All Tomorrow’s Sushi Robots

The videos are several years old, but recently Suzomo’s sushi making robots have been making the rounds on the American internet (via Daniela Hernandez). Watch it and recall that this is footage from 2009, so the state of the art must have advanced beyond this already:

I like this video because it illustrates several excellent themes. One is that it problematizes some of the manufacturing fetishism that’s come back into vogue. Is a person manning a machine like this “manufacturing” sushi or is he a lowly food service worker? The larger issue is that by radically reducing the level of skill necessary to produce a decent piece of sushi, these machines open the doors to a possible world of sushi abundance. And yet at first glance we may be tempted to wonder who will be able to afford the sushi if we lose all our good high-skill sushi chef jobs? The deeper issue, however, is that there are only so many fish in the sea. Radical reductions in the other aspects of sushi production risk dramatically worsening the already dire state of the world’s fisheries. To halt overfishing in a world of cheap ubiquitous sushi, we need a system of aggressively capped tradeable fishing permits. If we auction the permits appropriately, then not only does the permitting system become an efficient way to manage our stock of natural resources, it becomes a source of revenue for the public sector—ensuring that not only do we not run out of fish, but there’s plenty of money for everyone.

Sushi is, obviously, just a small share of the world economy. But the moral of the story is perfectly genuine. Technological progress makes utopian outcomes possible but also makes it much more important to manage natural resources correctly.