I have been thinking and reading about the implications of the coming robot revolution ever since I wrote my first post about it. The essence of that post is that artificial intelligence (AI) and robots have been steadily increasing in computational ability and they are about to put almost everyone out of work. In fact, some observers suggest that this is already happening: this is why the unemployment rate has stayed so stubbornly high in the last few years. There are economists who forecast 50 to 75 percent unemployment twenty years from now. What would this mean? How would people live without jobs?
Economist Paul Krugman wrote a column last summer called “Sympathy for the Luddites,” in which he suggests a basic income for everyone is the only solution.
This fall, activists in Switzerland collected enough signatures to bring a referendum to the ballot that calls for a minimum income for every citizen in the country. When the group brought the petitions to Parliament, they also brought a truck filled with 8 million coins, one for every Swiss citizen. If enacted, the measure would guarantee an income of about $2800 per month per citizen, regardless of any other income.
Business Insider published an interview with Daniel Straub, one of the people who initiated the Swiss referendum, and Straub linked the concept of a minimum income to the future of robots:
BI: Why choose a minimum income rather than, say, a higher minimum wage?
DS: A minimum wage reduces freedom — because it is an additional rule. It tries to fix a system that has been outdated for a while. It is time to partly disconnect human labor and income. We are living in a time where machines do a lot of the manual labor — that is great — we should be celebrating.
I agree with Straub that we should celebrate this—I imagine our robot future in a very positive way—but of course there are many dystopian views. I guess that’s not surprising in our culture, where the movie industry constantly pumps out films portraying a bleak future where the machines rule, the earth is devastated, and humankind fights for survival.
I first read about the robot future in a Mother Jones article by Kevin Drum. Drum envisioned a basic income for all; but in his telling we would no longer work. We would just “loaf.” In one of his blog posts about robots, Mr. Drum quotes another blogger, Stuart Staniford, speculating about our country’s future. Staniford has a very bleak view: he imagines that a large number of the unemployed will become criminals and need to be locked up. The best way for society to manage this underclass is with distractions like TV and videogames. Some romantics will reject technology and try to go “back to the land.” People will have no way to find meaning or purpose in their lives. In the end, “all hell will break loose.” (see his complete list in the notes below)
What I think these men are missing is that most people don’t want to “loaf.” They want to contribute, to produce something meaningful, to be fulfilled through their work, and they don’t require an employer to give them that purpose and fulfillment.
The Internet is already giving us an idea of what could happen if people were freed from the drudgery of a full-time job. Wikipedia is an awesome example: people contributing knowledge, without compensation, to build an encyclopedia freely accessible to everyone.
On a smaller scale, people who have a passion for a subject are building websites that provide answers to any conceivable question you might have on any topic. For example, in my earlier post I included a video from the TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000. This site, built by fans, can help you find the episode of MST3K with that short, “Design for Dreaming” (“12 to the Moon”).
Staniford is condescending towards the romantics, but I see this as a trend that will provide a lot of pleasure, not to mention purpose and meaning, in the future. People will be freed to find a way to express themselves artistically, which will provide a sense of fulfillment currently missing from most people’s jobs; and we’ll be able to enjoy the fruits of other’s artistic labors, whether it’s fine handmade clothing or furniture (see etsy.com), artisanal cheeses, or novels (see the explosion in ebook publishing).
Andrew McAfee, co-author of the book Race Against the Machine, is optimistic also. He explains why in this blog post: “Why I For One Welcome our Robot Underlings”:
Imagine a world where the robots did all the work. They tend the crops, sew the clothes, cook the food, drive the trucks, and work on all the assembly lines in all the world’s factories.
In this world, everything would be a lot cheaper because labor costs would drop to zero. In fact, there’d be a startling abundance of stuff. And people would be freed up to do things other than work. We could use our time to explore, create, perform, craft, mingle, and so on because we wouldn’t have to work to produce the necessities or luxuries of life; the robots would be taking care of that.
In the reading I have been doing about the issue of a minimum income, I was surprised to discover that some conservatives in this country are in favor of it. Also called a “Guaranteed Annual Income,” the most well-known advocate was Milton Friedman who championed the idea in Capitalism and Freedom (1962). Today, Charles Murray, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, argues that a lot of government bureaucracy can be eliminated with a minimum income—food stamps, aid to dependent children, disability, unemployment, social security, etc. (Book In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State).
I would have thought conservatives would reflexively be opposed to a minimum income on the grounds that it would destroy people’s ambition. In a New York Times article on the Swiss referendum I read of an experiment that a Canadian town did in the 1970s that showed a minimum income did not act as a “disincentive to work”:
In the mid-1970s, the tiny Canadian town of Dauphin, Manitoba acted as guinea pig for a grand experiment in social policy called “Mincome.” For a short period of time, all the residents of the town received a guaranteed minimum income. About 1,000 poor families got monthly checks to supplement their earnings.
Evelyn Forget, a health economist at the University of Manitoba, has done some of the best research on the results. Some of her findings were obvious: Poverty disappeared. But others were more surprising: High-school completion rates went up; hospitalization rates went down.
The community saw fewer accidents, particularly workplace accidents. There were also significantly fewer people seeing doctors for mental health issues.
“If you have a social program like this, community values themselves start to change,” Forget said.
I located Forget’s report online and was surprised to find out that there were three GAI experiments done in the U.S. in the late 1960’s and early 1970s. In her analysis of the results of those experiments, she found that the income supplement resulted in a decline in work participation, but almost all of this effect came from mothers staying home longer with their infants and fewer teen-agers working. In addition, the results suggested a positive impact not just on high-school completion by teen-agers, but increased adult education (read her comments in notes below).
I envision a shift in consciousness coming in the near future, a new understanding of society where we rethink our entire economic status quo. This will be in line with President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights”: all people have the right to a decent life, to be secure in the necessities. We will then consider it immoral for a few citizens to reap the benefits of the new technology that has finally provided the possibility of abundance for all.
From Forget’s study:
The experiments generally found a 13% reduction in work effort from the family as a whole, with one-third of the response coming from the primary earner, one-third from the secondary earner and the final third coming from additional earners in the family (Levine et al. 2005: 99). Because the primary earner typically worked many more hours than the secondary and tertiary earners, this implied a relatively small reduction in work effort by primary earners. Female spouses reduced their hours and re-entered the workforce less quickly after a break. The general result that secondary earners tend to take some part of the increased family income in the form of more time for household production, particularly staying home with newborns, was found in all the experiments. Tertiary earners, largely adolescent males, reduced their hours of work dramatically but the largest decreases occurred because they began to enter the workforce later. Taking a first job at an older age suggests that some of these adolescent males might be spending more years in school.
In North Carolina, children in experimental families showed positive results on elementary school test scores. In New Jersey, data on test scores was not collected, but a positive effect on school continuation rates was found…These results are all the more remarkable when juxtaposed to the academic literature that shows it is very difficult to affect test scores, dropout rates or educational decisions by direct intervention.
- Ever larger numbers of people will continue to be made technologically unemployed by this trend.
- Managing the "class formerly known as working" will become an increasing challenge. More and more of them will present as "criminals", "terrorists", and other undesirable labels since society is not able to provide them with a meaningful way to contribute (and people need meaning).
- The least disruptive approach to managing this is for the underclass to disappear into technologically mediated secondary universes (whatever TV & video games evolve into).
- However, the traditional cultural ethics that despise welfare/dependency etc will prevent easy/full use of this solution, and the alternative is to lock up more and more deviants and use more and more sophisticated technology to find and monitor the deviants - managing the risk that they become organized and attempt to overthrow the existing order.
- Some people will reject the automation trend and there will be an ongoing romantic/back-to-the-land/local food/anti-globalization/anti-technology movement. To the extent it relies on resources not needed by organized global society, and doesn't oppose "progress" violently or too-effectively, it will be tolerated.
- Depending on how good the roboticists get how quickly, there's going to become a point where there really isn't enough in it for a sufficiently large fraction of humanity. I simply see no way this trend can continue without eventually rendering almost all of us irrelevant. People's basic survival instincts will not tolerate that.
- However, by that point, there may very well be no easy way back, and all hell will break loose.