Once We Get Robots Building The Factories Where Robots Build Robots We’ll Be Getting Somewhere

The apotheosis of wealth building is a Von Neumann machine. We build one, it goes off and scours for the resources to build another, which it does, the two of them then scouring for the resources to build four, which they do, we end up with billions of machines with only the human labour to build the first one. Sure, there are practical difficulties here – like, well, how do we stop them scouring everything to build damn machines? But as a thought experiment about human wealth they’re great.

For, how much of anything that we can consume is ultimately limited by the human labour that has to go into its production. If we get to consume more per hour of human labour in production then we’re richer. Either we can consume the same amount and have more leisure or we can consume more for the same labour input. This is just another formulation of Paul Krugman’s productivity isn’t everything but in the long run it’s pretty much everything. If human labour is more productive then we’re richer.

So, this story of robots building robots is fun:

Swiss robotics company ABB has revealed that it’s spending $150 million to build an advanced robotics factory in Shanghai — one that will use robots to build robots. The company will rely on its YuMi single-arm robots, which it once used to conduct an orchestra, for small parts assembly. It also plans to make extensive use”of its SafeMove2 software in the facility, which it says will allow its YuMi models and other automated machines to safely work in close proximity with human employees.

We’re to use robots to build robots. We’re getting closer to that manufacturing of the future that employs a man and a dog:

Robots will make robots at a new ABB (ABBN.S) factory in China, which the Swiss engineering group said on Saturday it plans to build for $150 million in Shanghai as it defends its place as the country’s largest maker of industrial robots.

The factory, located near ABB’s China robotics campus, is due to be operating by the end of 2020 and will produce robots for China as well as for export elsewhere in Asia. China is ABB’s No. 2 market after the United States.

The man is there to feed the dog, the dog is there to bite the man if he tries to touch the robots.

Some think this would be a disaster, for where will all the jobs be if the machines do all the work? Doing things that machines can’t do, obviously enough. And if there’s nothing the machines can’t do then everything will be produced by machines. Which means we’ve no problem, for if everything is being produced then everything can be consumed and no human has to break a sweat making the stuff. We get everything without having to work – Marx’s nirvana that allows true communism brought to you, as predicted, by capitalist technological advance.

However, using robots to build robots isn’t quite our end game of Von Neumann machines. That would be when we use robots to build the robots which go repair the robots who mine the iron out of which we build the robots who build robots. Carry that on through however many iterations you desire. We’re not there but we’re getting closer. The burden of human labour is getting lighter and we’re all getting richer precisely because it is.

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MoosealotNigel SedgwickHallowed Be Recent comment authors
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Hallowed Be
Hallowed Be

I’m going to try to think this through. Ok everything produced by robots. Usually from there there it’s hardwired straight to “no jobs!”. And then: “no job, no money”. “No money: i can’t pay for anything so i don’t get any of whatever the robots produce.” That’s the stonewall that’s difficult to clamber over. For me its the re-valuation of everything that’s difficult to take account of. Stuff that we think is expensive becomes cheap, stuff we think is cheap becomes (relatively) expensive. Stuff we don’t even value or doesn’t come into the cash economy will probably make an appearance… Read more »

Nigel Sedgwick
Nigel Sedgwick

Tim writes: “…, for where will all the jobs be if the machines do all the work? Doing things that machines can’t do, obviously enough.” The current and proposed circumstances (of tools and their use) have existed for millennia. Hammers were and are used to help humans build (other) hammers. Wheels were and are used to transport (and otherwise rotate) raw and partially processed materials – to build wheels. The important step that has not yet occurred is for a machine to conceive all the machines needed to replace all human labour (including the labour of conceiving machines). This in… Read more »

Nigel Sedgwick
Nigel Sedgwick

But, seemingly of course, a human conceiving of and building a machine that can conceive and build all human-conceivable-and-buildable machines will become out of date as soon as it is built. This because a machine more complicated than any previous one has now been conceived and built. This reminds me a bit of a discussion on the blog of the Adam Smith Institute back on Fri 18 Dec 2015, concerning everyone eventually being paid the same wage. Then I wrote: “The lack of scarcity of skills implies no technological or other development with time, for which there would (initially at… Read more »


aside: amusingly I had to prove that I wasn’t a robot in order to log in and comment. Something that gets missed is why we use machines, technology, robots, whatever. And the answer is that we do it because the capital cost of the machine is less than the wages of the people who would otherwise have to do the job capitalised over the expected lifespan of the machine. To say that once the machine is made by other machines then the capital cost will fall to zero is to make a mistake because there will be finite non-labour inputs… Read more »