of products and services we don't need. How about a web site that duplicates just the bookmark functionality of a web browser? Wouldn't *that* be a delicious invention. Or ...
This is what started with ATM's.. I refused to use them when they came out to save the staff being laid off. sigh... did not work did it? Now I refuse to use online postage for my Amazon sales to save their jobs.
I just keep trying
rated with hugs

Robert Anton Wilson wrote an article called The RICH Economy (found here: in which he started to explore things we could do to change unemployment from a bad thing to a good thing. While I do not believe his specific solution would work, I do believe it is worthwhile to consider different ways we can change the economic fundamentals to make unemployment just, and perhaps even desirable.
Machines don't buy anything. They don't comprise a market. If people don't have a way to earn money there will be no market. And money will be without value. A different system will have to be devised.
The original Luddites worried that looms would displace skilled seamstresses. 150 years ago, 3/4 of the US population was involved with agriculture; today it's about 2-3%.

You folks are far too worried about what people will do with their time. Painful disruption is a legitimate concern in the short term, and during recessions. But in the long term, automation results in greater wealth for all.

All of the arguments you make, could have been made about the loom, or the industrial revolution, or the green revolution. Yet in each case, the doomsayers were wrong. Perhaps if you figure out why these same concerns were misplaced in the past, it'll give you greater insight into how the future might go.
Don, the replacements that happened in the past were at a time when newer technologies were hiring people, too. The replacement with people with machines happened before, but it was less efficient than it is now. Each time it moves up the intellectual food chain, a group of people who thought themselves immune to replacement is challenged. Unemployment is real, and most modern politics right now is pressure on people to ’fess up and admit they're worth less so that industry can treat them as the cogs they are, so your reassurances ring hollow.

Right now a large number of people in emerging nations are entering a marketplace that simply doesn't need an increase in workers. If scarcity creates value, then glut creates lack of value, and that's what we're seeing.

I went out on a limb and made these statements knowing that it would be easy for people to offer hollow criticism that suggested there was no problem. I've put my cards on the table. You put yours down now, too. What will all these people do? What do you see as the likely eventuality because the view from where I sit is bleak. Where and how do you see the jobs returning?
I believe it was in the book Player Piano that Kurt Vonnegut laid out the dystopia of machines making and doing absolutely everything. We should all be concerned about the continuation of these trends under private ownership unfettered, as we will eventually all be living in a society very close to that of Pakistan.

You're absolutely right about the need for government to step in and provide strong regulation, but of course, that appears to be impossible right now because of the impact of the superrich, supergreedy like the Koch brothers.

And so we all have to go back to monitoring the situations in Wisconsin and Egypt to see how the peoples' fight against unbridled power and concentration of wealth will play out.
Kent, new jobs didn't happen on the time scale of the first year or two.

You are right that a new group of previously-immune people are being replaced. You ask when the jobs are coming back.

When US agriculture dropped from 75% to 2% of the population, do we today have a population of 3/4 unemployed farmers? Are those farm jobs ever coming back? What are those 200 million people doing in the US today, given that they can't possibly be used productively on farms?

You really have to distinguish short-term from long-term. In the short-term, you have a highly-trained 50-year-old autoworker, and the car industry doesn't need him any more. That's an individual problem, but it's a real problem for him. I'm sympathetic to these short-term pains from dislocations. As a society, we should try to ease that transition.

But over the long term, the question is more: you have a 16-year-old kid, trying to figure out something useful to do with his life. No, he shouldn't train to be a farmer or an autoworker. Those aren't industries that need more human labor. But is there anything valuable that the kid can do?

History suggests that our lack of imagination about new jobs in the future, is not a reliable prediction. The Luddites didn't know what new jobs would replace the lost weavers. US farmers in the late 1800's couldn't conceive of what productive use 3/4 of the population could be put to, if farming disappeared.

But history shows that new jobs are created, and the wealth of the population rises significantly with major new automation. It's all about the productivity of a given hour of human labor. How much value can be created with that hour? If we can create the same wealth as before, but using fewer human labor hours, then the extra freed-up human labor hours can be redirected into creating even more wealth than was possible before.

This happens over and over again throughout history. I don't need to identify the specific future jobs that large segments of the population will eventually have, in order to notice the consistent pattern from the past. Not only do new jobs get created, but also the new jobs (on average) pay even more than the old jobs that got lost. Everybody wins.
Kent, thank you for this serious and informed discussion about the role of technology in our future. Taking into consideration how much technology has already been integrated into industry and what a basket case worldwide employment is should have everyone thinking about all of the ramifications in the future for themselves, their children and future generations to come.
old new lefty, I was going to suggest to anyone who may look for ways to refute the points here should read Player Piano. While they are at it, Brave New World, as well, to show how technology can make the collective apathetic and the individuals that make up that group lose their identity.

It seems Luddite is relative. In retrospect, some of the inventions of the past benefited society in ways that there were no downsides. Those Luddites were misguided, at best. For self-described Luddites of today, are they also misinformed, or are they indeed, prescient?

Kent, you mentioned turning to the arts in celebration. Personally, I fear that they could be hit the hardest with the advancement of technology; to the point that traditional forms are rendered obsolete. As an artist and musician, I have become increasingly paranoid that my paintings and drawings will not be up to snuff in comparison to the dazzling displays created by Photoshop and other software systems. As for music, computers and Auto Tune can turn anyone into a singer/songwriter. The industry is at serious risk (if not already there with the Taylor Swifts taking over the Grammys) of becoming severely diluted. It may come to the point where it is near impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff.
CA: Some tech geeks believe, with reasonable evidence, that human consciousness is also nothing more than (or at least, equivalent to) some clanking chutes with rolling balls. I understand you don't believe this, but it could be true, and if it is, then nothing stops (future) computers from being just as intelligent and conscious as current humans.
Hi, Don,

Saying "this worked out well in the past, therefore it will continue to work out well" is as logically specious as saying "this will fail." If you can't identify the underlying forces that made it work out, and test to see if those forces still operate, then you're simply confusing correlation with causation. For example, it is true that almost every civilization in human history eventually collapsed, and likely none of them thought they would collapse until it happened. Does that mean I can conclude America will collapse? Of course not. I need to understand the underlying forces and do the tests. (Even then, we must hope I've correctly identified the relevant forces.)

Systems have inflection points beyond which they begin to behave differently. If you aren't already versed in it, I urge you to take a course in system dynamics. A nonlinear system (which our economy certainly is) can fall into certain stable patterns of behavior. But if a critical element changes, or a critical ratio gets passed (e.g. changing the gain of a feedback loop from >1 to
Mission, the issue of rare earths is an interesting one. If those indeed become scarce, that could put a minor dent in things. But I'm willing to believe we'll find ways to work around that problem. I think the things we'll have trouble working around are not real world constraints, which in a sense have a logical basis, but human constraints, which seem arbitrary and full of contradictions. The rules of business are not there for the betterment of Man, nor do business people even want to hear talk of whether Man is doing well or not. Rather, the rules of business are there because someone put them there once on a hunch they might be good for man and then some set of people got ahead and now they invest some of that wealth in resisting change and promoting the propaganda that this is the best we can do.
Stever: (Old times sake: Go, Gompers!) You're right, further work would be needed to figure out what those past forces were, and whether they still operate. I thought the details would be too lengthy for a blog comment. I just pointed to it indirectly: Kent's post would seem to have been just as applicable to the Luddites, or 19th century US farmers, as it is to us today. Yet it was wrong then. It seems to me the onus is on those making a different prediction this time, to say what has changed since the historical examples.

(The answers to the forces start with: productivity growth -> increased national wealth, plus the comparative advantage theory of economic trade between nations, but applied to humans vs. machines. But I don't intend to argue the details here, merely to bring skepticism to what appears to be Kent's common-sense conclusions.)

CA: Yes, I do actually think that electronic computers can achieve consciousness. You seem to place great importance on life vs. non-life, but at the margins, this concept is kind of slippery. (Is a virus alive? How about a crystal?) In any case, there are plenty of living things that don't really seem to be conscious (ameobas, sponges, flowers), so I'm not sure that life/non-life is really the important point anyway.

So I actually agree with you that consciousness is required for the highest intelligent behaviors. I (and some others) just think that consciousness is a mechanical process, and computers can get it out of the right patterns of non-living things (transistors) just like people can (atoms, molecules, neurons).
Rob, I know what you mean! I had the privilege of twice seeing Isaac Asimov speak and he would always make fun of the sci-fi view of The Future. I remember him talking about some gimick for getting there (a pill that puts you to sleep or something) and then waking up to (paraphrasing from memory here) “people in long gowns with benign looks on their faces who happen to speak perfect English.” Yeah, there's some glossing of detail there. I usually tend to think it's the Dystopian views of the future that are worth study, not because you can necessarily know which one will happen, but because believing anything Utopian requires too many things to go right to be believed. In the end the main thing that is probably wrong with the Dystopian views is that they overly optimistically imagine that only one major thing will go wrong.
Fusun, back in the 1980's, during Reagan's time, the push was to put control of the nuclear arsenal under computer control. I was an early member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, which vehemently opposed this and wanted to keep people in the loop. The concern was that bad data would be received and a computer would not be able to inject the appropriate wisdom. You may or may not know that Stanislav Petrov, a Russian lieutenant colonel actually was put in this situation one day, and made the personal choice that saved the world from nuclear holocaust in a way that it's pretty clear a machine would not have done. There are numerous write-ups of that story. This one reads quite well and is well cross-referenced. Read it if you don't know this story. It's not only an important story but an amazing and gripping tale known by all too few people.
Jane, the right way to understand “jobless recovery” is to think “it was previously thought that recovery implied jobs, but we see now that the metrics we had put in place to measure recovery have shown us to be recovering even when there are no jobs.” In other words, the metrics are not measuring the right thing—unless you think the right thing is someone's stock price. But that's really only part of the thing that needs to recover. Or go with Stever's pithier definition of jobless recovery: “Businesses are profitable even though individuals aren't.” But that's the situation.

Honestly, I don't know if IBM is using this as a gimmick. I think they really believe their pitch. It's almost necessary to us as humans driven by forces of cognitive dissonance that they do. But I think the issue isn't whether the pitch is well-meaning or not, since knowing they mean well fixes nothing. The problem is that in Capitalism, things fall through the cracks. Everyone focuses on just one thing, but no one focuses on whether something is being neglected unless money is to be made, and it's easy to show that things that are expensive will often be neglected because the cost to do them exceeds what someone will pay. We might want to fund some of those out of public funds, and others not. But it's the legitimate right and duty of government to at least review such situations and decide definitively. Right now, I don't see anyone really paying attention to this question. There's an unspoken assumption it will take care of itself and it pretty clearly will not.
This continual referral to the Luddite movement is a distraction that is invalid. The underlying problem is that work itself is now considered an essential element of a functional social economic organization. As more and more machines are devised to replace those quotidian tasks that required people people doing boring repetitive tasks and donating the power of multiple workers to one human central controller the benefits of massive production capabilities are accruing to less and less people. Back in the 1950's there was much talk of the benefits of individual production increases would be distributed fairly and the work week could gradually be decreased from the standard 40 hours to 35 hours or less as each individual became more productive. What has occurred is that workers today are required to work more hours, not less and where originally a working man could support his family, not only are more hours required but very frequently both a man and his wife are required to work to maintain their financial status. The efficient machines strangely seem to require more hours of work, not less and this strikes me as something going very wrong. Obviously it is not accidental and whoever or whatever is in control seems to be doing something quite strange to the social system which is very detrimental to society.
Rw005g, I'm not looking very far down the time horizon a lot because personally I've pegged 2035 as about the date where Climate Change starts global wars for resources and everything gets messed up. But there is plenty of strife that can happen due to automation beforehand, and in particular I think this notion of global companies needs to change if we're to deal with a post-meltdown world. If supply lines break, we're going to wish we all, at every point on the globe, made more things locally, and we'll also wish we were more robust against loss of technology.

Regarding the bifurcation of the population, which I assume you regard with more horror than you happen to have textually injected, beyond the social injustice issue there's another issue that I wish those who see your model as Utopia would look to: Nature believes in diversity when it comes to survival. The problem with a “rich” class surviving is that it's not demonstrating any real survival trait. Often the trait is “be the offspring of someone who once did something.” That means that if conditions change and some new talent is needed, it may have been bred out. This will bode ill for the faux-idyllic society you have described.

I do agree with you, by the way, that our metrics for measuring unemployment are horrible. We're also not measuring people who got back to work but at a job that really doesn't make them effective any more, etc. The fans of the present system point to the fact that they aren't entitled to better than they get and that it's not their right to complain, but people often like what they are good at. And if people are not happy in a new job, at least part of what they're complaining about is probably that their skills are being wasted. Sometimes that's because their skills are no longer needed, but I bet that's true less often than acknowledged. Certainly I'd like to see a lot more things like that measured.
One other point that this discussion has not discussed is the strange contrast between the obvious contrast between the huge increase of wealth of the country whose productive capacity increases year after year and the very odd poverty of the public sector. I lived through the depression of the thirties and there was no talk of closing schools, libraries, hospitals, cutting down basic public services such as the police or the fire departments. Every state is buried in debt and where the hell is all this wealth the country has going? If it is not a delusion it certainly is not being directed where it is desperately needed.
Mishima, those are interesting statistics, but influenced by a sufficient number of factors that I'm not totally convinced to not worry. For example, if the system were not yet saturated with products or capabilities, but later would be, or if the system was still operating on money earned “before” and had not been forced to live entirely on the kind of steady state money it can produce for itself, the results wouldn't be reliable. As I say, your argument is interesting, but it's just not rock solid enough for me to think “oh, phew, we can stand down and not pay attention.”

I do agree with you that government policies play a part, though. I'm pretty easily convinced of additional factors to take into consideration—it's a complex world out there. I'm not so easily convinced to just dismiss a potential factor as unimportant.
Stever, as usual you've made a number of interesting points. I liked that you brought in the notion of acceleration of these effects since I think that's key to this whole thing, too. It's not just a situation where people lose jobs and get others. At best, it's an entire economy retooling like the transition from doing everything by hand into the manufacturing era. But the reason I regard it as worse, and I dismiss Don's reassurances that it worked in the past, is that there is something qualitative about computers that is different. It is the multiplicative effect of being able to write a program that then takes off (and I don't mean in an AI sense, I just mean in a programmed sense, like a computer virus for example, or like SETI@Home) that makes it different. Before, if you were replaced by a machine, someone had to build that machine. Making a warehouse full of machines to build cars still took a warehouse full of people to build the machines. There was a kind of one-for-one trade, at least in some sort of crude terms. But now, the machines are little and the number of people replaced by those little machines are large, so the proportionality is different. And I think this is key: when a lot can be done by a little, and the measurement of success is money, the people running the show end up with a mindset of believing the people in the system are of little value. What you say about there being enough resource for everyone has long been true. It's been about keeping people entertained, in some sense. I know most people wouldn't see work that way, but it is. But now we don't want to be bothered entertaining them. And they will be regarded increasingly as in the way. What will these people do? Breed? Die of disease? Storm the castle walls? I'm just a little unclear on the plan. But it doesn't look to me like “treat them with respect and give them good paying jobs” is the sort of thing businesses look forward to any more. Few jobs are really safe any more. The defenders of this system say “why should anyone expect to be safe?” but I ask a different question: “Why would we design a system in which we so devalue the notion of being safe that we instantly chide people for even raising the possibility.” If we in society are not aspiring to create a sense of safety among our populace, what is the point?
Stever, you also suggested “Something like 86% of corporate workers are "disengaged" from their jobs.” Well, of course they are. I remember when people used to love their jobs and think of them as family, as veritable extensions of themselves. They would go way out of their way for such companies. (You and I, of course, worked together at one such.) But any more the thing I've heard people all over say more and more often is “You can't afford to care about your job because it doesn't care about you.” And what troubles me perhaps the most out of this is that this isn't an attitude people were predisposed to have, it's an attitude that people reluctantly have resigned themselves to and it then becomes “supporting data” for people who are proponents of a very Theory X approach to the world, having basically clubbed all of the Theory Y out of them. :(
Linda, as an individual it's hard to stop the march of society. That's why I think we have to discuss more systematic approaches. Thanks for visiting!

Michael, thanks for the cross-reference to The RICH Economy.

Jan, I agree with you about the issue of machines not buying anything. That's why businesses prefer to “hire” them. They work for very little. Maybe we should accelerate the Singularity so that machines would demand a fair wage and then this problem would go away. Well, except to be replaced by another. Nevermind... :)
Lefty, thanks for the mention of Vonnegut's Player Piano. You've mentioned that one before. I should try to track that down sometime.

And you implicitly underscore one of my points, which is that we can get caught up in irrelevant concerns about the asymptotic approach to some theoretically predicted future, when sometimes just getting “sort of close” is bad enough—as when guys like The Koch Brothers get enough money that they can personally, on their own discretion, seek to influence matters that are the proper realm of politics. It becomes, in effect, a war on the very concept of Democracy.
Unfortunately he concept of a warehouse full of people building machines doesn't work when you have machines that build machines.
The 3D printer is in its most expensive elemental primitive state at the moment. When that moves into its proper development it will shear away jobs at a rate that will wipe away huge numbers of workers.
CA: I disagree with you on every example. Yes, I think tin cans would be conscious -- although you underestimate the scale. "The size of the earth" wouldn't be big enough, and the speed would be geological. The affront to your intuition isn't evidence that the theory is false. Stapp is confused about ordinary quantum mechanics, much less consciousness. See Many Worlds for an interpretation of QM that doesn't require consciousness to be in a privileged position in physics.

But I think we've gone far enough away from Kent's post, that this discussion is no longer on topic in these comments. So, with apologies to Kent for starting it, I'll bow out now.
When I think of all the time I spend pushing buttons on the telephone only to find out that none of the menu's solve the problem I have, I wonder why I don't just keep pushing "0" until a human answers.
rated with love
Don, your remarks seem to suppose that people can survive the time scales in question. Modern job practices and trends in at least Republican policy are toward the increasingly callous. (There is no other way to describe an economy in which companies can be making record profits in the billions at the same time as people who have been traditionally employed are laid off, denied medical care, told they will not have their unemployment extended, etc.) People will die waiting for the effects you suggest are to be expected as normal and acceptable.

Moreover, the effects you're talking about also presuppose that the planet can sustain it. I'm sure that in the “ordinary” steady state it could sustain a bit more ratcheting up but I think we're going to find, and harshly, that in making our planet able to manage all these people, it becomes very fragile, depending on a great many accidental truths that will be challenged by things like Climate Change. (The price of food rose 29% in 2010 due to effects many attribute to Climate Change.)

Another way your reasoning-by-almanac (at best a way of knowing what's possible, not very convincing at knowing what will happen) is going to fail this time around, for American workers, is that there are gigantic emerging markets in India and China will almost surely mean that the leveling effect will pull down the US as a supply of many more people enters the market. (This may even be fair, but if it occurs too fast, and it seems poised to do that, it will be impossible for people to adapt fast enough and the effects will be dire.) No scarcity means the market will see no value. The previous effects you're talking about did not have this many people prepared to compete directly in each other's economies—in the previous scenarios you're relying on, simple geography meant there was considerable locality to the effects. Even with products shipped around, there was still really substantial opportunity for local businesses to thrive in a way that's far less true today.
Although consciousness is an interesting area it has many implications that are peripheral to the discussion of automation and the affects on human social organization. It implies a degree of self motivation which probably can be attained by machines by programming without machines necessarily being conscious of a self, although awareness is already involved in even simple machines like governors, thermostats, responsive mechanisms of various kinds which react to changing environments. The inherent mysteries implied in organic structures have been gradually demolished even in the developments of organic chemistry and have a pseudo religious origin and prejudice. No doubt there are great complexities involved in natural organisms which have yet to be explored but they inevitably will yield to research and innovation. It has recently been discovered that neuron axons transmit in two directions ( ) and that opens a whole new concept in brain activity but organics is merely a special area of mechanics and not unavailable to exploration.
As I posed it to you, I think the game was rigged in many ways to benefit the computer. The quick trigger and the awkward form of some questions left a lot to wonder about.

Why would the game show permit such a thing? Uh - it's a game show. And the cynic in me points out that IBM got a helluva lot of free advertising out of this - which makes one wonder what kind of money passed between hands behind the scenes. But like I said, I'm a cynic.

As I also said, heretical as it may be to some, Jeopardy is in some ways a much more difficult game than chess. To win at Jeopardy you must know a lot about a lot of unrelated things, with chess you only have to know a lot about chess. Thus the limits of the game are definable, while in Jeopardy they are not.

As for what this bodes for the future, that is yet to be writ, but if past is prologue, I point you to the infamous Roger Smith, who mortgaged the entire future of GM on "Lights-Out" manufacturing -- and lost.

For those unaware, Smith's plan was to have GM plants so fully automated, cars could be built in the dark by robots working 24-7-365 with no healthcare and no pensions. Yeah, right. Save for a giant govt bailout, the only Lights-Out" would have been at GM.
I wonder if it was merely the fascination with automation that screwed up GM or were there other major factors involved.
Insofar as Jeopardy and chess are concerned the matrix of understanding is surely quite different between the two. Any chess decision is involved with consequences which opens up new possibilities whereas Jeopardy is merely a library of assorted facts and that type of access is basically far simpler for a computer whch merely has to merely sort through a multitudinous collection.
Don, as for your theory of people getting new jobs, the problem has traditionally been that it's often not the farmers that have gotten the new jobs, but perhaps their children. Retooling a career dramatically is very hard. But worse, as the pace of the world accelerates, this happens now several times in people's lifetimes. And as has already been observed, there is a loss of income as one leaves one career and enters another. Climbing back is hard. So where perhaps in the past one worked an entire lifetime becoming good at something, now one is constantly churned from one profession to another, never really achieving greatness, and so appearing to the marketplace as worthless. This is no recipe for human dignity even to start with. But add to it the constant sense that anything you invest in it's only a matter of time until someone tells you they don't need you—that's what a great many people are faced with. There is something wrong with this. Your claim that this is somehow making everyone richer is suspect.
designanator, thanks for visiting, and for underscoring the central point—that much of this is not speculation but merely speaking out loud what's going on already.

Caracalla, it's an open question about technology replacing the service industry. It may not replace servers at restaurants but lack of money could lead to the fall of many restaurants. Food itself could become so expensive that people can't afford the luxury of having it served and have to focus on just being able to buy it. But as for care, the Japanese are working on ’bots that will help with a lot of that, again in an effort to cut costs of care. I don't doubt that some of the unemployed will find ways to stay in that market, but I think the effect of the bots won't be to saturate the market, just to drive down the cost of what people can be paid since it will creat a line above which it's better to get a ’bot, and that line will move ever downward unless something happens such as a resource shortage keeping broad deployment from happening. We have to, in other words, bank on a failure of the deployment of technology in order to feel comfortable that technology is not a threat in that area because technology is on track to enter that area.

I think you're write about what you call the “debt bomb.” The market is in a bind where to sustain its thirst for expansion, it encourages the behavior that it then wants to chide people for doing—borrowing. We should be encouraging people not to buy, but markets abhor saying things like that. This is a fundamental inconsistency. We would, as a society, all be wealthier if we encouraged people to need less. But the individuals that run our society would perceive themselves poorer.
Pedant, I somehow never read Brave New World, but ever since seing this insightful comic explanation of it, it's been on my list to go back and read. Thanks for the reminder.

And yes, I think you're right that there are a lot of threats to artists. The ones you list are certainly worth a whole blog post if you're of a mind to write it. The problem is, to some extent, industry sees artistry as an end, not a means. It's concerned with whether there is something “good enough” to command a sale, little more. Many might regard that artistry should be about individuality and personal bests, but these require the acknowledgment of the intrinsic value of a person at a level different than what can be sold. If such people are merely regarded as “freeloaders” for their inability or unwillingness to churn out something that can be sold, then they can still do it as an avocation, but it becomes irrelevant to the question of what people will do as a vocation.
Caracalla, I do agree with Don on this limited statement: “Some tech geeks believe, with reasonable evidence, that human consciousness is also nothing more than (or at least, equivalent to) some clanking chutes with rolling balls.” I'm one of those people who think it is at least an open question whether we ourselves are anything more than machines. We feel a strong urge to think otherwise, but were we programs, such could just be programmed in. To have intelligence and to not believe we are special may be a cause of insanity, and it may be that evolutionarily we had to develop a sense that there was more than there is just to keep from going nuts. But, in any case, I don't assert that we are necessarily only machines, just that the argument “machines will never be like us” is presuming we know what “like us” is. And presently we don't exactly, though we know that the parts of us we do understand are scarily more machine-like than we think. I'm talking about things like Skinner, Milgram, and even the use of magnets to suppress ethical reasoning. If our human essence is magical in some way, it's certainly at least commentworthy that it's subject to even rudimentary control by basic physics. I won't claim you can conclude much definitive about that, but you can certainly conclude that machine consciousness can't be ruled out as an achievable goal since it's unproven there is even such a thing as human consciousness as a phenomenon independent of mere mechanics. It's quite a leap even from “I am conscious” to “and so is anyone else.” But once you accept that someone else may be conscious, and you can see inside someone else and study their nature, it's not obvious why you can't build a machine of similar structure. Why do we feel driven to do such a thing, which would almost certainly replace us? Is it that we are programmed to? :)
Jan, I'm reading your comments with interest even though not replying to every detail. I think your remark about the reaction in the 30's not going after the libraries or public services is an important one. You ask where the wealth is going, and I think the answer there lies in part with The Wealthy but also in an elusive way with the multi-national corporations, which create a complexity of ownership that has no home and so no place it feels obliged to invest in. Homes become things you shop for, an externality. It becomes unimportant that any given place be invested in as long as some place is. This is different than the way wealth used to be distributed, with its roots at the bottom, and with wealth accumulation going back into local communities on a well-distributed basis. I think this new mobility of both people and wealth (which is almost an entity unto itself) are the reasons that Don's arguments about what has happened before are not holding water.

Caracalla, although I wanted to underscore my belief about the contrast of people and machines, I do think you make some points that are nevertheless worthwhile. I just frame them differently in my mind because I'm not busy trying to defend that machines are different than people. I still think the difficulty and pointlessness of working on the goal is there even in my model.
Poetess, it does make you wonder who is served.

Tom, as for lights-out manufacturing, I've little doubt it can be done. I just don't know why one would want to unless the plan was to leave people more leisure time. If the plan is simply to beat people up about how they never do anything useful any more and to tell them they can't have as much because they don't earn enough, that seems a bad plan. The problem is that in our disconnected free market, the people doing the planning are not planning society, just their corporation. And the people being affected are not part of that plan, they're just casualties. No one is looking out for them, and every time they try collectively through either unions or government, the political Right and the Free Marketeers are in there telling them that things work better if they don't.
This discussion casts a wide net and delves into some of the very basics about civilization and what is important in our lives. There is a good deal of implication that the Protestant work ethic is a fundamental, not only to society, but to basic human nature and I have strong doubts about that. It is sure that some types of work are delightful and ennobling and extremely important to the existence of the species but flipping hamburgers, smashing away at a rock face a mile underground, cleaning toilets and sewers, and a host of vital jobs today that keep industry going but are dangerous and horribly noisy and uncomfortable and exceedingly boring are far better off done by efficient machinery. I frankly doubt that any of them would be done without the economic pressures that keep people alive and I don't think people should have to do them if there are other means.

Another area is that of consciousness and since we each are conscious I suspect there is a high prejudice in exalting it. Anybody who has spent any serious time introspecting their own consciousness soon becomes aware that many prime functions of the mind are pretty well hidden from our consciousness. There are deep layers of very vital activity that have strong effects on our attitudes, opinions, decisions and actions that are totally hidden from our conscious minds. I have come to the conclusion that our consciousness is a surface phenomenon that plays somewhat the role of a diplomatic office to the real world that informs and advises the real intellect lurking in the depths of our nervous system which provides all sorts of highly intricate creative stuff when it can be accessed. I am a graphic artist, a sculptor, and a poet, among other things and the things that pop into my consciousness from this mysterious inner source frequently amaze me and I feel very guilty taking credit for their realization. I certainly have not consciously been responsible for their existence. Whether machines can imitate this structure I cannot say but I have a hunch a sophisticated machine might well do.
Anger is part of the physiological operating structure of human nervous systems. Hammers are not designed for that. Nobody has produced evidence of anything in this universe except the physical and I am not trying to be insulting but there is a terrible lot of nonsense floating around proclaiming anything else.
Caracalla, for reasons that should be so obvious I won't bother to detail them, I moved your most recent comment to The Cornfield.
The one thing I've never seen the technology do on its own is calm a person's fear.

Now that there are no jobs running large customer service organizations (which is what I used to do) I manage CRM implementations on a project basis. What that means in English is change the way people do their jobs via the technology.

And the big issue is also the same. And it's always ignored by the IBM's and Accentures of the world. The big issue is that people are scared of change. The first focus of the training is always "How-to"---till we change it to "why should I?" And the ever popular "What's in it for me?"
I don't want these comments to get emotionally out of hand but please understand that I am not and cannot be offended by emotional language. I find it amusing and am delighted that interest is so intense that strong emotions arise. Caracalla's point that abstract concepts have a "space" within which they operate strikes me as quite valid but I also accept that that space has physical operatives that are not independent of physical laws. His insistence that computer programs cannot operate outside of human input is probably true for systems disconnected from response to data input from real world sensing devices and not provided with programs permitting conceptual variations on how they can be interpreted. It does not strike me as impossible that conceptual variation can be formulated and inserted as a basic tool in computerized systems and perhaps this is already being done as it is not a radical concept. The human genetic system is provided with formulated reactions but it is acknowledged that environmental conditions can either suppress or encourage various alternate capabilities. I have little doubt that this type of interaction can be captured by artificial systems. The human mind is phenomenal in its abilities to create abstractions such as numbers and work out generalized inter-relationships between these abstractions that make workable and creative systems. I cannot understand why these capabilities should be beyond mechanical systems.

Sorry for the delay. This was an excellent post. Although you described a grim portrait of this situation (i.e., automation versus humans), I believe that we’re not as doomed as it seems (with a caveat, as discussed below). In my opinion, what will happen is a shift in the skills that will be required from the work force. People will need to be better educated and trained in order to maintain the robots, computers and related software programs that are used to build products or provide services. Moreover, I still believe that many jobs or positions cannot be replaced by robots, such as my line of work. These kinds of positions also need creative people, who need to think “outside the box.”

In the past, holding a high school degree would be good enough for the majority of positions. Now, one needs to hold a bachelor’s degree, often because the candidate is required to understand the latest technological advancements. In fact, some positions that required an undergraduate diploma 10 or 15 years ago have been upgraded where only people with advanced degrees can fulfilled these positions.

Given how bad the US is doing education wise (very low world rankings for math and sciences for instance), I’m concerned that the problem with unemployment (long-term) will just get worse if the trend to better educate our people does not turn around soon.
ChicGuy, thanks for weighing in. As I was reading what you wrote, the fanciful idea arose in my mind of taxing products differently depending on whether they displaced or enabled existing workers, as a way of encouraging vendors to offer products that think about the effect of deploying them on existing workforces. I don't know if that's practical or desirable, but it was an interesting thought.

Jan, thanks for the clarifications.

Kanuk, certainly the education issue is material to this. But as noted in earlier discussion, even the educated have that issue because to be educated in one skill may not be to be educated in another. The cost of catching up is high if one has to shift jobs, and the need to shift jobs is common. That's pretty challenging even for the prepared and nearly impossible for the unprepared. We'd better start investing in something and not keep treating both “having employees” and “educating citizens” as mere expenses.
I apologize for my verbosity but the assumption that robots are merely another gadget that requires a flock of slightly different technologists for maintenance doesn't get the concept. Robots can be generalists that have other robots to maintain them. Aside from that, even in today's world repairing stuff is going out of style. People throw the old one out since it is cheaper merely to get a new one. In a greatly more automated world this trend should increase markedly.
Jan, I concur. It's probably not worth paying a person to diagnose what can more easily be tossed. So much of modern maintenance comes down to just replacement, which isn't a high-skill thing. People like watchmakers are dying out.
BOOK! BOOK! BOOK! Don & Kent, we should get one more person with a different viewpoint and then rent a cabin for a weekend, map out all our respective theories and causal diagrams, and then write a book. I'm just sayin'...
The essential problem lies in the concept that abstractions have no physical basis. That they exist in an inter-related virtual domain cannot be denied but to insist that hat domain has no relationship to the physical world is entirely unwarranted. It would mean that no brain changes physically occur when you have an idea, that there is no nerve system interaction that is probably both physical and chemical when you think. There is definite experimental proof otherwise. That the abstract linkages in thought have inter-relationships that are easier to follow on an abstract level than through an understanding of raw chemical and physiological level is not denied, but those basic raw inter-relationships are vital to the interactions since the abstracts could not exist without them. There is no Platonic cloud cuckoo land where abstracts play their games without actual physical and chemical actions underlying them. That ventures into pseudo theological areas.
The perceptual systems of all living creatures are continually assaulted by data inputs from their apparatus which have relevant and irrelevant components insofar as survival is concerned. Our perception systems are not only sensitive to much of this data but are active filters that sift out that which is useful and that which is not so huge amounts of stuff are merely thrown away. We take what we can accept and organize it into patterns that we can work with mentally and that is what we call our universe. To assume electrons have to think is to assume that each rock is a mathematician that calculates a perfect parabola as it is thrown. The parts of the universe that interact do so because forces and energies form a totally interactive matrix. Electrons are human interpretations of parts of these interactive energies. All thinking is essentially pattern matching and triggering and that is how we see the world but the world either exists or it doesn't. Its existence makes sense to me and that's all there is to it.
Nobody's intimating that there are not physical interactions in the universe that can be parsed out into recognizable patterns. But those patterns are human mental constructions. At one time it was irrefutable that if you said something forbidden or did something out of order Zeus or Thor or some other entity would whack you with lightning if you didn't quickly kill a goat or a sheep in a special way. Those mental constructs have proved unreliable. The so-called laws of the universe have been puzzled out of the multitudinous interactions we pick out of our observations in a special human way, in the manner of seeing odd cities floating through the clouds or Jesus Christ in a salami sandwich. Those very useful laws hold until we discover more useful ones to replace them as Einstein deftly demonstrated. There's all sorts of stuff going on out there that totally puzzle us and massive unrecognized things that were not dreamed of thirty years ago. What we know of the universe exists in our heads pieced together out of the fragmentary patterns we construct in our abstractions that function well until we manage to find better ones. The soul of science is a flux of concepts and that's what keeps it alive and useful and fascinating. And it's all in our heads.
A concept that all these abstractions are safely in the universe is a rather obtuse acceptance that imaginary thing are there for real. Unicorns, angels, dragons and Alice in Wonderland are also "in the universe" but I do not place them in the same category as gravity or electromagnetic radiation or frogs. If you do place them so I can only regard you as somewhat demented.
Jan, where do you put “justice” or “happiness”? Just curious.
Justice is a concept fitted into the abstractions of human morality that relates to a balance of action and social reaction. There are many moral systems and justice is not the same between all of them.

Happiness seems to be a sense of satisfaction existent in the internal evaluation system of, at least, the human system of awareness. It seems likely it exists in some related ways in other aware organisms. It is a spectrum evaluation and has great variation.
To go into it in slightly more detail the word happiness is part of the system of abstractions of a particular language, English, and is vague enough as a word to cover many many things. Is it the same as joy, or delight, or exultation ? Perhaps, but not exactly. Is it merely the lack of various discomforts such as worry or pain or dissatisfaction with social or financial status or personal appearance or a relationship with another person? Or is it merely some sort of internal chemical balance and its affect on the nervous system? That latter certainly exists as a determinable physical reality.
Jan, I think I mostly agree with you, but was just curious. Happiness may be tricky to define but is sort of operationally measurable to some degree. Justice is not only difficult to define but not really subject to measurement. The difference being that happiness probably precedes consciousness (and is perhaps even prerequisite to it) and justice is a concept that arises later and is perhaps more subject to debate.
This is all pretty far afield of the thread topic at this point, which is fine with me at this point since the discussion seems to have wound down, but if anyone reading on wants to make a comment that returns us to the original topic of the the article, please don't feel you're interrupting. :)
What seems to be he instigation of consternation here is whether a machine can operate in full awareness of these mini-universes of abstractions as we humans seem to do. I cannot see that humans are more than hugely sophisticated physical, chemical and electrical contrivances and I agree we have not yet reached the stage of duplicating this type of architecture but I doubt it is impossible.
Jan, I agree there is no demonstrated barrier to achieving parity. The goal is elusive even for humans. I loved the interchange in the I, Robot movie between Det. Spooner (a human) and Sonny (a robot):

Detective Del Spooner: Human beings have dreams. Even dogs have dreams, but not you, you are just a machine. An imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a... canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?

Sonny: Can you?

After all, not even all people are as intelligent as we speak abstractly about People being.

And thanks for connecting this back up to the thread topic—I had lost track of the reason for the side discussion.

But to reiterate my point from the article: “I worry about effects involving smart computers that will happen long before then.”
Just yesterday a friend and I attended a current exhibition at the major Helsinki art museum, the Atheneum, comprising a group of paintings at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The beautifully realistic portrayal of humanity in Europe as industrial society monstrously wrenched society in its economics and social mores produced frightful tragedies of humans wandering in a world turned upside down where agriculture was no longer its mainstay and the demands of industry caused great miseries and frightful emotions. It seems to me the world is again embarking on this same terrible turmoil and automation and robotics will be at the center of these tragedies that are just beginning to sweep the world. We are entering terrible times.
Up in the air, starring George Clooney, also, begs the question.

Kent, an excellent piece despite me having to admit I needed to read it several times. This is heady stuff and there's no way I would attempt in any way to be part of this discussion. I'm too busy trying to wrap my head around it. I'm grateful for the brainiacs of the world, including you.
Caracalla, I don't agree with you that the fact that you can move a program from one machine to another means it is different than people in other than trivial ways. I don't agree for two reasons, one related to qualities of the machine (which I think you're selling short) and one related to people (which I think you're overselling). This is not to say that I don't acknowledge that life has many mysteries, but what I mean to say that putting us on par with computers won't eliminate those, if it ever comes to that.

First issue: When you say you could copy the program to another machine, I reject this. This has been well-discussed in science fiction. I don't recall the story but there is one that begins with a person on some sort of dangerous mission (perhaps a suicide mission). He has volunteered to be cloned, and as I recall in some way that clones his memories. Let's say that was possible. Maybe by a transporter accident (as happens a couple of times on Star Trek) maybe by some other means. It seems conceivable you could design such a device (maybe not one that transports you to a place with no receiver, but perhaps a "copier" that copies matter in place). So the question there becomes: Are these copies or distinct. The answer is distinct. Because from the moment of the copy, all they know must be applied differently. If they face each other, then one faces left and the other right, so their experiences diverge. If both face the same way, then one is at the left and the other the right, or one is in front and the other the back. Already experiences diverge. If a boulder falls, perhaps only one dies. If a bear enters, one may be caught and the other not. In the story I read, the guy had decided it was okay to be cloned to do this dangerous thing because if he died, he would still be alive elsewhere, but from the moment of cloning he realizes that he is not the other, and if he dies, that's it, there is no other, even though it seemed beforehand that there was. So copying cannot copy the relationships only the memories. Any entity that is plugged into the world is different. If it's my best friend, I'm going to spend time with only one, not both, and so one is robbed of my friendship and one is not. That can't be copied, even though the program and data can, and so the copy is imperfect even while being bitwise equal.

The other aspect, having to do with humans, is that until it's shown that there is more to us, it's not clear why you are concerned that the digital copy is all there is. Although made up of lots of parts, most of our parts are known to be replaceable. And even the parts that are not are finite in their atoms. So whatever we are, it is complete and contained in the way of a computer, just different construction technology. Perhaps the only difference is that like the way they make car radios to sabotage themselves if you pull them from the car, working only in-place, our entire structure is that way. Maybe we're just some intelligent race's machines, integrated with clever intellectual property protection that makes us hard to copy. :)
Mark, thanks for visiting. Yes, I enjoyed that movie, and I agree the issue is similar.

Mary, I'm always torn by such remarks since on the one hand I'd like it to be plain enough that it comes through on first read, and yet on the other hand I'd like it to be rich enough that it suffers a second read usefully. I'm glad you persisted and got useful value from it.
Caracalla, I wrote a response but OS ate it, probably fearing I was somehow adding spam by whatever link I offered. I was in that moment offering a pointer to The Measure of a Man, a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ( that addresses a number of these issues.

But we do have ways of copying people: We can copy their DNA. Certainly twins result that way. And yet they are different. The difference is data and experience.

In fact, it's not clear you could make a computer that was like a person without experience, so you almost have to presuppose that it interacts with people and lives with people, and so it's not in a box on a table like in your hypothetical lab experiment. A person doing that would likely go insane. People don't cope well with sensory deprivation unless they're in a coma perhaps, and maybe not even then.
Caracalla, it's not demonstrated that the nature of that quantum undecidability is necessary to most of the function fo the body. It could just be poor implementation. What seems clear is that the “program” you refer to is not going to look like most programs now. But then, neural net programs exist—e.g., programs like Dragon's NaturallySpeaking are, as I understand it, programmed using neural net style. Certainly it appears to learn in a way that is very like humans in the limited area for which it has expertise. But the point is that if you're expecting you can, when it dies, break it open and read the proram, it's not going to do that. Its program may be sufficiently complex to only make sense in context. But it's not demonstrated that a sufficiently complex program could not be made. You're just assuming that if it's not identical, it doesn't count. That's a big leap of faith. That already precludes you ever being human if you're not me, the only human I can verify, or me ever being human if I'm not you, the only human you can verify. We need a more tolerant definition of humanity and sentience than what you offer, which in spite of what you say still seems to lean heavily on implementation.
Put another way, people are unpacked from a heavily compressed assembly program, DNA. Once unpacked, it's not clear they execute a program. They rather learn one. And it may be we have to build machines that likewise learn a program, such that you can't know what program they are executing, or if you know it you can't make sense of it. It is, in effect, encrypted in that its programming style is what would to modern programmers be seen as unhygienic, getting quickly involved in the Halting Problem any time you sought to work through the implications of its pieces, and so safely out of the realm of inspection even as you held it in your hand. Is it the mystery you seek, because if it's that, then computers are well capable of mystery.
Caracalla, it's an unproven claim that people couldn't have aspects of their sensory awareness replaced in precisely the way you talk about symbols being given different significance in a computer. The Star Trek original series episode Spock's Brain ( explores this concept in an admittedly crude but nevertheless thoughtful way.
The core disagreement seems to be about whether people are totally mechanical or there is something about people that is not reproducible mechanically. I see no evidence that there is anything in living beings other than mechanically active components. It has nothing to do with precisely how these components interact or what methods were used in formulating their interaction. To claim living beings are radically different from mechanically interactive components is to make theological assertions and nothing in that area has given any evidence of existence.
One slight addition. To claim that a computer program is not a thought or that a library is not a compendium of thoughts is like saying the DNA in a cell is not a human being. So what? An active robot is not a program. It is a device interacting with reality and can be constructed so that interaction can modify its programming. A living being is a mechanical device that interacts with its environment so that the interaction becomes part of its programming.
Nobody ever claimed the symbols describing a device or a process is the device or process. But an active device using the directions indicated by a program is more than a program and you deny that. When that device can modify the program it moves towards what living beings can do and just what modifications are crucial is another matter. I'm saying it can be done and you deny it.
Caracalla, you have spoken enough. Please take it elsewhere.

And please in the future do not monopolize this much of my threads. I should have stopped you earlier and in the future I will try harder to do so.

First, it is unmannerly to write this much on someone else's thread without encouragement from them that you should. Certainly you should check with them for permission. Even one long remark is already pushing it, but to do long remark after long remark after long remark like a relentless firehose locks out other discussion. At this point, I am confident the reason no one else is talking is that they don't want to engage you.

Second, I don't think you're on topic. This issue of whether people can be equivalent to computers is a specific issue I alluded to in passing was not the thread topic. I specifically used language to avoid it in the article, saying that while it's an interesting concern, my central concern are the problems that can happen in advance of that. That was what this discussion might have been had you not hijacked this conversation.

Third, you seem to just haughtily reject the legitimate points of others as if you were the final arbiter. Even if you were on topic, I don't think for all your verbiage you've done anything to refute the points that have been raised, and yet I'm confident that anything I reply you will hit me back with many long comments in response, such that it's just a filibuster against anyone else saying anything.

The mannerly thing is not to attempt to beat everyone into submission but merely to state your point and be done with it and step back and leave others to make their point. Right now, I'm sure nearly everyone is not commenting so as not to end up in a battle with you. I suggest that if you think it's fun to have a discussion like this, you should write your own post and see how many people will engage you. Maybe many will, and I wish you a good time. I will not be among them.
I apologize also for being engaged in an off topic discussion not relevant to the topic. It is a fascinating area to discuss and the opportunity to discuss it should be somewhere if not here. Most of the arguments against aware mechanisms seem not to be too well comfortable with the nature of awareness and a good deal of the negative views are derived from the proposition of current ignorance declared to be perpetual. Some other time and place. Thanks for the opportunity. I sincerely doubt Caracalla was trying to be offensive.
Everything you say here sounds correct and it scares the living day lights out of me.