Robotics and its 47% problem

An alternate vision of the future of robotics, courtesy of Disney.

In Robotics: A Route to the Survival of Advanced Societies?, Dwight D. Murphey commits several fallacies, and some of his ideas are even downright offensive. Among other things, he consistently demonizes immigration, insists on the “declining willingness of younger American workers to do factory work” (Murphey 412), and even gives off an almost Romney-47%-esque tone when discussing labor’s “new demands”:

It will require a large number of very bright people to develop and operate the technology. Remembering, however, that those bright people will be on the far right end of the bell curve of intelligence, we know that we are left with hundreds of millions, indeed billions, of people who can benefit from the productivity but will have contributed little, if anything, to it (Murphey 419).

Yet perhaps Murphey’s biggest error resides in his fundamental belief that he can argue a case for robotic labor “in a manner acceptable to free-market adherents” (Murphey 399). This premise stands in sharp contrast to the one expressed by the editors of Cutting Edge: Technology, Information, Capitalism and Social Revolution, who write in their introduction,

We enthusiastically welcome the promise of technology for ending material scarcity and for creating a foundation for higher forms of human fulfillment. Yet we suspect the application of electronic technology within the framework of capitalism will not only fail to accomplish these ends, but exacerbate the misery and poverty in which most of the world already lives. (Davis, Hirschl, and Stack, 3).

Tessa Morris-Suzuki echoes the editors’ sentiment in her essay Robots and Capitalism by pointing out “highly automated systems are appearing within a world economy marked by grotesque international inequalities of wealth, and are likely to amplify these inequalities” (Morris-Suzuki 25). In an essay on “Why Machines Cannot Create Value,” C. George Caffentzis likewise refutes Murphey’s free-market utopian proposal by explaining Marx’s theory of machines, in which he asserts “No machine can create new value nor transfer more value to its product than it loses” (Caffentzis 40, italics original). Earlier, Caffentzis characterizes the fruitless quest for a perpetuun mobile as the search for “the new philosopher’s stone” or “the goose that laid the golden egg” (Caffentzis 37, 39). Indeed, Marx’s zero-value view of fully mechanized labor (supported by the laws of thermodynamics) makes considerably more logical sense than Murphey’s awkward and nebulous ideas regarding how “remuneration” will be allocated to the “billions of people who can benefit from the productivity but will have contributed little, if anything, to it” (Murphey 419).

G. Carchedi’s essay High-Tech Hype: Promises and Realities of Technology in the Twenty-First Century similarly puts the brakes on Murphey’s brand of enthusiasm by employing Marx’s theory of crises to assert “technological innovations under capitalism create a global cornucopia for some, but at the same time cause economic crises and all the human misery associated with them” (Carchedi 74). In developing Marx’s theory, Carchedi lays bare the “basic contradiction” overlooked by Murphey and other champions of automation within the context of free-market capitalism: such a system inevitably creates “on the one hand, higher productivity in physical terms; but on the other, lower production of value and thus lower purchasing power” (Carchedi 83).

I won’t deny the initial attractiveness of Murphey’s vision for the role robotics might play in solving the countless problems faced by advanced societies. Yet given the perspectives offered in Cutting Edge, Murphey’s article reads more and more like a siren song, one whose hidden agenda is that of luring the huddled, aging, jobless, left-of-the-bell-curve masses to buy into the false promises of technology, march to the drumbeat of insatiable consumerism, and ultimately fall prey to the trap of (in the words of George Carlin) “buying shit they don’t need with money they don’t have.”

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