POPULATION, LIMITS, & ROBOTS

In general, all other things being equal, if we’re below Malthusian limits, population growth makes everyone better off. Gains from trade, specialization, and increasingly sophisticated production and supply chains manned by a larger and more complex workforce produces non-linear returns. The obvious exception is negative sum people, who make everyone WORSE off.

But if we’re AT Malthusian limits, there is a three way trade-off between birth rates, death rates, and standard of living. This is why people say “the black death made Europeans better off.” They come up with wacky theories, like the survivors inherited the wealth of the plague victims. That’s not really the explanation. However, if the population goes down suddenly under those conditions, standards of living can rise. For example, a very dense population may be able to support itself at subsistence level off of very labor intensive processes like rice cultivation, while a less dense population may get by with less labor intensive, but more land intensive crops, like wheat (with more time left over for leisure or other economic activities) and a more sparse population still may be able to supplement that with even less labor intensive, but more land intensive, grazing of livestock for meat and milk (and enjoy greater surpluses still).

Malthusian limits don’t necessarily imply an absolute “carrying capacity,” except at the extreme, but population does tend to equilibrate somewhere. Under those conditions, the only way to raise standards of living above mere subsistence level is to increase the death rate above minimum (disease, war, etc…) or reduce the birth rate below maximum. It’s a three way trade-off.

I haven’t worked out exactly how robots and AI will alter or effect this. But, my hunch is, even at the low end, humans will remain cheaper to produce, and possibly to maintain, than robots for quite some time. The advantage of robots will be that once they have learned some knowledge or skill, it can be rapidly transferred to others.

Still, the wealth and resources necessary to produce robots or design more advanced robots will come from exchange between the roboconomy and the human economy. Even if robots are competitive for some jobs or certain categories of jobs and the production of some products and services, they must find markets for those products and services in order to grow the robot population or advance robot technology. This implies they can’t massively replace humans in many roles or at many levels of ability, at least not rapidly.

Robots seem likely to increase supply faster than they increase demand, since robots don’t consume much, and desire less, having no need of status signals. Their effect will therefore be to push down prices and profits, limiting their own spread, since profits are what pays for it.

One possible cause for concern are vertically integrated robot “hives,” which can engage in resource extraction, processing and manufacturing of robots and weapons, independently of the larger economy. It might be worthwhile to prohibit and suppress these, and probably will be possible with some combination of manpower, servile robots, and intermediate forms (cyborgs).

 “At least when there’s an evil dictator, that human is going to die. But for an AI, there will be no death – it would live forever. And then you would have an immortal dictator from which we could never escape.” -Elon Musk

There are quite a few ways the whole robot revolution could go off the rails or become dystopian/apocalyptic, but I don’t think it’s quite the cause for pessimism that Elon Musk and #Skynet doomsdayers have made it out to be, and it probably can be managed. But to do that we may need to slow down progress enough to understand it, adapt to it, and to be able to distinguish and differentiate it from innovation and change which is NOT progress, which we have more than enough of even without robots.

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