12.28.2003

 
I, Robot
A number of people have written and sent this link for a new domestic robot called the NS-5. According to the site, the purpose of the NS-5 is to, "Provide Freedom.... With the NS-5 at your side 24/7 you'll have more free time for hobbies, recreation, friends and most importantly family." Among other things, the NS-5 knows 80 languages and can mow the grass, walk the dog, shop for groceries and do the laundry. The NS-5 will even handle your personal finances and file your taxes for you.



Fortunately or unfortunately, the NS-5 is currently science fiction. The web site, along with a movie trailer that looks exactly like an ad for a real robot, are part of an elaborate marketing campaign for the movie "I, Robot" which will debut in July 2004. The book "I, Robot" is a collection of short stories written by Issac Asimov.
In Asimov's short story called "Escape!", a thinking robot called "The Brain" is asked to design a hyperatomic space-warp engine. According to the story "There are no known limits to The Brain's capacity." The Brain has emotions, a personality, a moral code (the three laws), a sense of judgement and amazing computing powers. It has vision, language and so on. Pretty sophisticated stuff. When asked to design the first warp engine, The Brain says,
    "I can do it. I can build you the whole ship, just as easy -- if you let me have the robots. A nice ship. It'll take two months maybe."
And The Brain does just that. In two months The Brain invents the first warp engine and builds an entire ship around it. The ship works and travels 300,000 parsecs (about 1 million lightyears) on its first demonstration flight. The ship is completely automatic, and carries human passengers even though they have no control of the ship.

Robots like The Brain are not that far away. With robots able to invent, design, build and pilot space ships (and by extrapolation absolutely everything else), how does the economy work? How do people earn a living? The only way for an economy to work when robots are this capable is for the the economy to be completely different from the one we have in place in the U.S. today. The notion of "working for a living" -- the foundation of today's economy -- is meaningless when robots do all the work.



Domestic assistants like the NS-5 will be here in 30 years or so, mowing the lawn, walking the dog and filing taxes. What Asimov misses is that robots like the NS-5 will take 50% or more of the jobs in the U.S. As stated in the article Robotic Freedom:A robot with the capabilities of the NS-5 could handle any of these jobs. The article goes on:The question is, how are we going to change the economy to handle this inevitable robotic future? How are we, as a society, going to respond to this robotic revolution? If we handle it properly, the arrival of robots could be an incredibly beneficial event for human beings. If we do not handle it properly, we will end up with millions of unemployed people and a severe economic downturn that will benefit no one. Can we modify the American economy now to prevent this downturn? Are there things that we can do today to smooth the transition to the robotic nation? See these two articles for two different perspectives on a new economic foundation:[See also this]

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