Monthly Archives: February 2017

Maybe we can tax the robots? Maybe that’s not the best plan.

Bill Gates suggested that we can tax the robots to pay for a transition to a more service-based economy. It sounds to me like that might be a bad idea. The Economist talks about how taxing robots will probably slow the transition to a more automated future. That transition is a good thing and slowing it down is probably a bad idea. The Economist also notes that taxing robots does not address the problem of demand. If robots are capable of producing more than humans (and they are) then there needs to be some mechanism to create additional demand. Taxing the robot and redistributing that money doesn’t create enough demand by itself. At best, it only partially offsets the exploitative potential of a company that can produce goods without paying people.

Hackernoon takes the position that the money should be taxed from the people who own robots. It’s a more direct answer to the oblique reference in the economist. An automated company can exploit the market by charging people for something without paying workers. That company will generate obscene profits. Those profits go to the rich. So tax the rich, right?

I suggest that both of these solutions (tax the rich or tax the robots) amount to the same thing and are both counterproductive.  The more demand there is, the faster will automate. The faster we automate the better. The important question is not “who do we tax?” The question should be “what do we spend money on to effectively increase demand by the right amount?”

Abundance would have some odd consequences

We are so used to scarcity that radical abundance breaks our economic mechanisms. For instance, David Wong wrote a book I like. I bought both the written and audiobook version of “John Dies at the End.” Also, I watched the movie on Netflix. So, I traded my scarce money for three copies of an unlimited commodity: the text, audio and video files that were streamed to my various devices. I use David Wong as an example because he also wrote a fantastic article about artificial scarcity.

He is relying on the artificial scarcity of his work in order to pay his mortgage.

Some things are valuable because they are scarce (like gold and diamonds). David Wong’s book is not like that. It is valuable because it’s fun to read/watch. More copies created means more people reading/watching. That translates into more value created. If we made a copy of his work for every man woman and child on earth, the world would be richer, not poorer. And yet we would have destroyed his ability to pay his bills.

I mused yesterday about the Star Trek replicator. If everyone had a replicator, everyone would be very wealthy (in terms of their access to material goods). And yet, most people would be out of a job. Despite the world being very wealthy, no one would be able to pay their mortgage.

It’s a strange contradiction.


Star Trek, curiosity and exploration

I’m not the most avid Star Trek fan, but I remember watching The Next Generation when I was a kid. Some episodes really caught my imagination. There’s an episode where people from the 20th century wake up from cryogenic storage and are confused by the absence of money. After I read The Diamond Age I thought about that episode. Those are two very different views of post-scarcity.

If the Enterprise is a symbol of idealized science and exploration, what is the symbol of my worries about the scientific endeavor? I picture the Spaceballs flying Winnebago. Worn out, poorly maintained, and running out of gas. Why would it even run on gas? We don’t know, but here we are.

I avoid the news, but I hear that scientists are trying to get into politics. There’s even a Political Action Committee. It reminds me of the Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson:

The whole neurosociology of the twentieth century could be understood as a function of two variables—the upward-rising curve of the Revolution of Rising Expectations, and the downward-plunging trajectory of the Revolution of Lowered Expectations.
The Revolution of Rising Expectations, which had drawn more and more people into its Up-thrust during the first half of the century, had led many to believe that poverty and starvation and disease were all being phased out by advances in pure and applied science, growing stockpiles of surplus food in the advanced nations, accelerated medical progress, the spread of literacy and electronics, and the mounting sense that people had a right to demand a decent life for themselves and their children.
The Revolution of Lowered Expectations was based on the idea that there wasn’t enough energy to provide for the rising expectations of the masses. Year after year the message was broadcast: There Isn’t Enough. The masses were taught that Terra is a closed system, that entropy was increasing, that life was a losing proposition all round, and that majority were doomed to poverty, starvation, disease, misery and stupidity.
Most of the people who still had rising expectations were scientists.

Anything we can do to raise our expectations is good. There is enough: enough energy (solar and nuclear), enough medicine (the molecules are cheap), enough labor (robots!), enough fun stuff to do (digital entertainment is almost infinitely abundant). It might be that changing peoples’ expectations is as important as fulfilling them.


Slow progress on Raman Spectroscopy for Beer

They make USB floppy drives. Who knew? I bought the Chuanganzhuo 3.5″ USB External Floppy Disk Drive from amazon and it did the job. I can get Raman spectra off the old instrument and into my laptop without a huge process involving another PC from 2001 and a second form of removable media. So that’s nice. And I got a spectrum of ethanol. So that’s progress, too:

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Now that I have reference spectra, I can start building an instrument. This guy knows what’s up. Building optical instruments is fun.

The future of caring labor

Some of humans’ highest callings are “caring labor”. Caring for sick relatives and caring for children are mostly unpaid. Other kinds of caring labor are “merely” underpaid (think educators, nursing assistants). These jobs strike me as being the most resistant to automation. I think automation will lead to job losses in many other fields. I wonder how we could make the economy support these kinds of work more effectively. Bill Gates was on Quartz discussing this issue. He raised the possibility of taxing robots in order to fund more caring services.

I’m of the opinion that an automation tax is unnecessary and maybe counterproductive. I’m inclined to manage increases in economic production capacity by increasing the money supply. That may not be a popular opinion, but I’m not the only person thinking that way.

It almost doesn’t matter where the money comes from, though. We need to have a mechanism to pay people to take care of one another. We need that mechanism to put money in the hands of the consumer base to sustain economic demand. So whether that comes down to an expansion of social security or a universal basic income, it needs to happen. How we balance the books is somewhat arbitrary. People need to have a way to transition away from automatable jobs (which are never coming back)  into serving the actual needs of other humans.