We sat down at a table. We put our number in the center of the table and waited. In about 10 seconds the kids screamed, "When is our food going to get here???" I said, "Let's count." In less than two minutes a woman in an apron put a tray with our food on the table, handed us our change, took the plastic number and left.
You know what? It is a nice system. It works. It is much nicer than standing in line. The only improvement I would request is the ability to use a credit card.
As nice as this system is, however, I think that it represents the tip of an iceberg that we do not understand. This iceberg is going to change the American economy in ways that are very hard to imagine.
The iceberg looks like this. On that same day, I interacted with five different automated systems like the kiosks in McDonald's:
All of these systems are very easy-to-use from a customer standpoint, they are fast, and they lower the cost of doing business and should therefore lead to lower prices. All of that is good, so these automated systems will proliferate rapidly.
The problem is that these systems will also eliminate jobs in massive numbers. In fact, we are about to see a seismic shift in the American workforce. As a nation, we have no way to understand or handle the level of unemployment that we will see in our economy over the next several decades.
These kiosks and self-service systems are the beginning of the robotic revolution. When most people think about robots, they think about independent, autonomous, talking robots like the ones we see in science fiction films. C-3PO and R2-D2 are powerful robotic images that have been around for decades. Robots like these will come into our lives much more quickly than we imagine -- self-service checkout systems are the first primitive signs of the trend. Here is one view from the future to show you where we are headed:
The next step was autonomous, humanoid robots. The mechanics of walking were not simple, but Honda had proven that those problems could be solved with the creation of its ASIMO robot at the turn of the century. Sony and other manufacturers followed Honda's lead. Over the course of two decades, engineers refined this hardware and the software controlling it to the point where they could create humanoid bodyforms with the grace and precision of a ballerina or the mass and sheer strength of the Incredible Hulk.
Decades of research and development work on autonomous robotic intelligence finally started to pay off. By 2025, the first machines that could see, hear, move and manipulate objects at a level roughly equivalent to human beings were making their way from research labs into the marketplace. These robots could not "think" creatively like human beings, but that did not matter. Massive AI systems evolved rapidly and allowed machines to perform in ways that seemed very human.
Humanoid robots soon cost less than the average car, and prices kept falling. A typical model had two arms, two legs and the normal human-type sensors like vision, hearing and touch. Power came from small, easily recharged fuel cells. The humanoid form was preferred, as opposed to something odd like R2-D2, because a humanoid shape fit easily into an environment designed around the human body. A humanoid robot could ride an escalator, climb stairs, drive a car, and so on without any trouble.
Once the humanoid robot became a commodity item, robots began to move in and replace humans in the workplace in a significant way. The first wave of replacement began around 2030, starting with jobs in the fast food industry. Robots also filled janitorial and housekeeping positions in hotels, motels, malls, airports, amusement parks and so on.
The economics of one of these humanoid robots made the decision to buy them almost automatic. In 2030 you could buy a humanoid robot for about $10,000. That robot could clean bathrooms, take out trash, wipe down tables, mop floors, sweep parking lots, mow grass and so on. One robot replaced three six-hour-a-day employees. The owner fired the three employees and in just four months the owner recovered the cost of the robot. The robot would last for many years and would happily work 24 hours a day. The robot also did a far better job -- for example, the bathrooms were absolutely spotless. It was impossible to pass up a deal like that, so corporations began buying armies of humanoid robots to replace human employees.
The first completely robotic fast food restaurant opened in 2031. It had some rough edges, but by 2035 the rough edges were gone and by 2040 most restaurants were completely robotic. By 2055 the robots were everywhere. The changeover was that fast. It was a startling, amazing transformation and the whole thing happened in only 25 years or so starting in 2030.
In 2055 the nation hit a big milestone -- over half of the American workforce was unemployed, and the number was still rising. Nearly every "normal" job that had been filled by a human being in 2001 was filled by a robot instead. At restaurants, robots did all the cooking, cleaning and order taking. At construction sites, robots did everything -- Robots poured the concrete, laid brick, built the home's frame, put in the windows and doors, sided the house, roofed it, plumbed it, wired it, hung the drywall, painted it, etc. At the airport, robots flew the planes, sold the tickets, moved the luggage, handled security, kept the building clean and managed air traffic control. At the hospital robots cared for the patients, cooked and delivered the food, cleaned everything and handled many of the administrative tasks. At the mall, stores were stocked, cleaned and clerked by robots. At the amusement park, hundreds of robots ran the rides, cleaned the park and sold the concessions. On the roads, robots drove all the cars and trucks. Companies like Fedex, UPS and the post office had huge numbers of robots instead of people sorting packages, driving trucks and making deliveries.
By 2055 robots had taken over the workplace and there was no turning back.
Imagine this. Imagine that you could travel back in time to the year 1900. Imagine that you stand on a soap box on a city street corner in 1900 and you say to the gathering crowd, "By 1955, people will be flying at supersonic speeds in sleek aircraft and traveling coast to coast in just a few hours." In 1900, it would have been insane to suggest that. In 1900, airplanes did not even exist. Orville and Wilbur did not make the first flight until 1903. The Model T Ford did not appear until 1909.
Yet, by 1947, Chuck Yeager flew the X1 at supersonic speeds. In 1954, the B-52 bomber made its maiden flight. It took only 51 years to go from a rickety wooden airplane flying at 10 MPH, to a gigantic aluminum jet-powered Stratofortress carrying 70,000 pounds of bombs halfway around the world at 550 MPH. In 1958, Pan Am started non-stop jet flights between New York and Paris in the Boeing 707. In 1969, Americans set foot on the moon. It is unbelievable what engineers and corporations can accomplish in 50 or 60 short years.
There were millions of people in 1900 who believed that humans would never fly. They were completely wrong. However, I don't think anyone in 1900 could imagine the B-52 happening in 54 years.
Over the next 55 years, the same thing will happen to us with robots. In the process, the entire employment landscape in America will change. Here is why that will happen.
Taking Moore's law literally, you would expect processor power to increase by a factor of 1,000 every 15 or 20 years. Between 1981 and 2001, that was definitely the case. Clock speed improved by a factor of over 300 during that time, and the number of transistors per chip increased by a factor of 1,400. A processor in 2002 is 10,000 times faster than a processor in 1982 was. This trend has been in place for decades, and there is nothing to indicate that it will slow down any time soon. Scientists and engineers always get around the limitations that threaten Moore's law by developing new technologies. [ref]
The same thing happens with RAM chips and hard disk space. A 10 megabyte hard disk cost about $1,000 in 1982. Today you can buy a 250 gigabyte drive that is twice as fast for $350. Today's drive is 25,000 times bigger and costs one-third the price of the 1982 model because of Moore's law. In the same time period -- 1982 to 2002 -- standard RAM (Random Access Memory) available in a home machine has gone from 64 kilobytes to 128 megabytes -- it improved by of factor of 2,000.
What if we simply extrapolate out, taking the idea that every 20 years things improve by a factor of 1,000 or 10,000? What we get is a machine in 2020 that has a processor running at something like 10 trillion operations per second. It has a terabyte of RAM and one or two petabytes of storage space (a petabyte is one quadrillion bytes). A machine with this kind of power is nearly incomprehensible -- there are only two or three machines on the planet with this kind of power today (the monstrous NEC Earth Simulator, with 5,000 separate processor chips working together, is one example). In 2020, every kid will be running their video games on a $500 machine that has that kind of power.
What if we extrapolate another 20 years after that, to 2040? A typical home machine at that point will be 1,000 times faster than the 2020 machine. Human brains are thought to be able to process at a rate of approximately one quadrillion operations per second. A CPU in the 2040 time frame could have the processing power of a human brain, and it will cost $1,000. It will have a petabyte (one quadrillion bytes) of RAM. It will have one exabyte of storage space. An exabyte is 1,000 quadrillion bytes. That's what Moore's law predicts.
Between 1981 and 2002, the processing power, hard disk space and RAM in a typical desktop computer increased dramatically because of Moore's Law. Extrapolating out to the years 2021 and 2041 shows a startling increase in computer power. The point where small, inexpensive computers have power approaching that of the human brain is just a few decades away.
The computer power we will have in a home machine around 2050 will be utterly amazing. A typical home computer will have processing power and memory capacity that exceeds that of a human brain. What we will have in 2100 is anyone's guess. The power of a million human brains on the desktop? It is impossible to imagine, but not unlikely.
We need to start thinking about that future today. People are talking optimistically about fielding a team of humanoid robotic soccer players able to beat the best human players in 2050. Imagine a team of C-3POs running and kicking as well as or better than the best human soccer stars, but never getting tired or injured. Imagine that same sort of robot taking 50% of America's jobs. This Honda ad for ASIMO, and the fact that Honda is running it, are telling:
Honda ad from the back cover of Smithsonian magazine, January 2003
As the ad says, "ASIMO could be quite useful in some very important tasks." One of those very important tasks will be to take your job. [For details on ASIMO and a video, Click Here]
The point is simple. In the 2050 time frame, you can expect to buy a $1,000 home computer that has the computing power and memory of the human brain. Manufacturers will marry that computer with a humanoid robotic chassis like ASIMO, a fuel cell and advanced AI software to create autonomous humanoid robots with startling capabilities. It is not really hard to imagine that we will have robots like C-3PO walking around and filling jobs as early as the 2030 time frame. What's missing from robots right now is brainpower, and by 2030 we will start to have more silicon brainpower than we know what to do with.
The New Employment Landscape
The problem, of course, is that all of these robots will eliminate a huge portion of the jobs currently held by human beings. For example, there are 3.5 million jobs in the fast food industry alone. Many of those will be lost to kiosks. Many more will be lost to robots that can flip burgers and clean bathrooms. Eventually they will all be lost. The only people who will still have jobs in the fast food industry will be the senior management team at corporate headquarters.
The same sort of thing will happen in retail stores, hotels, airports, factories, construction sites, delivery companies and so on. All of these jobs will evaporate at approximately the same time, leaving all of those workers unemployed. The Post Office, FedEx and UPS together employed over a million workers in 2002. Once robots can drive the trucks and deliver the packages at a much lower cost than human workers can, those 1,000,000 or so employees will be out on the street.
If you look at the 2000 census figures, you can see the magnitude of the problem. According to the census, there were 114 million employees working for 7 million companies in 2000. The employees brought home almost $4 trillion in wages that year. Here's the breakdown by industry:
U.S. jobs by industry according to the 2000 Census.
When you look at this chart, it is easy to understand that there will be huge job losses by 2040 or 2050 as robots move into the workplace. For example:
All the people who are holding jobs like those today will be unemployed.
American society has no way to deal with a situation where half of the workers are unemployed. During the Great Depression at its very worst, 25% of the population was unemployed. In the robotic future, where 50 million jobs are lost, there is the potential for 50% unemployment. The conventional wisdom says that the economy will create 50 million new jobs to absorb all the unemployed people, but that raises two important questions:
Labor = Money
Right now, a majority of people in America trade their labor for money, and then they use the money to participate in the economy. Our entire society is built around a simple equation: labor = money. This equation explains why any new labor-saving technology is disruptive -- it threatens a group of people with joblessness and welfare.
Autonomous humanoid robots will take disruption to a whole new level. Once fully-autonomous, general-purpose humanoid robots are as easy to buy as an automobile, most people in the economy will not be able to make the labor = money trade anymore. They will have no way to earn money, and that means they end up homeless and on welfare.
This article from the NYTimes sums up our current situation with this quote:
With productivity growing at more than 2 percent a year, and the labor force growing about 1 percent a year, she said, the "hurdle rate" of growth for increasing the share of Americans with jobs cannot be less than 3 percent.
When a significant portion of the normal American population is permanently living in government welfare dormitories because of unemployment, what we will have is a third-world nation. These citizens will be imprisoned by unemployment in their own society. If you are an adult in America and you do not have a job, you are flat out of luck. That is how our economy is structured today -- you cannot live your life unless you have a job. Many people -- perhaps a majority of Americans -- will find themselves out of luck in the coming decades.
The arrival of humanoid robots should be a cause for celebration. With the robots doing most of the work, it should be possible for everyone to go on perpetual vacation. Instead, robots will displace millions of employees, leaving them unable to find work and therefore destitute. I believe that it is time to start rethinking our economy and understanding how we will allow people to live their lives in a robotic nation.