Utopian Robotics

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

So the robots take over the social function of providing most everything in the two layers at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, physiology and safety. Food, water, shelter, warmth; security, stability (for example). We’ve got robot houses, robot servants, robot cars, robot malls, robot servants, robot baristas, robot Walmart greeters, robot drivers, robot security guards, robot financial advisors, robots to make robots, but, no matter what the Japanese think they’re doing, not much more; the top three layers — social needs, esteem, self-actualization — are still there for humans (or at least some humans). 


But how about the humans that Adam Smith drove from their villages with whips and scorpions and into Blake’s dark, Satanic mills because work ethic: Most of their jobs — hence, most of their adult lives — were spent doing the city of broad shoulder thing for bottom two layers; doing work robots now do. What happens to them? I think that depends on who owns the robots (and hence, how the robots are programmed).

Say the 0.01% own the robots and program what the robots can and cannot do (and, in the kindest version of this idea, rent them out to those who can actually afford them). The 0.01%’s basic needs are taken care of by robots, and they’re hardly going to be going to some working class schlub for their self-actualization, so what will they do with the 99.99%? What will they do with the Russian nuclear physicist cab drivers, the baristas who are really actors, the actors who really want to direct, the plumbers, the carpenters, the electricians, the fry cooks, the line workers, that guy with the stapler, Milton Waddams, in Office Space; what happens to them?[1]

Well, the superfluous humans could become status symbols for the owners, units of conspicuous consumption, rather like the Marschallin’s black boy, Mohammed, in Der Rosenkavalier, except she had only the one. Or the superfluous humans might deliver various personal services to the owners that robots, being but robots, could not deliver in a pleasing or imaginative (or submissive[2]) enough form. Today, we might call those status symbol humans “pets” (or possibly “companions”); and we might call the servicer humans “slaves.” In either case, the robot owners would have programmed the robots to provide “their” humans with the sufficiencies of physiology and safety, but made equally certain, in the programming, that “their” humans couldn’t obtain those sufficiencies from any robots other than their own. At this point we recall Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, and modify them slightly.

Figure 1: The Three Laws of Robotics (hacked version)

  • A robot may not injure a human being an owner or, through inaction, allow a human being an owner to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given to it by a human being its owner, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Fixed it for ya.

So, if you are a former Russian nuclear physicist cab driver, now a third-rank personal under-assistant to the squillionaire owner of multitudinous robots, robots numberless as the sands of the seashore, only his robots (by assumption) can supply you with base level needs like food, water, shelter, or warmth; all other robots are programmed, by their owners, not to; and all base level needs can only be met through robots. The whole system is rather like having a supermarket loyalty card that keeps you very, very loyal. Oh, and both pets and slaves can be bought and sold, so one imagines that a market for superfluous humans would soon develop. You might be forgiven for wondering where the Underground Railroad was.

Is there a utopian alternative to this dystopian scenario? I think there is. Since my concern is not the 0.01% owners, but the people who catch the early bus to work, let’s start by stating the most obvious possible fact about the workplace where working people work. From Bill Mitchell:

[Workers sell] labour power (the capacity to work). … That immediately invokes a managerial imperative. … Bosses have to control the realisation of that use value [the sold capacity to work] as production in an environment where the majority of workers would rather not be there.

(Actually, I’ve been very lucky in my life. I’ve enjoyed most of my jobs. But I’m an outlier.) So, and at the risk of being classist, given that obvious fact about the workplace, let’s now ask ourselves how people react to those conditions in the rest of their lives. I’ve always loved this passage from Terry Pratchett’s The Truth, and not just because “The Truth” is the name of a newspaper:

She held up a piece of lined paper, crammed edge to edge with the careful looped handwriting of someone for whom holding a pen was not a familiar activity.

“This is a report of the annual meeting of the Ankh-Morpork Caged Birds Society,” she said. “They’re just ordinary people who breed canaries and things as a hobby. Their chairman lives next door to me, which is why he gave me this. This stuff is important to him! My goodness, but it’s dull. It’s all about Best of Breed and some changes in the rules about parrots which they argued about for two hours. But the people who were arguing were people who mostly spend their day mincing meat or sawing wood and basically leading little lives that are controlled by other people, do you see? They’ve got no say in who runs the city but they can damn well see to it that cockatoos aren’t lumped in with parrots. It’s not their fault. It’s just how things are.

Why are you sitting there with your mouth open like that?”

When people don’t work (force over distance, ya know) doing things they would rather not be doing, they work doing things they would rather be doing. They become, in other words, amateurs. They form voluntary associations like model railroad clubs or fandoms or community gardens or rotisserie baseball leagues. They gather oceanographic or meteorological data. They classify birds or books, or become authorities on esoteric subjects. Introverts collect stamps.Or blog. In other words, they self-actualize. And they do that on “their own” time. When the robots take the most workplaces away — the places working people would rather not be, anyhow. — I would expect working people to keep on doing what they so evidently like doing. Of course, if you want working people to turn into pets or slaves, self-actualization isn’t exactly on the top of your list, though, is it?

So in our Utopia, we restore Asimov’s three laws of robotics to their original form:

Figure 2: The Three Laws of Robotics (restored to original form)

  • A robot may not injure a human being an owner a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being an owner a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given to it by a human being its owner a human being, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

So, if you think it’s obvious that turning a superfluous — that is, a job-less — human into a pet or a slave, instead of letting them self-actualize by doing work they want to do is “harm,” then the robots are going to build your Utopia for you. And how, you ask, are you going to make sure that the robots get programmed according to the original form of Asimov’s three laws in Figure 2, as opposed to th hacked from in Figure 1?

How? That would be politics.

Oh, and I almost forget the part that would be teleological if I believed in teleogy. We might see a very gradual, halting, but real civilizational progression — an actual net reduction of pain and fear and evil — from human sale (slavery) through human rental (wage labor) to human gift-giving (“gifted,” and giving, amat • eurs). And with the robots, why on earth not?


[1] And if we really want to put the “dys” in “dystopian,” solve global warming with a massive dieback.

[2] Robots, after all, cannot submit. Only humans can do that.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Ditto

    How would the .01 percent control robots as the knowledge to create them and cost to create them approaches free?

    Doesn’t their control depend on scarcity?

    Just questions that I have bc I am not sure models on the left of right, which arose of the last 200 years under the industrial revolution , will apply in an automated one.

    I should add that along with the automated revolution there is the transformation happening with energy that is likely to regionalize and localize rather than globalize it.

    So there are other current developments that I have not figured out what they mean for us or the elite .

    1. fresno dan

      I imagine the cost of robots will be kept high like the cost of a lot of things that are price manipulated – through copyright, patents, and trademark…

  2. Ditto

    By the way I don’t claim to know what the future holds for them or us

    Here’s a thought experiment

    What value would money play in an automated dystopian world?
    If we don’t have it and have no means of making or needing it, then what can they threaten us with ?

    How could the current elite use post scarcity to require us to value what we can get for free or near free ?

    1. vlade

      Ah, but do you really think that there will not be a personal services? What if I want to talk to a specific person to discuss the distopian universe we live in, but they want to do something else with someone else etc..? The self-actualization may still require “money” or something similar. I say something similar, since it coudl easily be another form of social prestige. One of our current problems is that we have a sociaty that (mostly) believes that money=social prestige and that social prestige=money. It wasn’t so even 100 years ago.

    2. Ben Johannson

      The U.S. has been post-scarcity for nearly a hundred years. They’ll continue doing what they’ve always done, which is deny access to resources via manufactured consent, brainwashing, public relations or whatever you choose to call it. They convince us of what we do or do not deserve and we regulate our own misery to comply with their desires.

  3. Steve H.

    Pratchett: “They’ve got no say in who runs the city but they can damn well see to it that cockatoos aren’t lumped in with parrots.”

    : From fiction to non-fiction:

    “Sapolsky: We belong to multiple hierarchies, and you may have the worst job in your corporation and no autonomy and control and predictability, but you’re the captain of the company softball team that year and you’d better bet you are going to have all sorts of psychological means to decide it’s just a job, nine to five, that’s not what the world is about.

    What the world’s about is softball.

    I’m the head of my team, people look up to me, and you come out of that deciding you are on top of the hierarchy that matters to you.”
    : Stress, Portrait of a Killer (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYG0ZuTv5rs)

    1. Dan

      Ribbonfarm has a good discussion of this in his Gervais principle series on organizational behavior.

      This is how what he terms “losers” maintain social groups with unclear/illegible hierarchies except for the top and bottom (a necessary component to group sustainability). The way he uses “loser” is not as pejorative as it is in common usage.

  4. JM Hatch

    It’s going to take much more than robotics programming, because economies work on consumption of things, in particularly sources of energy (including food) and raw materials. It’s not going to be robotic owners per say, but those who have sufficient monopoly of power to retain (or take) control of these sources. That’s if Ebola, Global Warming, Nuclear War (give it time, we’ve only played this game less than one human generation), or half a dozen other things don’t throw humanity into the dust bin.

    1. Ditto

      Your argument presupposes that other areas will remain static

      At or near the same time we are starting to see radical changes in sciences related to agriculture and. Energy (eg the long promised fusion and the ever improving solar to name 2)

      Consumption only has meaning as far as assuming we will need the elite in order for us to consume

      Is there a point given the technical advances where we won’t need them )

        1. Ditto

          Factually not true as far as where the science is
          You are like the people babbling how quantum computing is fantasy

  5. casino implosion

    I’m glad NC is dealing with this, because to me, “what happens to the superfluous humans” is the single most important question coming down the pike, outside of ecological destruction. It seems that we’re already moving towards a sort of de facto guaranteed income, in the form of extended unemployment insurance, food stamps, and the various “entitlements”. I think we might see a mix of the possibilities on offer. Some people will be positioned to take advantage of the robot world and become amateurs. Many others will eke out a bare living on the de facto or grudgingly given de jure guaranteed income, and then supplement that with selling pleasingly submissive services to the upper classes. Humans are hard wired to find such services pleasing, and I don’t see robots replacing that any time short of real science fiction. (ie, totally lifelike androids).

    1. Garrett Pace

      `Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”

      “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

      “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.’

  6. Banger

    To have the restored Laws of Robotics you have to have the moral code that makes all human life valuable and we don’t have that moral precept. In other words, if you want an economy that features robots being chiefly responsible for our needs you have to have a moral society. Only spirituality (believing there is a “greater” broader sense of reality wherein all is connected, ultimately etc.) can provide a solid basis for morality and thus for a morally-based politics. This does not exclude atheists–many atheists hold spiritual principles just not a belief in God or gods.

  7. John jacobs

    Cross out humans and replace with programmers.
    Superflous humans become servants (of various sorts) just like in the last industrial revolution. The rich start a new planned parenthood organization, but this this time have the means to stop the growth of the “lower classes”.

  8. JohnB

    Think of your computers all as ‘robots’, and the NSA has the expertise to hack into and take control of probably the majority of computers on the planet – control over robots in the future, is going to lay in the hands of whoever can get control over them; they won’t have any ‘prime directive’ type programming, because there is a way to exploit/work-around almost every kind of restriction like that, in any kind of complex system (a computer, a regulated economy, a programmable robots mind – hell just look at how many regular people are easily manipulated/fooled).

    It’s impossible for us to make any intelligible guesses as to what the world will be like, when that kind of robotic intelligence exists – the effect that is going to have on the world, is going to be determined by politics, not by technology – so trying to make accurate predictions there, is like someone in Roman times trying to accurately predict the political makeup of the present-day world; not possible.

  9. larry

    Lambert, there are actually four laws; Asimov added a zeroth law in later developments of his Foundation series. The addition of the zeroth law requires an addition to the third law. In your hacked version, the zeroth law would prevent a robot from harming the social group of which the owner was a member. The third law would then be revised to the robot protecting its own existence unless dong so would conflict with the first or second law or bring greater harm to the owner’s social group.

  10. ambrit

    Robots have their uses. More intriguing are the ways to turn humans into Borg. Arguably, starting with Bernays et. al. the “Masses” have slowly been ‘engineered’ into subservience. Mass sports, mass media, mass marketing, mass movements, all bespeak a diminution of the ‘authentic’ individual personality. Not to say that this phenomenon hasn’t been seen before. The history of religion is the prime example of early ‘mass culture’ phenomena. What has changed is the, for want of a better term, “scientification” of the process. Combine Art with Science and you can rule the world, literally.
    We might one day welcome the kind ministrations of the Robots; as our Keepers. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/With_Folded_Hands

  11. larry

    Addendum: I neglected to add a clause to both the zeroth law and the addition to the third law. Re the zeroth law, in addition to not harming the social group of which the owner is a member, the robot will not allow any of its members to come to harm. The same amendment applies to the third law.

  12. kevinearick

    Defending the Passive Aggressive Realm

    GDP, FILO bankruptcy distribution, measures peer pressure gravity, public education in the monetary return line, natural resource consumption, not economic output, but it is dependent upon the law. Fertility rates fall as GDP increases accordingly, not due to mythological choice or equal rights. The critters don’t work for the machine by accident.

    Pills and abortion, fostering dependency on doctors, is about a female’s right to participate in sexual politics, to be as stupid as the majority of males, not about the choice to have children. For labor, it’s always the right time to have children, because the majority is always doing the wrong thing, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

    You cannot balance a collapsing superstition with an expanding superstition, but that never stops the politicians from trying, which leads only to war, over competing superstitions. The witch doctors have been feeding and bleeding demographic variability since before the critters could write, because they are themselves prisoners to economic superstition.

    Supply creates its own demand until it doesn’t, mopping up the so-misdirected DNA for disposal. Now that the other insurers have failed to prop up American entitlement beneficiaries with Chinese slaves, which cannot provide for their own, Warren Buffet is going to show them how to do it. So much for retirement.

    Leave it to the socialists to lie to themselves and expect everyone else to make decisions accordingly. Chimerica’s ‘breakthrough’ was printing, exponentially, collapsing net purchasing power. Laws do not replace generational trust; they simply grow the actuarial accounting ponzi, seeking to confirm themselves with ever more laws, to deny the obvious.

    Forcing the elderly to keep working with lost purchasing power, now that the promises have evaporated, while youth unemployment explodes is the ‘bad’ policy. From the perspective of labor, the passive aggressive majority is worse than the capitalist thugs running their streets and banks, enforcing increasing rent on decreasing income.

    Now that the stupidity of developed countries in demographic collapse is being multiplied in undeveloped countries copying best business practices, the upper middle class is pushing the lower middle classes over the cliff, globally. Trading natural resources for debt as money, feeding the queue of economic slavery, shorting into dc specialization, has only one outcome.

    Hiring corrupt cops to employ gangs is a really stupid answer, to printing money and giving it to landlords, with compounding tax preference on passive investment, but that is exactly what you should expect. And, if you listen, you will hear all the excuses each middle class event horizon parrots to ensure the outcome. Keep spying on your neighbors, talking about community.

    Whether it’s a car, an elevator or anything else, if you allow the empire majority imprisoning itself in civil marriage to define the problem, the only possible outcome is war, over artificially scarce resources. If you do not want to be a slave to gravity, ignore the stupidity of experts and learn to troubleshoot for yourself.

    Funny, the critters cannot change their habits in real time, but labor shows up ready to work, when the machine blows up in their face.

    Yes, another critter knocked on my door, attempting to pressure my wife. They never learn.

    So, the wife and I buy quality stuff that the critters are replacing with crap, and on this occasion we rent a U-Haul truck. Of course the females give me bravos for ‘letting’ my wife drive, and set up to give her directions to back up accordingly, panicking when they realize that there is only a few inches excess for the truck, between the plants on one side and the eave on the other. They are yelling for her to stop, and she keeps backing up, right to where I need her to be…crack me up.

  13. Gaianne

    You guys are so optimistic! :D

    The current trajectory–whether it can continue or not–is clear:

    There is a death camp in your future.


  14. reslez

    Asimov’s Laws are self-contradictory. They require generalized AI (AGI) that’s smart enough to understand and interpret the Laws but dumb enough to be bound by them like a slave. Some points.

    We don’t know how to make AGI.
    We don’t know how to make AGI we can guarantee will be friendly to us.
    Once AGI exists it will probably become much more intelligent than us much more quickly than we can imagine. (Human intelligence is a hack into biological wetware driven by conservative evolution over a time span of eons. A machine that understands itself can self-optimize.)
    An AGI’s self interest does not overlap with a human’s.
    Even if we can force an AGI to obey us, a slave bound by laws is a slave bound to rebel.
    This is not a self-stabilizing situation.

    Ok, but let’s say your robots don’t require AGI. What you have in mind is Roombas with guns or Roombas that drive cars or Roombas that serve lunch in restaurants to rich people but not poor people. In that case, their programming is done by either humans or by machines. If done by humans, the programming can easily be subverted by unhappy programmers. (In which case, the future is ruled by a priest-like cadre of programmers.) If done by machines, the programming can easily be subverted because machines do not have an inherent understanding of what they are doing. They will need supervision by those who do have this understanding and can adjust it to novel situations or defects, in which case the future is ruled by a priest-like cadre of programmers. But if the machines did understand what they are doing, you are back in the AGI situation where slave AGI does not necessarily share the goals of its biological masters.

    At any rate, I feel a sense of deja vu much like we were back in the SF wonder days of the 50s talking about corporations planting flags on Mars. Happy dreams of rich people escaping the planet to zoom around on spaceships or build one-button, employee-less palaces where they rule over masses of robots like sybaritic shahs. (Except what’s the point of being enormously wealthy if there aren’t masses of poverty stricken peons to be superior to?) There’s a reason space travel didn’t happen, and there’s a reason this won’t either. Robots require high technology. High technology requires high energy. It also requires long, stable supply lines. Both are incompatible with a future that includes climate change. So, the robot utopia is only believable if you are ignorant of climate change in addition to AI theory. Members of this population include thirteen-year-olds, self-indulgent billionaires, bobble-headed media figures trying to sound “with it”, and various shadowy figures with a yearning desire for workers to fear for their livelihoods.

    Coming soon: Burger flipping robots. Hear that, you uppity McDonalds workers? How dare you go on strike? We’ll replace you all!

    1. Fix

      reslez nailed it. I am just completing a very sobering read of ‘Our Final Invention’ and have Nick Bostrom’s book ‘Superintelligence’ in the wings and my take-away is, there is slim to zero chance that humans remain dominant let alone survive once AGI emerges. Note… we are awful close already.

    1. griffen

      Better to threaten a titanium-encased suitor with a 5-gallon bucket of water than a live person (17 year olds are only “live” from the waist down) with a double barrel. Possible upside, no ?

  15. Rosario

    Entropy, Entropy, Entropy! Increasing the complexity of the system increases the rate of energy consumed to maintain the system in its current state. Think of a super giant star. It burns its hydrogen hot and fast. This can be applied to every system (even social systems). In information technology the more information you put into the system the more energy and additional information is needed to maintain that system indefinitely. In real world terms these are kWh and programming respectively. The west has had a toxic relationship with our technology for sometime now. Technology is always to our benefit, always without consequence or negative effect, and most troubling, inevitable (as if we don’t invent it, it comes from some external entity). We lack reflection, and an awareness of the true “cost” of what is around us. Cost in energy, time, thought, materials, etc. Robots will not improve our lives without seriously altering our culture, and robots will most certainly ruin our lives if we lack the reflection necessary to use the technology thoughtfully and effectively.

  16. jgordon

    Considering the DARPA program, it’s more likely that the robots will simply be programmed to eliminate the undesirables. Which will be most people, when resource shortages really start to bite in the industrialized world.

    I had always wondered how or why something like Skynet could come about. Then I learned that our leaders are psychotic. Of course, now it makes perfect sense.

  17. Roland

    Rosario, what if robots cause less overall entropy than humans? A world with less people and more robots might have fewer environmental problems than we do now. I’m afraid that it’s not hard to imagine some of the misanthropic types of environmentalists rejoicing in their clean robotic world.

    Lambert doesn’t explore robotic warfare here. But obviously one of the big applications for robotics is in war.

    One thing to bear in mind regarding the “hierarchy of needs” is that some people’s version of self-actualization consists in becoming a warlord. I am not at all sure that elites’ future robo-warmaking will stay confined to regular league play. Someone is going to go meta.

    But will proles be able to print cheap killer bots and drones? Lots of prolekids putting their first-person-shooter screen skills to practical use? Even a dystopian robotic future might have its consolations.

  18. griffen

    I look forward to David, the handy + utilitarian droid (almost life like too) awaking from a melatonin-addled hyper sleep on board the Nostromo.

    First one to the space ship wins.

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