There is no question that many, if not most, jobs done by humans today could eventually be accomplished by robots if we continue on the current path of technological progress. If we think back to just 15 years ago, iPhones didn’t exist. Today, the vast majority of people in the developed world, and much of the developing world, own a smartphone. It took less than two decades for the way we work and interact to be completely turned on its head, so what do we make of what life will be like in 2050?
The field of artificially-intelligent robotics is one of the fastest advancing fields in the world of innovation. Much of the developments are happening right in our pockets with each software update that gets pushed into our devices each month, but what truly hits home for most people is when they watch videos like this – innovations taking place in the labs of the best universities in the world.
Although the latter is what people imagine when they think of AI-robots, most of the developments are software-based and don’t necessarily manifest themselves in the physical world. Take Google search or Siri, for example – these learn about your behaviour and patterns the more you use them. From there, a sea of data is generated that can predict your future wants and needs, and eventually know more about you than you know yourself. These are self-taught robots and don’t require a programmer to be manually inputting data in the background. Some theorists believe that this process is exponential in nature and, when measured against human intelligence, will surpass all of humanity’s collective IQ and reach a singularity of knowledge.
But we don’t need to go that far before asking ourselves ethical and political questions regarding the role of human existence in the presence of such intelligence. Outside of the world of arts (although scary experiments have shown robots’ abilities to use deep learning to compose music indistinguishable from history’s greatest musicians), we are not far from a world where, through a gradual dislocation of labour, humans’ role in the economy will enter uncharted territory.
It is well documented that as nations grow richer, they move from agricultural to manufacturing and, eventually to service-based economies. As this inevitable process takes place, technical knowledge acquired through higher education and training becomes more important – the skills necessary to operate a tractor at a farm are very different from the ones necessary to program an app that will replace that operator. At scale, this process excludes those people without specialized knowledge from the economy, leading to serious societal discontents (which is one of the major reasons why we see populism on the rise again, but that’s an entire separate post on its own).
We don’t need to go much farther in this thought experiment to see the impact of robotics (and in this particular case, not even AI robotics) in the consolidation of capital. Take warehouse management, for example – before robots you’d need hundreds of people working day and night to perform the work required in a warehouse to move, pack and ship product. Now, with a few dozen robots you accomplish more in less time, and more efficiently, while needing only a handful of supervisors to oversee the functioning of the machinery. All of the sudden, the cost to run such an operation reduces dramatically as labour costs get cut, and companies make far bigger profits while simultaneously driving market prices down to become more competitive, inadvertently creating an economy heavily consolidated in the hands of a few business owners. Without enhanced governmental intervention and taxation, these CEOs can dictate the direction of the economy without ever having been democratically elected into public office.
This cycle of innovation creates pockets of unemployment throughout the nation where such warehouses are located, and the few extra jobs that it creates are for higher technical knowledge workers, often with the requirement of a university degree. Without completely upending the existing education system, governments need to start thinking about how it might redistribute this newly unlocked wealth concentrated in the hands of an ultra-rich minority in order to avoid the expansion of poverty and control growing economic inequality. Such fast and drastic reductions in social mobility require monumental efforts by the state to put in place new incentives that will lead to further economic growth and improvements in quality of life. And, oftentimes, these are initiated with historic welfare programs that ignite a tide of change in the economic fabric of a country, preventing it from spiralling into a dystopian poverty-stricken future where oligarchs have a disproportionate amount of power.
The poster child of all welfare programs was FDR’s New Deal that took place in the 1930s in the US. When the Great Depression hit in the end of the 1920s, manufacturing output decreased by a third, deflation took place causing prices to fall by 20%, and since bank deposits weren’t insured back then, many banks closed and people lost their savings. All of this led to unemployment rising from 4% to 25%, devastating a nation in one fell swoop. Now, the reasons for this massive dislocation of labour were completely different from what we saw take place in the Rust Belt in the 80s, and what we will likely see take place in the coming years due to AI-robotics. But regardless of cause, the results of such major economic events follow a similar pattern. If it wasn’t for the New Deal, today we wouldn’t have federal programs and agencies that buffer the economy from total sudden collapse and support workers during unemployment periods. All of this, most of the time, enables a country to improve stability and keeps the gears of capitalism turning.
So, as robotics and deep learning continue to improve and become better at doing humans’ work than humans themselves, what will be our role in the future? Netflix’s series Black Mirror painted a rather somber picture of what that could look like, but I’m not totally sold on it. Recently, Sam Harris published an interesting Ask Me Anything episode on his podcast where he briefly touched on this ethical dilemma:
“Imagine AI that really works. Imagine robots so advanced that they can do everything that people can do. So, you could have a plumber or an electrician come to your house who is a robot. We’re certainly very far away from that, but in principle there’s no reason to think that it isn’t possible. And if it’s possible, it will be achieved if we just continue to make progress. So, in the limit, we are imagining technology cancelling the need for much, or even most, of human labour. Then what does society look like? Clearly, we need a new ethical and political conception of how a person finds their place in the world. It can’t be a matter of finding something to do that others will pay you for so that you can survive. Then we have to begin thinking in terms of something like Universal Basic Income. You shouldn’t have to secure your place in the world through labour anymore. And in the presence of that kind of advanced technology, we really are talking about a pile of wealth that is growing bigger and bigger. So, even a comparatively tiny slice of that pie will leave a person much better off in absolute terms than even the richest people are today. Obviously, there are many ways in which we could fail to achieve such a civilization, but in success a person born 50 years from now will enjoy the fruits of innovations and insights and luxuries and life-saving technologies that no billionaire has access to today.”
Maybe this thought experiment will just remain a thought experiment. But, as Mark Twain once said, “history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes”. And what we’re seeing today already certainly feels like the end of the first stanza.