September 16, 2003


There’s been a lot of death in the news lately. Warren Zevon and Johnny Cash. I recently mentioned Walter Richter. And today I read that Ken Kifer bought the farm, run over by a drunk driver while riding his bike.

I used to hang out on the rec.bicycles.* Usenet hierarchy, and Ken was one of the regulars, and one of the most prolific writers on bike subjects I know of. I never met him in person, but felt that in a small way, I knew him.

Warren Zevon’s impending demise had been public knowledge for over a year; Johnny Cash’s mortality is unmistakable on his last album. My neighbor Walter Richter had been in decline for some time, and had a good run. Reading about Ken this morning was like a punch in the gut.

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Necesito más trabajo, Mister Roboto

A discussion on metafilter led me to a Sony robot demo. It’s quite uncanny to watch the robot, winsomely called Qrio, moving around, righting itself from a fall, or waving hello. As nifty as Sony’s Aibo is, this makes it seem like a Furby by comparison. Or perhaps even a Weeble.

But what’s with Japan’s fascination with robots, especially anthropomorphic ones? One might snarkily cite the fact that the guys designing these robots grew up with Tetsuwan Atom and Japan’s other robot-heroes, but what made those characters so popular in the first place? I don’t know.

Japan’s big electronic companies trot out the problem of the country’s rapidly graying society as something that robots can solve–the idea being that robots will do all the scut work for society, especially looking after incontinent oldsters. This seems like the most complex solution possible in search of a problem. Relaxing immigration policies would be the blindingly obvious solution, except for isolationism in Japan even stronger than most countries.

Beyond that, though, the economics of a robotic workforce make my mind reel. Robots wouldn’t be cheap to purchase or maintain. In a society with a high proportion of old people receiving government assistance, those seniors would probably be hard-pressed to pay for these robots out of their own pockets. So would the government: the tax burden would be falling harder on the dwindling (and perhaps resentful) younger population. And if we assume that there are WN man-hours of work to be done by society in general per year, with robots doing some amount WR, and humans doing the rest (WL) such that 0 < WR < WN, then the higher the value of WR, the lower the government’s tax revenues (I assume robots would not be paying taxes). In short, the government would literally need more warm bodies to tax to pay for all those cold bodies.

In a country with full employment, the economics must be different–but with a large fraction of the population on the dole, the economics get all screwy. Ironic that the root of the word “robot” is in the Czech word for drudge-work.

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