Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Make the Robot Mow the Lawn

Some of the writers at National Review have complained about people paying illegal aliens to mow their lawn instead of just making their kids do it (or possibly even doing it themselves). Reason Magazine makes the (in my opinion correct) case that people should be free to spend money to have work done that they do not want to do for themselves. Reason then (incorrectly in my opinion) tries to use this to support the immigration of a large number of poor people who will act as cheap labor to mow the lawns and perform domestic services for rest of us. Just because we do not want to mow our own lawns (or make our children do it) does not mean that we have to import a permanent underclass of servants to do it for us. Why don't we just make the robots mow our lawn for us?

This applies to a lot more than just lawn mowers. I would much rather import a law-abiding Scottish mechanical engineer, a Serbian electrical engineer, and/or an Indian computer scientist that would develop a robotic tomato picker whose manufacturing, sales, and maintenance will create thousands of good paying jobs for American workers than to either pay tens of thousands of imported low-skill foreigners who must live impoverished on the margins of our society or else go without my favorite vegetables because the high-wage domestic tomato pickers are not productive enough to keep their cost low.

It seems strange to me that in this day and age people do not understand where real improvements in a society's standard of living comes from. The writers at Reason magazine or National Review might protest that they are only ignorant liberal arts graduates, not tech-savvy engineers or scientists, so they should not be faulted for short-changing the state of the robotic lawn-mower industry. I don't think it's about understanding automation technology, so much as it is about having the wrong attitude about how things improve. If you had gone back to to the middle of the last century and polled the average comic-book reader about how they thought lawns would be mowed in the twenty-first century, I'll bet you'd get a very high percentage of kids saying "robots will do it" even though those kids would have known less about computers and robotics than even a Reason magazine editor of today. The difference is attitude. "Let's figure out how this can be done automatically" vs. "who can we push this unpleasant task off on or force to pay for it."

For most of our nation's life people have understood that if we all want to have more and better stuff in the future, then we have to figure out some way for each of us to have a higher productivity than we did in the past. And since the industrial revolution the use of automation has been a key element in making that improved productivity happen. The strange thing is that Reason article looks like it will make the point, but then completely misses it, when it says:

"We could mow our own lawns. We could also make our own candlesticks and churn our own butter."

They are correct. We don't churn our own butter anymore. But that isn't because we pushed the butter churning work off on some underclass or poor foreigners; we have machines that churn our butter now. If we humans insist on doing all the menial, repetitive, and unpleasant work of the world ourselves then we will be too busy with petty chores to make the advances in technology and art and humanities and science that will make the future a much better place than the past. Let's not squabble over which people get stuck with the crappy and low-paying jobs. Let the machines take care of the work that they do best, to free up all of us human workers for the nobler and more ambitious tasks before us.

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