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Yesterday Ferrebeekeeper described the Luddite movement, an anti-technology workers’ revolt which occurred near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The revolt centered on the idea that labor-saving machines destroy jobs, a concept which economists decry as the “Luddite fallacy.” Most Neoclassical economists believe that, even if machines cause job losses in certain industries, such losses are more than offset by the attendant fall in prices for consumers. The history of the world since the beginning of the industrial revolution has borne this idea out, as more and more goods have become available to wider and wider markets. The history of first world nations reflects a sort of anti-Luddite narrative: farmers are not needed to plough the lands because of greater agricultural productivity so they go to work in factories. Factories then become more productive thanks to machines and cheap competition so the factory workers become tertiary sector employees. The tertiary sector consists of service jobs where employees do not necessarily make or produce anything tangible but instead offer support, experience, or knowledge—for example nurses, lawyers, waste-disposal professionals, casino employees, courtesans, financiers and such like (some economists posit that there is a quaternary sector of scientists, professors, computer geniuses, artists, and bloggers—the creative sector—but we needn’t get into that here).
Since the dawn of the Industrial era, this progression has worked admirably for creating economic progress. And, during that time, machines have been constantly improving. Whereas the horseless carriage once put horses, hostlers, and livery stables out of work but provided automakers with jobs, then robot arms and mechanized welding units came along to supplant those auto-workers. The displaced autoworkers all had to go out and become radiologists, actuaries, sex-workers, and restaurateurs. Now, however, machines are becoming sophisticated enough to invade the tertiary sector. Subtle computer programs are proving superior to trained (overworked) radiologists at finding the tiniest nascent tumors. Accountants are being replaced by Turbo-tax and Quickbooks. Weird Japanese scientists have built robots which…um make sushi and pour drinks. It seems like this trend is going to gobble up a great many service jobs in the near future from all strata of society.
A world where machines are able to replace white-collar workers would mean the hollowing out of the middle class. The international corporations and plutocrats making software, robots, and automated factories would become extravagantly rich while the rest of would have to struggle to find niches the machines haven’t taken over. A huge economic slump would grip the developed world–as average consumers became unable to buy the goods turned out by those factories. Hmm, that seems awfully familiar.
So are the Luddites finally correct? Should we go out and smash our computers and Roombas? Well… it isn’t like we can stop what we are doing. To move forward in science and manufacturing we are going to need better thinking machines. At some point these machines will be better at thinking then we are…and they will also be better than us at making machines. That point will be the technological singularity and it seems that we are on that path, unable to turn back. Perhaps we will end up with a race of omniscient omnipotent servants (yay!). Perhaps we will combine with machines and become mighty cyborgs. Perhaps we will end up as housepets or as a mountain of skulls the robots walk on and laugh at. I don’t know. Nobody does. Yikes! How did this essay about a nineteenth century protest movement take us to this destination?
In the mean time, it would be useful if people would talk more about what we want from our technology and how we can get there. The fact that having better machines is currently splitting society into some dysfunctional Edwardian plutocracy is disquieting. It means we are not thinking hard enough or using our imaginations. We should start doing so now…while we are still allowed to!
The space shuttle program ended this morning when the Atlantis lander touched down at 5:57 AM Eastern Standard Time at the Cape Canaveral spaceport. The national and international media has elegiacally noted the end of the 30 year program, most commonly with articles which sound a dirge-like note concerning the final end of the manned space program (with undertones of America’s decline as a spacefaring, scientific, and military power as well). I am glad those articles are out there because I feel that our inability to ensure adequate funding for basic blue sky research has put the nation’s economic future in jeopardy. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, national greatness has come not from abundant natural resources or a large hard-working population (although the United States has both of those things) but from innovation after innovation. To quote Representative Frank Wolf, a member of the NASA appropriations committee,“If we cut NASA, if we cut cancer research, we’re eating our seed corn.”
However, I am concerned that the story is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat and it shouldn’t be. Despite its ever shrinking budget, NASA is actually doing a great deal in space right now as, to a lesser degree, are the world’s other space programs. Five days ago NASA the spacecraft Dawn went into orbit around the protoplanet Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt. Next July Dawn will power up its ion thrusters and fly to the dwarf planet Ceres, an enigmatic pseudo-planet which seems to harbor secrets of the solar system’s beginning under its oceans. Dawn is only one of ten planetary missions currently in orbit (or, indeed onworld) across the rest of the solar system. These are MESSENGER, Venus Express, Chang’E 2, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars rover Opportunity, Dawn, and Cassini. Additionally the following eight spacecraft are currently in flight: New Horizons is headed for the dwarf planet Pluto, Rosetta is currently flying to the comet Churymov-Gerasimenko, Japan’s Akatsuki and IKAROS are both in solar orbit, the spacecrafts Deep Impact and ICE, are awaiting further instructions, and finally Voyager 1 and 2 are still out there exploring the distant edge of the solar system. I picked out the projects involving NASA in green (I have already written about the Japanese solar sail Ikaros and our Mercury mission so check out my hyperlinks). These are just the far traveling missions–there are also dozens of near-Earth spacecraft studying the sun, the stars, deep space, and, most of all, the earth.
The shuttle program is not quite as dead as it seems, the Air Force still has two small robot space shuttles and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which spawned all manner of world changing technology) is working on next generation spaceplanes. A single-stage-to-orbit space plane (which takes off and lands like a normal plane) is still far off, but aerospace engineers seem confident they could build a two-stage-to-orbit crewed space plane around scramjet technology.
I’m going to miss the shuttles—the white behemoths were major features of my childhood. Back in the early eighties they seemed to hold out all sorts of promises for a glorious future in space. But childhood comes to an end and the shuttles really never lived up to expectations. Now as we Americans sit grounded (unless we want to pay the Russians 50+ million dollars for a seat on one of their old Soyuz spacecrafts), it is time to think about what we want. Maybe humankind will catch a break and see breakthroughs in molecular or nuclear engineering which leave us with a new range of materials and energy possibilities (despite its long quiet phase, I still have high hopes for the National Ignition Facility). I have always harbored fantasies of a nuclear power plant on the moon with an attached rail gun for space launches. I also like the idea of a space elevator, or a twirling toroid space habitat with false gravity. The always deferred Mars mission is exciting too (although we have talked about it so long that some of its glitter has come off). But I’m open to other ideas. We all should be. We need to talk about it and then we need to decide on some ideas and fund them quickly. Seeds need to be planted to grow.