Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Machines Are Taking Our Jobs: Now What?

This set of speculations was spurred by a YouTube video technological creator/guru/advocate/author Peter Diamandis posted on Facebook. Check this out:

I tried to write some fiction along these lines last year, so naturally I have a few opinions. Here are the challenges, as I see them:

What do you do with (or for) people who have nothing to do?
While all people are considered equal under the law in theory, in reality, individuals have differing and varying levels of ability, accomplishment, and insight. In the U.S., many people whose jobs were shipped overseas or downsized went on unemployment or "disability," and stopped working. We're a rich country, but if we are to provide for the necessities of the unemployed or unemployable, to what level does that beneficence reach? $50,000 per person? $100,000? $1 million?

In America, individuals are defined by what they do for a living, whereas in Europe asking someone about their job is considered almost or seriously rude. I recall asking someone over there (France, maybe?), "What do people talk about, then?" The bartender laughed and said, "Sex, religion, and politics," which are all taboo or rude subjects in America. So maybe technological unemployment would be a bigger problem in the States than elsewhere? The question becomes: "Lacking the need to work for the necessities of life, what purpose does human life have?" It's only been in the last two centuries that more than a very, very few people had the luxury of asking that question. 

How will a world of abundance affect the shapes of nations and governments?
Governments exist today to ensure any number of things, from protecting private property to ensuring domestic tranquility to ensuring that every citizen has the basics of physical existence. If "the basics" are handled by in-house 3D printers/replicators, the issue of private property becomes effectively moot, as does the perceived political need to attack others for "resources." Would governments be responsible for the safety, welfare, and education of large populations anymore, or does governance become a more localized effort? Do we see one world state or thousands or millions of city-states?

Also, given a future of human abundance, is there any need for people to gather together and live in cities? Or, lacking the need to go out in the fields and work, will everyone move to the cities and leave the spaces between them untouched?

What happens if mass technological unemployment comes before a future of abundance.
As history shows, human beings are not particularly rational in response threats to their livelihoods. The writers of Star Trek VI reminded us, the term sabotage came about because workers threatened by automation threw their shoes (sabots) into the machinery. Such resentment against technology, however irrational, is not unprecedented. Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov depicted a future in several novels where humans not only resented but actively destroyed robots that were taking their jobs. Are those machines lowering the prices for necessities? Maybe--but maybe not enough to prevent poverty, even of the technical variety. All people know is that "those machines" are taking their jobs away and leaving them a little poorer.

What becomes of money in a future of abundance?
Money exists as a uniform means of exchange so that people can acquire limited goods and services using a common standard of value. It is a substitute for bartering, because not everyone has something we want, and it's much more difficult to trade with multiple people if you just want one item in the first place. But again, if everyone has access to the necessities of life--food, water, clothing, shelter, tools--money becomes less of a concern, except for rare luxury items/activities, such as space travel, long-range travel on Earth, or exceptional aesthetic experiences.

How do we educate people in a civilization of abundance?
We're already facing the first wave of this problem now: we have millions of people who have been put out of work through improvements in technological productivity. Those who remain in the workforce work longer and harder until they, too, are replaced by improved processes and machines, leaving an ever-increasing number of people unemployed and with no useful skills as currently defined by the economy as it is currently constructed. Do we train the unemployed to "seek their true calling?" Do we train them to pursue other lines of work that are still useful but not as suited to their abilities? Do we train everyone to become "creative geniuses," knowing full well that not everyone has those abilities?

The purposes of education will necessarily change. If "the basics" are provided or done by machines, is there still a need to teach "basic skills?" What do people do if the machines break down? Are they fixed by other machines? What if an area is wiped out by electromagnetic pulse (EMP), who will have the ability to restore the technologies that make abundance possible? Human beings could be educated to better find and exercise their innate talents. But what if those talents are made irrelevant by automation?

Do we still fight each other?
The motivations and tools for antagonism between nations and individuals would necessarily change. Would warfare even be necessary? Possible? Or would weapons become ever more vicious, as molecular machines become capable of targeting and killing specific individuals, slowly and viciously, at the molecular level? Would benevolent machines and computers restrain our violent tendencies, as Asimov would have had it? If we are modifying our bodies at the molecular level to monitor and control our internal body chemistry, will violence-inducing anger even be possible? We could learn to tame ourselves and our violent urges or we could learn to direct our tendencies to violence into more constructive channels.

What does humanity do with itself on a healthier, safer, freer, and more advanced world?
It is conceivable that a future of abundance could lead to a future like Star Trek, where people challenge themselves by exploring and settling other worlds. However, I'm not so sure. What need would a happy, comfortable population have for "adventure?" Exploration entails risk, and a world of safety and comfort would appeal to many--especially older people who remember what a world of "adventure" was like and feared it. Perhaps our misfits would go off into space--those who, despite every advantage, would seek life elsewhere because they are unable to get along with their peers or stay content in a life without challenges. Or do we try to genetically modify (or breed out) "restlessness?" Perhaps our machines--more capable, smarter, and faster than us--might insist on "taming" humanity...not enslaving us, merely ensuring that no one gets any ideas about leaving home.

I have tried to frame my concerns under the assumption that Diamandis's future of abundance is possible. I do not necessarily believe that that is the case. "The Singularity," for example, might be absolute bunk. But a future of high technology, mass good, and massive disruption is upon us, and Diamandis is right about the fact that we need to consider what direction that future might--and should--take.

No comments: