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Why Robots Should Run Our Finances in 2013

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Technology marched onward in 2012, but human nature did not. The world's most developed nations continued to squabble over who should -- and how to -- pay their bills this month, even as the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Zurich announced that the world's first "humanoid" robot will be "born" in March.

Its baby, called "Roboy", is cute, will have soft skin and is tendon-driven so that it will move as elegantly as a human, not like a machine. Roboy will understand commands and is being developed to perform household chores, surveillance and nursing in hospitals and homes for the elderly.

Even more innovative, Roboy's development is being financed in part by crowdfunding -- online donations from the public -- in return for consideration based on amounts given. A small donation buys a ticket to the Robots on Tour premier in Zurich. A huge donation nets exclusive sponsorship opportunities.

It's an incredible achievement, but overshadowed by the fact that "Roboys" are not yet running our governments, programmed for fiscal responsibility in order to fix our finances.

It's interesting to note that computers can provide instant diagnostics to pinpoint repairs needed on our cars and other machines. But there are no algorithms yet to provide smart, fair and effective political leadership.

Instead, human nature is in charge, and even when people elect leaders the same intractable issues of how to control taxation and spending remain insoluble.

This year, it's the "fiscal cliff" shenanigans in Washington, thanks to the intransigence of competing interests from labour to business, libertarians, environmentalists and the military juggernaut.

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The only way to rise above this, for humans, is to indulge in theatrics and make threats in the hopes of driving negotiators to compromise. But that's no longer working, given the complication and number of moving parts in all these countries.

So the U.S. will likely do what the European Union did a year ago and simply kick the can down the road, thus guaranteeing that the Great Markdown of western living standards will proceed more gradually.

This weekend's deadline is a replay. The European players set a series of deadlines, scurried between national capitals, staged last-ditch confabs, leaked pundit predictions of disaster and the press prophesied that Greece, the eurozone and the world as we know it would collapse.

One year later, Europe had stagnated, but not collapsed. Greece was in a depression and Italy, Spain, Britain, Ireland, Portugal and now are too. The eurozone was intact and some corrections were underway. Interestingly, Spain's labour rates had dropped by 40 per cent, compared with those of Germany and France, and two automakers announced major production plants would be built there this year.

In the U.S., the Great Markdown began in 2008 with the collapse of markets, financial institutions, real estate values and employment levels. These conditions have been slightly corrected, but the Americans won't resolve their differences despite their $6-billion election on these issues.

Both sides have been entrenched since 2010, just like the Europeans. But market forces march ahead and have imposed punishment in the form of lower living standards and higher unemployment levels. And in a few weeks, the political and pundit noise will ebb, countries or currencies won't collapse, and taxes will rise and spending cuts occur, piecemeal.
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On a more positive note, the year saw gains. Britain's Olympics was a wonderful distraction and the U.S. election an entertaining, and economically sanguine, reality show. China's Communists peacefully elected a new leader who has begun to crack down on corruption publicly, in the wake of his archrival's uncharacteristically public scandal. Even better, China's "hard landing" did not happen, which would have depressed commodity prices (not good for Canada) as well as world trade.

The Japanese have climbed out of their tsunami and nuclear meltdown in 2011 and the Arab Spring has not brought about catastrophe and has extended to Syria, where the latest dictatorship is toppling.

Sanctions against Iran appear to have destroyed its economy and the Stuxnet computer virus has wreaked havoc inside its nuclear reactors. In addition, the eventual collapse of Syria's regime will fully isolate Iran in its neighbourhood.

More good news is that (go figure) the best-performing stock market in the world was Venezuela's, up 300 per cent. This was possibly due to President Hugo Chavez's imminent demise. Turkish and Egyptian markets also performed well.

Another telling sign that 2012 was a pretty good year, gold miners aside, is that gold prices remained stable, thanks to fewer concerns about a collapse of the euro or U.S. dollar.

And Russia's cocky Vlad Putin has had some brakes applied to his czar-ship, thanks to large street protests against him for the first time. He's now reduced to making mischief by banning adoptions of Russian children.

Market bible Barron's brought more good news in its recent forecast issue: "Despite fiscal cliff fears, the U.S. stock market could rise 10 per cent in 2013, say Wall Street's top strategists, betting on a better economy, foreign sales, technology and energy shares."

Their consensus was Washington would reach a preliminary agreement in the first few months of 2013 to slow the mandated tax and spending cuts that will automatically begin Jan. 1.

Perhaps the most solid, good news of 2012 was that the Mayan prediction that the world would end on Dec. 21 was dead wrong; along with the imminent birth of "Roboy" in March. One guarantees existence and the second will launch a new era with the creation of the world's first user-friendly robot companions and servants.

So as usual, technology advances, irrespective of human nature's inaccuracies and regressions.

In future, a tide of innovations will improve lives but transform work and the economy. It will replace our concerns about politics or taxation or deficits and impose new ones. But like everything else, human nature will kick that can down the road.

*This column previously appeared in the National Post