Robotic Nation FAQ

by Marshall Brain

Question 1 – Why did you write these articles? What is your goal?

My goal is very simple. I firmly believe that the rapid evolution of computer technology (as described in Robotic Nation) will bring us smart robots starting in a 2030 time frame. These robots will take over approximately 50% of the jobs in the U.S. economy over the course of just a decade or two. Something on the order of 50 million people will be unemployed. See Robotic Nation for details.

The economy may adjust and invent new jobs for those 50 million unemployed workers, but it will not do so instantaneously. What we will have is a period of economic turmoil. All of those unemployed workers will be in a very bad spot. The economy as a whole will suffer from this turmoil and the downward economic spiral it causes. No one will benefit when this happens.

We are intelligent people living in a modern, high-tech society. Robots are inevitable. Instead of letting this robotic revolution happen uncontrollably and then reacting to the chaos that ensues, what I am proposing is that we look at the problem rationally and design a systematic solution. See Robotic Freedom for possible solutions.

Question 2 – You are suggesting that the switchover to robots will happen quickly, over the course of just 20 to 30 years. Why do you think it will happen so fast?

Here is something to keep in mind. When Henry Ford introduced the Model T, there were essentially no cars on the road. 10 years later, his company alone was producing 2 million cars a year. And that was a century ago. There was no WWW in 1993. Version 1.0 of the first Web browser was introduced in November, 1993. Yet today, the Web is so pervasive that you are reading this article. What you are doing at this moment was impossible just 10 years ago.

Once the fundamentals of robotic intelligence are figured out, vision being the key limiter right now, robots will spread with startling speed. They will be a commodity, just like cell phones or desktop computers. See this article for a perspective on how fast robots will spread.

What has been holding smart robots back is CPU power and memory. That is about to change. In the 2030 to 2040 time frame we will have desktop computers with CPU power and memory equivalent to that of the human brain. See this page fo a description of how fast things are moving right now. Once we cross over the threshold to intelligent robots, we will see a flood of robots into the workplace.

We have seen this phenomenon before. For decades it was predicted that computers would never beat humans at chess. And that prediction held true for a time. Chess computers could not beat human players until there was enough CPU power available. Now a desktop computer can beat most human chess players, and specialized computers can beat nearly every human player. Once enough CPU power was available, beating humans was trivial.

The exact same thing will happen with robots in the job market sometime between 2030 and 2040.

Question 3 – In the past, every technological innovation has created more jobs, not less. When (choose one, depending on the author of the email) [the horse-drawn plow was replaced by the tractor], or [the security guard was replaced by the burglar alarm], or [the factory making brooms replaced the craftsman creating brooms] or [the computer replaced human calculators] or [etc.], it improved productivity and gave everyone a higher standard of living. Why do you think that robots will create massive unemployment and other economic problems?

First, human calculators or security guards or broom makers did not make up 50% of the labor force. No single technology has ever threatened half of the labor pool like autonomous robots do. The Robots that appear in a 2030 time frame will directly target 50% of the labor force. That’s one difference.

In addition, the “computer industry”, the “burglar alarm industry”, the “broom factory”, etc. all created lots of new jobs for the displaced workers to fill. The robotic nation will not work that way. As described in Robots in 2015, the robotic industry will displace tens of millions of workers but will employ very few of them. Robots will build and repair the new robots, not people. That’s a second difference.

Think about the industrial revolution. In the industrial revolution we created tools. People, being the only intelligent species around, were hired to operate the tools, creating jobs. In the robotic revolution, where computers have the power of multiple human brains, we are instead talking about creating a second intelligent species. This new species directly competes with humans for jobs. As time passes, this new species gets better and better, cheaper and cheaper. So the new species takes more and more jobs. Since, in our current economy, no human can survive unless he/she has a job, this new species creates a very bad scenario for humans unless we change the economy. That’s the third difference.

The fourth difference is a structural change in our economy. In the past, increases in productivity have meant higher wages and reduced hours for workers. Today, worker wages are stagnant. Most of the money from productivity improvements flows to the wealthy, creating a gigantic Concentration of wealth. Robots will turbocharge the concentration of wealth and leave tens of millions of workers in poverty.

Significant changes in the economy usually work themselves out in the long run, but in the short run they can be devastating. One example is the Great Depression. Long term we survived, but ask anyone who went through it to describe the tremendously bad short term effects. Read The Grapes of Wrath to get another perspective. The robotic revolution will cause tremendous economic upheaval. Instead of letting chaos rain down upon us, we should develop a systematic solution to the problem now.

Question 4 – There is absolutely no evidence for what you are writing about. You have no economic foundation for your proposals. Why are you writing such gibberish?

There is significant support for what I am discussing. Simply go to Google and type in “jobless recovery” as the search term on either the Web or the News side. Here’s a collection of articles:

  • Casualties Of the Recovery: Jobs Cut Since 2001 Are Gone for Good : “The vast majority of the 2.7 million job losses since the 2001 recession began were the result of permanent changes in the U.S. economy and are not coming back.”
  • Mystery of the ‘jobless recovery’ : “Employment growth at the moment is the lowest for any recovery since the government started keeping such statistics in 1939. The labor force shrank in July as discouraged workers stopped seeking employment. The number of people employed has fallen by more than 1 million since the “recovery” began in the fall of 2001.”
  • Productivity is in way of jobless recovery: “Faster-than-expected growth is producing slower-than-expected hiring because the United States is experiencing a new kind of economic recovery driven by productivity gains rather than job creation, a Federal Reserve study reports.”
  • ‘Jobless recovery’ keeps recruiter business down: ” In fact, 2002 marked the first time in more than a decade that the U.S. executive search industry saw two consecutive annual decreases in revenue… Testifying to the difficulties in the industry, Korn/Ferry International, which held the top spot on the BBJ’s list last year, saw its revenue in Massachusetts decline by more than half to $7 million from $15 million the year before.”
  • Massive job losses spur pessimism on recovery : “The economy lost another 93,000 jobs last month in nearly every field, from manufacturing to services and government, despite evidence of a strong pickup in growth, the Labor Department reported yesterday.”
  • A jobless recovery can’t go on for long: “But there are trends working their way through the economy that aren’t cyclical. Some — and no one knows exactly how many — of the jobs lost in the recent economic downturn won’t be coming back. They’re gone for good, exported to low-wage countries such as China. That’s especially the case in the manufacturing sector. Since February 2001, the United States has lost about 15% of all jobs in the manufacturing sector. Those job losses haven’t been limited to old-economy, metal-bending industries. About 25% of jobs in the computer and electronics manufacturing sector are gone, too. Some of those will return along with demand for networking equipment, machine tools and PCs. But the vast majority of the 2.7 million jobs lost since the 2001 recession began are the result of permanent changes in the U.S. economy, a recent report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York concludes. Job creation of the magnitude needed to significantly reduce unemployment will require the creation of new jobs in emerging economic sectors, the Fed’s report continues. That’s no mean task, given that it takes the creation of about 100,000 new jobs a month just to keep up with population expansion, and growth of about 200,000 jobs a month to reduce unemployment significantly.”
  • Good Economy. Bad Job Market. Huh?: “The United States economy has not experienced anything like this since World War II. Normally, a spike in productivity is accompanied by an even greater spike in demand. Simply put, productivity rises when workers produce more and sell more each year, and do so without putting in extra hours. The production part is working just fine. The demand, however, is lacking.”

See also this page for additional evidence.

The “jobless recovery” is a direct result of automation and robots. Everything from automated checkout lines to factory robots are causing productivity improvements, meaning that businesses can grow without hiring new workers.

Right now, in a 2003 and 2004 time frame, we may be able to grow ourselves out of the jobless recovery and actually reverse unemployment trends. The fact that, in 2003, the government is currently going into debt at a rate of $500 billion per year to pump money into the economy is one reason for that possibility. That’s because we are only on the leading edge of the robotic revolution at this moment. 10 years from now, as we begin a main wave of robotic replacement, we will not be able to do that. There will be growing unemployment that we cannot stop.

Question 5 – What you are describing is socialism. Why are you a socialist/communist?

It is important to recognize that I am a capitalist. I have started three successful businesses and I have written a dozen books. I have been blessed by the capitalistic system in America (for details and a bio, see I am all for free markets, innovation and investment.

The dictionary defines socialism in this way:

Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy.

The Robotic Freedom proposal has nothing to do with government or collective ownership. Capitalists (citizens) will still own the means of production. People can work in whatever job they choose, and they are free to earn whatever they can with their products, services and innovations. This proposal is simply a way to give consumers the money they need to participate in the economy. It will enhance capitalism by creating a large, consistent river of consumer spending. It is also a way of providing economic security to every citizen of the United States.

Communism is something altogether different. Communism, at least in the incarnations that we have seen here on Earth, is about the loss of freedom and choice. Communism is about totalitarian government, massive shortages, the KGB, corruption, etc. Robotic Freedom is about increasing freedom and choice. It is about giving people true economic freedom for the first time in human history, and letting them live their lives without being beholden to anyone.

Quite simply, the capitalistic system does not work unless consumers have money to spend. Current trends are giving consumers less and less money to spend. I propose that we reverse those trends, and at the same time eliminate poverty and the economic vulnerability that unemployment creates.

Question 6 – Why do you believe that a $25,000 per year stipend for every citizen is the solution to the problem?

A $25,000 stipend will give people some level economic freedom for the first time in human history. With robots doing all the work, we finally have the opportunity to do that. A $25,000 stipend is the only equitable way to distribute the benefits of the robotic revolution to every citizen.

Question 7 – Won’t your proposals cause inflation?

Think about President Bush’s tax rebates. The government sends out tax rebate checks in order to stimulate and grow the economy. A $25,000 stipend is simply an extension of the tax rebate concept. Consumers will spend the money, and the economy will grow.

Right now, the federal government takes in over $2 trillion in taxes and spends it in a variety of ways. That does not cause inflation. The Robotic Freedom proposal simply takes money and distributes it directly to citizens rather than politicians. Citizens spend the money in a variety of ways. In the process each citizen achieves economic freedom.

Or look at the Social Security system. It is paying a stipend to tens of millions of people, and the number of people is increasing. Yet inflation is low.

Question 7a – OK, maybe it won’t cause inflation. But there is no way to give everyone $25,000 per year. The GDP is only $10 trillion.

It is not the case that we would start on Day 1 paying $25,000 per year to every citizen. It will phase in gradually, over the course of one to two decades. In the process, the economy will grow.

Imagine that we create the central account in 2004 and choose several different techniques to generate $150 billion in the account. $150 billion really is not that much money. For example, the total cost of the war in Iraq and reconstruction in 2003 might hit that number, and we spent that money in Iraq without much hesitation. The federal deficit in 2003 has ballooned to more than $500 billion, again without much hesitation.

$150 billion works out to $500 for every man, woman and child in the United States. We send a check for $500 to everyone, and they spend the money. The economy grows.

In 2005, we choose several more techniques to generate $300 billion in the account. That works out to $1,000 for every man, woman and child in the United States. We send a check for $1,000 to everyone, and they spend the money. The economy grows again. And so on. Soon the GDP is $20 trillion instead of $10 trillion.

Note that there is a multiplier. When consumers spend $300 billion, it ricochets through the economy as businesses spend money with other businesses, pay employees, etc. $300 billion in consumer spending increases the GDP by much more than $300 billion.

Note also that the federal government currently collects and spends more than $2 trillion. That works out to approximately $7,000 per man, woman and child in the U.S., or $20,000 per U.S. household. It is very easy to imagine a system that pays U.S. citizens $25,000 per year.

Question 7b – Is $25,000 enough? Why not more?

$25,000 is the initial goal. As the economy grows, so should the stipend.

Question 8 – Why can’t you see that robots will bring dramatically lower prices? Everyone will be able to buy more stuff at lower prices.

Robots will increase productivity and help to reduce prices. However, current trends clearly show that a good part of the savings will concentrate in wealthy shareholders rather than being reflected in lower prices. In addition, lower prices are meaningless if you are unemployed. If you have $0, the fact that a loaf of bread costs 25 cents less is meaningless.

Instead of letting prices fall precipitously as robots create productivity gains, or instead of letting most of the money from productivity improvements flow inexorably to the wealthy, we can channel the productivity improvements into creating the $25,000 stipend. In that way every citizen benefits from the robotic revolution.

Question 9 – Won’t a $25,000 per Year Stipend Create a Nation of Alcoholics?

Amazingly, this is a common question asked by readers. There is a perverse fear that, if we give each citizen of the United States a stipend of $25,000 per year, and give each citizen the freedom to use that money in any way he or she chooses, that somehow we will create a nation of lazy alcoholics. For example, take this reader comment:

The majority of the people will (given the chance) sit on their duffs eating junk food and rotting their brains with TV.

Or this one:

given the chance most people will do nothing, they will laze around and be blights on society.

I could go on and on — This is a common theme.

I have no idea where this fear comes from. Let me give you several quick examples to demonstrate that it is completely unfounded:

  • My wife is a stay-at-home mom. She has a masters degree in operations research and used to have a high-paying job as an engineer, but now she takes care of the kids. I support her completely. She has not become an alcoholic. Neither have millions of other stay-at-home moms.
  • Her parents are retired. They live off of Social Security and a modest government pension. They come to visit the grandkids, take lots of trips together and garden. They are having the time of their lives. Millions and millions of elderly citizens are living off of Social Security — a stipend — without any ill effects.
  • I have rich friends who are independently wealthy. They don’t ever have to work again. They volunteer with charitable organizations. They start new businesses. They take long vacations with their families. None of them have become alcoholics.
  • I know and have known a number of students on full scholarships. None of them have become alcoholics.
  • Similarly, millions of GIs since WWII have gone through college using a government stipend (the GI bill) to pay for their educations. Most have benefited tremendously from the opportunity.
  • Military pilots and astronauts are given, for free, millions of dollars in training. They do not become alcoholics.

And so on.

Let me make the question more personal. If you had a stipend of $25,000 per year, what would you do? Would you become an alcoholic blight on society? Chances are that you would not.

Instead, there are a million things you would likely do if you had the freedom provided by a $25,000 per year stipend. If you have children or grandchildren, you might spend more time with them (you or your spouse might quit work to be home with the kids). If you have always wanted to start your own small business or go back to college, you would do that. If you have been wanting to write your novel, start a new career or research an invention, you would do that. You would use the freedom provided by a $25,000 stipend to make your life better. That is why we should enact the $25,000 per year stipend.

Question 9a – [a follow-on to Question 9] Yes, stay-at-home moms and retirees are not alcoholic parasites, but they are exceptions. They also are not productive members of the economy. Society will collapse if we do what you are talking about.

The people mentioned in Question 9 all participate in the economy in a fundamental way — they spend money. People who have started businesses sell them products. Without consumers to spend money, we have no economy. Stay-at-home moms and retired people play an incredibly important role in the economy.

Where does money come from in the economy? It comes from businesses that give their employees paychecks. Where do businesses get the money for the paychecks? It comes from consumers who buy products. Where do the consumers get the money? From paychecks. Where do the paychecks come from? Consumers. Where… The economy is one big cycle. Unless consumers have money to spend, the cycle stops.

Whether we give them a stipend or not, businessmen and businesswoman will always want to create businesses so they can make more money. Whether we give them a stipend or not, creative people will want to create. Whether we give them a stipend or not, inventors will want to invent. And so on. With the stipend in place, the businesspeople, creative people and inventors have a consistent pool of consumers who will buy their products.

Will some people become alcoholics? Sure. They become alcoholics now, without a stipend. The stipend won’t change that. If we give them enough money to live decent, dignified lives, we may very well have fewer alcoholics.

Question 10 – Why not let capitalism run itself? We should eliminate the minimum wage, eliminate welfare, eliminate child labor laws, eliminate the 40-hour work week, eliminate antitrust laws, etc.

The reason why we must have a minimum wage law and these other laws in our economy is because of the power of economic coercion. The reality of today’s economy is that if you are unable to find a job, you become homeless and destitute. Under this system, the job that an employer holds in his/her hand means survival. If you cannot get a job, you starve.

In an environment where there are millions of unemployed people, an employer can enter the job market and play starving people off of one another to drive wages down. It’s as simple as that. That’s why corporations are able to go to third world nations and pay employees a dollar or two a day for their labor.

By giving everyone a $25,000 stipend, we give everyone economic independence and eliminate this form of economic coercion. Many capitalists and politicians do not like this idea because it eliminates the power that economic coercion gives them. We, The People, should enact the stipend to give ourselves true economic independence.

Question 11 – Why didn’t you include the world – why are you U.S. centric?

I am an American citizen, and I live in America. I can see problems and solutions here, and I can work to make them happen. Ultimately, it would be ideal if every citizen on the planet is able to live in a free and democratic nation with a $25,000/year stipend and true economic freedom.

Question 12 – I love this idea. How are we going to make it happen?

The robotic revolution is an unprecedented opportunity. If harnessed properly, we can give every citizen true economic freedom for the first time in human history.

Spread the idea to as many people as possible and actively discuss it. Send email to your friends and tell them about the Robotic Nation and Robotic Freedom articles. Send me email to let me know you are interested. With enough people discussing it and supporting it, it can be enacted.

Robotic Nation Table of Contents

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