Hey Waiter– There’s a Silicon Chip In My Soup!

Robot waiterOver the past forty years or so America’s industrial job base has been slowly eroding, and along with it the middle class. A major theme in this year’s presidential election, from both Left and Right, is the claim that this outcome is primarily the result of self-interested politicians making trade deals on behalf of the elites who have bought them, all at the expense of the American worker. There is a kernel of truth there, and yes trade deals were an accelerant, but this description fails to acknowledge the larger causes of decline in manufacturing in America. In truth, the primary driver in this process has been the fusion of automation and globalization over many decades. We’re now being told by folks who know better that all we need to do to bring those jobs back, to resurrect a future we can believe in, or make America great again, is to elect the outsider politician who is not beholden to elite interests like banks, CEOs and politicians. Unfortunately, that horse has left the barn, those jobs are gone for good, they were disappearing long before NAFTA. The Japanese, with their emphasis on automation, were already beginning to dominate the automobile industry by the 1980s for example.

In fact, the real topic that must be addressed immediately is not how to reclaim those lost manufacturing jobs, but instead, what are we going to do in the face of the rapidly advancing automation now facing us in the service and knowledge industries? We are already buying increasing percentages of our goods online, which are then picked from shelves and shipped robotically. How much longer will humans be needed to serve us food at the restaurant, or grow it? Will machines like IBM’s Watson easily advise us on financial matters, or teach our kids at school? Self-driving cars, trucks and trains will cost millions of jobs. These are just a few examples. Some predictions have us replacing close to fifty percent of remaining American jobs with machines within the next thirty years! This won’t be stopped, and maybe it shouldn’t be? But how do we survive economically, as individuals, families and communities, in this environment?

Yet who is talking about this on the campaign trail? To be sure some people around the world are very worried about it. Some economists, and even some governments, have already presented solutions but those primarily involve some form of state-based fixes like a universal basic income to all. But what tax base does that money come from when machines are the main producers? What does that leave the individual to sell if not his/her labor or specialized knowledge? To whom does the corporation sell its product, machines? Sure there will likely be some niche work that machines can’t do, sports come to mind, and yes there will be some work in keeping the machines primed and operational, although some scenarios even have the machines servicing themselves.

Fortunately there is still a need to power the machines and that might hold the key. Solar and storage batteries might be at least part of the answer…

Here’s an idea, call it utopian if you will, but progress is rarely made by thinking small, right? It goes like this– at a micro-level families could pull down solar energy individually to personally owned batteries and use only what they need, store what’s left, and sell a percentage of the overage back to a grid. Power would be harnessed first at the personal level then sold to the local level, maybe to a neighborhood, or town-based collective, then sold on up the line to a national grid, powering machines, cars, planes and trains all along the way. So instead of utilities generating power with coal and oil and selling it to us, we generate the power, keep what we need, and sell it to them to run the machines. Thus a market for grass-roots, bottom-up, produced power, which never runs out, could arise. This by the way would be a nice model for bringing communities together to manage their shared resource. Then the owners of the machines would sell their machine-generated products back to the collectors of the energy that fuels them. Thus a nice circular market. We could then stop burning coal and oil to produce power.

So what’s to keep a city or corporation from collecting and storing its own power, thus cutting the individual out? What might keep the grass-roots aspect of this going could be the limit on the storage capacities and physical size of larger batteries. These limiting factors could make it more cost effective to decentralize, much like the computer programs that harness the processing power of thousands of computers linked together to do giant calculations quickly, or like bit torrent uses the storage of thousands of linked computers for example. Of course somehow the ramp-up stage whereby family households could acquire their solar panels and batteries would be needed. Maybe that would be what is subsidized by the government? But that is a more realistic possibility than to think that the Government could sustain a universal basic income to all.

It’s a fast and loose description and in need of some real meat on the bones, not to mention major advancements in battery storage technology, but food for thought. I’m not an economist. So go ahead and shoot me full of holes….

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