Humans, Computers, and Telecommuters

Let’s discuss two sets of three: the land-labour-capital trinity of conventional economics, and the human-computer-telecommuter set that may soon become the three main categories of labour.

To state the obvious, the key relationship during the past generation has been the “capital” of North Atlantic economies (whether that capital be military power, technological innovation, or consumer demand), chiefly that of the United States, and the labour and “land” (most notably, the fossil fuels in that land) of Asia, chiefly that of the Chinese.

Even in recent years, this relationship between North Atlantic capital and Asian land and labour has arguably continued to intensify. Specifically, if we characterize “land” as being the type of energy production that has the greatest impact on local environments — if, for example, we define it as coal production, coal consumption, and the building of massive hydroelectric dams — then we can see that in recent years the employment of Asian “land” has continued to grow at a rapid pace relative to that of the North Atlantic economies.

This has been the result of a number of different significant trends: the growing “green economy” of Europe, the coal-to-gas electricity switchover in the United States that has been the result of shale gas production, the growth of coal and gas consumption in Japan as a result of Fukushima, the growth of hydroelectric power in China (though China’s coal industry growth has been flattening), and the growth of coal industries in southern Asia.

We know that poorer Asian populations in countries like China and India hold the weaker positions in this trade relationship. They supply the labour and “land” chiefly because the wealthier economies of the world mostly do not want to allow large-scale immigration or domestic environmental despoliation, yet are not able or charitable enough to furnish poor countries with capital wealth without demanding labour and natural resource wealth in return.

We also know that this global trade relationship might soon decrease to some extent, whether because of automation or protectionism in capital-rich countries, aging labour forces in Northeast Asia, or an attempt to reduce pollution in China.

The view of world trade decreasing because of automation and protectionism has become especially popular during the past year, because of political developments in both the US and China. Upon closer investigation, however, a reduction in trade may not actually be likely. The hitch here is the limitation of automation in wealthy economies. While computers and computer-run machines may now be excellent at doing tasks that humans are bad at — like being a grandmaster at chess or driving a truck for days without taking a pit stop — they are still terrible at a task that even human children find easy: manipulating objects.

The result of the limitation of automation may be the second set of three mentioned above: a human-computer-telecommuter division and cooperation of labour. Imagine, for example, an industrial or commercial site in the US that employs not only human labour, and not only machine labour, but instead a combination of a small number of on-site labourers, a large number of autonomous machines, and a large number of machines controlled by lower-wage labourers working remotely from poor locations in foreign countries.

In one sense, every party involved would gain in this relationship: rich countries would gain access to cheap labour without needing to outsource, poor countries would receive wages, and both would be allowed to harness the productive power of machines without having to wait until robotic technology is good enough to allow machines to replace labour altogether. Or without having to deal with the economic and social consequences of that day finally coming.

On the other hand, “telecommuters” might further income inequality within wealthy countries, by forcing labourers in those countries into even closer competition with labourers in poor countries. Moreover, it might make it more difficult to ignore the unfairness that exists as a result of real wages in rich countries far exceeding those of poor ones.

The effect of telecommuting — which includes, but is not limited to, a worker being able to control a machine that is located thousands of kilometres away — may be to make labour much more easily tradable across long distances. Since “capital” is easily tradable too, this may leave “land” as the odd man out. Land considerations, for example the location of cheap and/or clean electricity, or of ports capable of importing natural resources from abroad, may therefore become more important, at least relative to labour considerations, when choosing where to locate a new industrial or commercial site.

A place like Iceland, for example, which has abundant and clean power, difficulty in exporting that power directly because of its island location, ports proximate to North America and Europe, and yet no real labour force to speak of, could use a combination of autonomous and remotely-controlled machines to become a major industrial or commercial production site. A similar thing may be true of economies like Quebec, Norway, Manitoba, or British Columbia.

Remote-controlled machines do not get very much press — even if you Google it, you will probably not find much, with the exception of medical tele-surgeries — when compared to discussions of a far future in which widespread, wholly autonomous machines run the labour force. What is so scary, or exciting, about the possibility of remote-controlled machines, and of telecommuting labour forces in general, is that we may not have to wait until the far future for them to become widespread.




The Lay of the Land

Imagine a map of the world in which land and sea are both drawn in the same colour, so as to be indistinguishable from one another. Imagine also that areas inhabited by humans are drawn in a different colour than areas that are relatively uninhabited by humans.

Such a map might reveal a great desert in the Northern Hemisphere, encompassing most of Asia, the Pacific Ocean, and the western half of North America. Within this great desert there would be a great oasis: Northeast Asia. There would also be many lesser oases such as California. The Indian Subcontinent would also appear to be a great oasis, between the desert of Central Asia and the desert of the Indian Ocean. But it would not be as remote an oasis as Northeast Asia.

world map at night

Now imagine that all of the oceans on this map were to be greatly shrunk in size, in order to account for the ease of transporting bulk cargo by sea, whereas all of the mountain or hilly rainforest barriers on the map were to be greatly increased in size, in order to account for the difficulty of transportation in such areas. This map would now reveal the key position of the habited parts of Europe and the Middle East, which would now be seen as being extremely close to most of the inhabited parts of the Americas and Africa, as well as to much of the inhabited parts of Asia.

It would not now be surprising to learn that the watershed of the narrow Atlantic and Mediterranean seas is where an estimated two-thirds of global economic activity occurs. Nor would the fact that the Mediterranean economies have mostly struggled to keep up with those of the North Atlantic be surprising, given the mountains or deserts which surround the Mediterranean on all sides.

China, in contrast, would still seem to be in an isolated position. The mountains or hilly rainforests that make up much of the terrain of Southeast Asia and the east coast of India, plus the Tibetan plateau and Himalayas, would now appear to further isolate China from India. China would now also  appear to be more internally divided. China’s non-natively-Mandarin-speaking areas along its southeast coast would now seem to be further from the Mandarin areas of the north (since mountainous lands lie between the two).

At the same time, China’s coastal areas would appear to be located closer to the rest of the world (including to the world’s Chinese diaspora, which disproportionately comes from southeast China), since the world’s seas would now appear to be much smaller than before.  Japan, in contrast, would appear more internally unified when looked at using this map, as all of its lands border the sea and so would now seem to be closer to one another.

Going forward 

Of course, this is a very, very rough imagining of the practical realities faced by human economics, based on a number of assumptions that may be wrong, including most importantly on the idea that navigability and habitability are among the most decisive economic and historical factors. Arguably, it helps to explain some key questions – why Europe and Middle Eastern religions spread so widely, why Atlantic and Mediterranean are economies are so large, why China has often struggled with internal regionalism, etc.. Even, however, if we do accept it as a decent model of the world today, it does not tell us how the world might soon change.

If modern technology tweaks the realities of this world-map we have tried to imagine — if, for instance, autonomous vehicles make it far easier to transport bulk cargo in mountainous and hilly rainforest areas — that could alter what we might expect the world economy, political or financial, to look like.


  1. “Chindia” (and Chargentina)The term Chindia became somewhat popular during the BRIC boom a decade ago. It was used to refer to the idea that East Asia and South Asia would become economically much larger and somewhat better integrated with one another, together forming an Indo-Pacific economy that would rival (even if only a friendly rivalry) that of the  Atlantic world, while also allowing China and India to dilute the global power of the US.
    This scenario would also put Southeast Asia, Southwest China, and  Northeast India in a key position in the world, controlling the trade routes (and much of the freshwater) of East and South Asia. Overland trade between China, Southeast Asia, and India might also threaten somewhat the position enjoyed by Singapore, Malaysia, and to a lesser extent Indonesia, all three of which benefit from ships sailing a long detour through the Straits of Malacca to get from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. But, will any of this actually happen? It has not happened yet: trade between China and India remains quite low, given their sizes. karte-topographie-zentralasien-01.pngWe should also not overlook the possibility of a similar economic integration between two large countries that are separated by the world’s other great mountain range, the Andes, namely Chile and Argentina. Unlike China and India, these two nations speak the same language. Their population centres, though separated by high mountains, are located quite close to one another. Chile’s largest city, Santiago, and Argentina’s fourth largest city, Mendoza, are only 175 km apart, as the crow flies. But they are separated from one another by mountains reaching over 5 km high.Greater integration between Argentina and Chile could help both to balance against their much larger, Portuguese-speaking neighbour Brazil. It could perhaps then allow (Ch)Argentina and Brazil work together towards a greater level of South American or Latin American economic or political integration. This could turn out to be as important as anything that might happen between East Asia and South Asia.


    2. Return of the Mediterranean(s)

    In our map of the world we saw the key position held by the Mediterranean, but also that the mountains of Mediterranean countries have limited their development as compared to the flatter lands like northern Europe and the eastern half of the United States. If, however, technology allows for economical transport in mountain areas, then the Mediterranean region might regain some of the influence it enjoyed historically.

    Drainage Basins, rivers

    Drainage Basin (millions of square km)

    So too might other “mediterranean” seas that are surrounded in large part by rugged or rainforest lands. Most notable of these, perhaps, is the American mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico & Caribbean, which, like the real Mediterranean, is centrally located (next to the narrow Atlantic, and between continents) but has much of its nearby population living in mountainous areas, in Mexico and Central America. The Caribbean, in turn, is near another “mediterranean” basin, the Amazon River and its many navigable tributaries.
    3. The Heartland

    Works of “Classic Geopolitics”, notably Halford Mackinder’s book Democratic Ideals and Reality (which I recommend reading)written a century ago at the end of WW1, lays out a vision of the world that is somewhat similar to the one I have tried to describe here. It identifies Europe and the Middle East as the economically-geographically central spot in the world, and argues that, given the Middle East’s relatively arid climate (the Middle East and North Africa had a far smaller population relative to Europe in 1919 than it does today), and given the spread of railways into landlocked areas, it would be the vast flat lands of Eastern Europe that might give rise to a political entity potentially capable of dominating Europe, the Middle East, and by extension the “World-Island” (meaning the Asia-Africa-Europe supercontinent), and by extension the world as a whole.

    In this view, the devastating German-Russian wars of 1914-1917 and 1941-1945 were about who would control East Europe; the Cold War, the 1917-1918 part of WW1 (when Russia left the war and the US entered it), the 1939-1941 part of WW2 (before the Hitler-Stalin pact was broken), the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, or various conflicts during the 19th century, such as the Crimean War or the Anglo-Russian “Great Game” in Central Asia and the Middle East, were about peripheral powers (Britain, France, Japan, the US, etc.) preventing an East European power like Russia and/or Prussia from expanding its influence.

    Regardless of whether or not this Mackinderian perspective is an adequate one, it does seem that the central position of Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East arguably really does exist, and may persist. Eastern Europe continues to house by far the largest state and population in this area (Russia), and the Germans still by far the largest economy. But the more mountainous states and populations in Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia, and much of the Mediterranean and/or Arab worlds are also large, oil-rich, and centrally located. How this story will unfold going forward is anyone’s guess.



Gliders, Gondolas, and Gravity

Gravity keeps us land-bound, most of the time. But there are two transportation technologies that worth with rather than against gravity: cable-cars, which use the weight of anything they are carrying downhill to help lift anything they are carrying uphill; and gliders/parachutes, which mainly travel downhill. The use of cable-cars is limited, however, by their low carrying capacity (relative to trains, trucks, or ships), while the use of gliders and parachutes are limited by danger and imprecision and by the fact that they must still fight gravity in order to get aloft in the first place.

New technologies may overcome these limitations, at least to a certain extent. In the case of cable-cars, there low capacity can become less of a problem as a result of automating loading/unloading/warehousing and automous trucks/cars. With these autonomous sytems in place, a cable car sysyem could run 24-7 (cable-cars are very quiet, so they are not annoying to run at night), with autonomous trucks being autonomously unloaded at the entrance of the cable-car, and then autonomously unloaded and re-loaded onto another autonomous truck at the exit of the cable-car. Similarly, with autonomous cars (or busses), a passenger could disembark his or her car to get on a cable-car, then have another automous car waiting for him or her at the other side.

Autonomous capabilities are even more useful to cargo-carrying gliders or parachutes (or gliders dropping precision parachutes), helping to overcome the limitations of danger and of imprecision. The US military has been making great strides in this area in recent years in Afghanistan, with systems like JPADS (joint precision airdrop system) and research into gliders.

Of course, these systems must still use aircraft get airborne in the first place, which is not sustainable from either an economic or environmental standpoint. This is where things get interesting: what if instead of gliders being released from aircraft, they were instead released from high-elevation cable-car stations? In a mountainous or archipelagic region, this could allow cargo to be transported during times when roads or ships are temporarily out of service as a result of snowfall, flash flooding, avalanches, earthquakes, low tides, etc. They might even be usable by human passengers, to travel to or from an island that lacks an accessible port, or to reach an island on windy days without facing sea-sickness.

Cable-cars might similarly be able to work well with cargo (or passenger) drones in general. They could serve as a sort of ferry for drones. By flying up to land on a cable-car, drones could reduce their energy expendtures, recharge their batteries, and, as a result, reduce their battery sizes.


Everyone for Tennis?

These days, one way to sniff out a potential idea is to see if it passes the Boomer-Roomba test: if it is something that will benefit from Baby Boomers becoming senior citizens, and from the growing use of robots, you might be on to something.

One such idea, I suspect, is tennis — and also, perhaps, tennis’s more octagenarian-friendly sibling sports like badminton, pickleball, and ping pong.

Of course, tennis is already beloved around the globe, and played by young and old alike. But, the number of people playing it on a regular basis has typically been limited by at least one of the following factors:

— people participated in other sports/fitness activities instead

— people were busy with jobs or chores or raising children

— people had no tennis court easily accessible (or at least, not one that was not in use most of the time)
This last factor is particularly true for people in poorer countries; that is to say, for most people in the world. Tennis is a finnicky sport, compared to other sports like basketball, football, running, or even baseball, cricket, or road hockey. You can, for example, play basketball on a sloped driveway in front of your house, or on the road in front of your house. You can play football (soccer) in your backyard, or in a park, or in a parking lot with a surface that has been made uneven by years of being driven on. Tennis, in contrast, requires a far more level surface, and a much larger surface. Even, for example, when compared to playing full-court basketball, a tennis court can require about five times more floor space per player (if you are playing singles tennis):

Tennis courts’ size also makes tennis difficult to play indoors (indoor tennis bubble buildings notwithstanding), when compared to sports like basketball or, even more, when compared to indoor fitness gyms. (Tennis courts are even difficult to provide shade for, in comparison to, for instance, playing 3-on-3 basketball). This puts sports like tennis at a disadvantage, particularly in areas where weather gets hot, cold, or rainy—again, areas in which most people in the world live.

Anyway, back to the Boomeroomba test:

Boomers — tennis (and badminton, pickleball, etc, etc.) is more seniors-friendly than most other sports. Many Boomers (including Chinese Boomers, who are a decade or two younger than those in the West) still participate in sports like downhill skiing, long-distance cycling, or pickup basketball, but may stop or at least cut down on these sports as they age in years ahead.

Robots — robots may impact tennis in a number of ways. First, as robots are often meant as   time-saving devices, and potentially as job-stealing devices, they may leave much more time for people to do things like play tennis. Second, robots may free up large amounts of commercial land, whether outdoors in parking lots or ndoors in malls or warehouses, as a result of technologies like autonomous vertical warehousing, autonomous delivery to consumers of goods bought online, or autonomous vehicles in general reducing the need for huge parking lots and making it easier for people to travel longer distances. Third, roomba-like robots can be ball boys.


Small Tennis Court in Aventura Mall

So, tennis passes the test. Of course, so too might other sports — swimming, for example, or golf, or cross-country skiing or snow-shoeing, might also become common as a result of aging Boomers and of robots freeing up time and land. Moreso than tennis, however, those may be limited by their expense in many places.


Travel by Hibernacula


With autonomous driving, cargo could be transported by very small vehicles. Very small vehicles could use very small tunnels. Given the expense of tunnelling, very small tunnels could be much cheaper to build than larger tunnels. This could be useful in urban areas, to avoid road traffic, allow cargo to be transported late at night without creating too much noise, and use an electrified system (rail, cable, or trolley) rather than use relatively heavy and bulky batteries or internal combustion engines. It could also allow autonomous vehicles to avoid (or reduce) sharing the road with human-driven vehicles, and could allow for autonomous driving without requiring expensive systems like Lidar and without having to deal with technical challenges like snow.

Such tunnels would also facilitate the use of shortcuts, whether within cities (e.g. to pass under a highway or river valley) or to cross natural barriers in order to reach cities. This would be especially useful if the price of oil (and/or the price of energy in general) were to increase. Cargo often takes a lot of energy to transport, but by using shortcuts you reduce the total travel distance required. Plus, by transporting more goods at night, you can benefit from power prices often being much cheaper at night.

If these tunnels are going to be built, the next obvious question becomes “could humans travel in them too?” This question has already become popular, of course, with Elon Musk’s “hyperloop” concept and Boring Company being the most obvious example.

Obviously, though, there are challenges to transporting humans when compared to cargo. First, there are safety concerns. Second, there is comfort: plans like Hyperloop assume that people don’t want to travel around lying on their backs, which means that tunnels to transport people would have to be bigger (and thus more expensive) than those used to transport cargo. Third, there is speed. Plans like Hyperloop assume that humans want to get from one place to another quickly. But with increased speed comes increased safety and comfort concerns and, given that the safe/comfortable distance between vehicles tends to increase at a rate that is the square of the vehicles’ speed (so, going twice as fast can result in moving half as many people). Speed also tends to reduce fuel-efficiency, given air resistance and surface friction. Finally, speed tends to reduce accessibility: since more accelerating and decelerating is needed with more speed, the number of entrance and exit points to the tunnel may decrease. (Roads, for example, have many more access points than highways).

But what if we do away with the assumptions that human travellers need speed, and that human travellers are unwilling to lie on their backs within a narrow tunnel? What if, like Dracula in hibernacula, people could sleep while travelling at very slow, steady speeds in a comfy capsule capable of using narrow tunnels? If by travelling slowly the vehicle could avoid decelerating and accelerating, then the human within it would not (in theory) even be able to know that he or she was moving, and so might be able to get a very good night’s sleep. At a speed of 100 km per hour, the passenger could travel 800 km in 8 hours, to cross a natural barrier via a traffic-free, shortcut route, then wake up the next morning at their urban destination. During the day, assuming that passengers would not want to spend more than an hour or two lying down in a capsule, the system could then transport more cargo long distances, and people shorter distances, crossing  under natural barriers while taking a power nap.






Call for Submissions: “Robots & _______”

Hey all, I’ve never tried this before, but I’d like to try crowdsourcing the content on this site a bit. Specifically, I’m looking for peoples’ articles that have the title “Robots & ______”.

So far, we’ve got three articles on the topic:

Robots & NHL Expansion
Robots & the Middle East

Robots & Ontario’s Minimum Wage

Ideally, I’d like people to send in more of their own articles (any word count you want!), so I can put all of them together to create a series on how robots might impact various aspects of our world.

I look forward to reading your ideas — thanks y’all!