Tipping a robot—”robotipping”—leaving cash or card tips for shuffling metal waiters and other service robots—is nothing like “cow tipping“.

Justifying toppling unwary sleeping, peaceful cows at pasture, regardless of whatever twisted appeal it has, is going to be, like actually tipping a cow, a tough challenge.

But finding good reasons to leave tips for robots is easy, despite widespread Luddite loom-and-robot-smashing resentments about their job-snatching ways.

Rationales for tipping robots will stand, despite the knee-jerk protest, “But they are just machines and can’t appreciate the gesture! Besides, tip them when they’re takin’ ar jobs’!!??” (the tag line in this classic, albeit typically unclassy episode of South Park).

And stand they will, even if the robot tipped is a unit without conscious or unconscious awareness of anything. To comprehend this, you have to resist the reflex interpretation of a tip as only a reward or an incentive to sustain or improve performance. If you do that, you will readily see how tipping robots makes good sense.

The ways that it does make sense include the following:

Robotipping for non-excellence: This counter-intuitive idea is diametrically opposed to the idea of tipping to acknowledge, reward or encourage excellence in the form of great service. Instead, the “robotip” is directly proportional to the inadequacy of the service, as an inducement to make evidently needed robot repairs, tweaks, upgrades, replacements, etc., to raise the standard of service.

Of course, if the management, which manages the robotips for non-sentient robots, merely pockets the funds and makes no improvements, within a grace period of, say, three months, the continuing sub-standard service will serve as a signal to consumers and the market that the establishment’s commitment to customer service is woefully inadequate,

At that point, other robot-employing establishments that use the tips prudently as their tipping clientele intend will prosper and drive the laggard firm out of business.

Welfare fund for displaced and replaced humans: Of course, millions of currently employed and future human workers are going to be made jobless, or forced to be underemployed by their robot competitors. For the most part it won’t be those workers’ or the robots’ fault; it’s just that the human willingness to work won’t count for much of anything, while the question of robot “willfulness” or willingness won’t arise in the near term.

So, with the revenues pooled from a cost-savings tax, i.e., taxes on the bigger profit margins, and mandatory robotipping“service charges”, a substantial welfare or unemployment fund for blameless humans becomes both justifiable and substantial.

To be eligible, a human will have to demonstrate work incompetence relative to robots, rather than willingness—on which, for the short term, humans will retain a useless, pointless monopoly.

Catalyst and resource for self-replicating robots to do precisely that: I have argued previously that tipping has a sociobiological function that although not obvious to most people is theoretically transparent: to facilitate survival of the fittest, selective breeding and elimination of the unfit. Think about it: Why do you tip anyone—because you want to perpetuate or encourage great service?

Of course. But that great service has genetic, as well as institutional, cultural, strictly environmental, and social components, in the form of positive innate temperament, pleasant vocal capabilities, pleasing appearance, adequate or superior energy levels and general vitality, and breeding potential—in the event that you are having fantasies about mating with your hot server.

Your tip is not merely reinforcing, rewarding and perpetuating “memes“—general, transmissible, reproducible concepts and norms—of good service. It is also making it easier for the specific recipient to survive, e.g., buy food, shelter, safe transportation, vitamins, clothing to attract a mate or ensure the winter survival of offspring.

On the other hand, a tip withheld from a slovenly, irascible, rude, perfunctory, hostile or otherwise unappealing server is wholly justified from this Darwinian perspective as natural selection in action.

When manifested in its crudest form, it is a tip withheld just because the server is no one you want to date and therefore someone whose genes you are (unconsciously) endeavoring to eliminate from the human gene pool or at least handicap in the struggle for existence.

Yes, even in this darkest form, the institution of (non-)tipping makes perfect Darwinian sense as “natural discrimination”which is, in this instance, a blunter, politically incorrect articulation of “natural selection”.

Joyless Bill Joy’s Prophecy

As one of the “big three” self-replicators that Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems, and IT pioneer, warned us about in his 2000 near-manifesto Will the Future Need Us?—nano-machines, GMOs and robots—the robots meet the fundamental, core requirement for inclusion in natural selection: self-replication.

Possession or lack of self-awareness or any other form of consciousness is irrelevant. All that matters is whether they can reproduce and be subject to natural selection for adaptability and at least self-replacement-level replication.

Viewed from this perspective analogous to the sociobiological endorsement of (non-)tipping of humans, the provision or denial of tips to self-replicating robots makes eminently good sense: If you want to see more of them, tip them—on the presumption that they require resources from which to create more of their kind. Acquiring those resources—as is the case with most resources—requires other resources, e.g., cash.

If you think that a given self-replicant robot should not reproduce or at least not easily, don’t tip it. Sure, you may think, feel or sense that giving or withholding a tip is all about “(not)deserving” it. But the whispered evolutionary bottom line buried deep, like some fossil in the hidden strata of the mind, is that it’s all about controlling or at least influencing reproduction and natural selection.

Note that this Darwinian analysis and argument hold irrespective of whether the service agents are human or robots. However, perhaps, given the prospect of robot self-replication arriving before robot self-consciousness, “sociobiological” is the wrong term to apply to such considerations.

Even “socio-something” may turn out to be utterly inappropriate, e.g., if the robots self-replicate, but scatter, like spawned asocial insects, to lead autonomous, solitary existences, while nonetheless relentlessly replacing those of us they do not eliminate in the Bill Joy-less future.

How Much Should We Tip a Robot?

Given the stupendous moral and technological ambiguity, and the promise and peril robots and their replication represent, the question becomes: How much should I tip a robot?

Viewed abstractly, that’s an easily answered question.

We should tip them only so long as we do not reach a tipping point…

…the point at which they and the future will neither need, want nor tolerate us and our tips.



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