Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What will people do when robots can do our jobs for us?

People have been worried that automation would lead to widespread unemployment ever since the Industrial Revolution. The Luddites, 1810's British textile workers, revolted violently against new labor-saving machinery that promised to replace skilled textile workers with machines operated by unskilled workers.
Apple, the largest publicly traded corporation in the world, makes around 100 billion per year in revenue, but only pays approximately 10 billion per year in salaries.
Researchers from the University of Chicago have documented a worldwide downward trend in the share of labor income in the last three decades, in the form of lower wages and benefits with increased inequality across industries, and a rising share going to capital income, beyond what can be explained by recession, and attributed to structural changes in technology, market structures and labor unions.[22]
I'm afraid  as technology progresses, there will be less and less need for human labor as computers and robots supplant more and more human skills. Experts vary on their estimate, but some are saying as early as 2030 (or perhaps 2100 or later), there will be a technological singularity. This is the moment at which computers will become capable of creating an even more intelligent computer. At this point, it's thought that there would be a sudden exponential increase in the intelligence and abilities of computers/robots, to the point that not only would computers become more intelligent than humans, their intelligence, organization, and superhuman capabilities would surpass our ability to even comprehend them. This could happen in our lifetime.
It may depend on your perspective, but for me this is a frightening prospect. Bill Joy's widely read 2000 article for Wired magazine "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us" explores the dystopian possibilities resulting from the singularity. There's lots of disturbing ways this could play out: humans might go extinct (through famine or violent robot rebellion), or we might end up with frightening levels of inequality with a tiny class of humans that own the fully-automated production of the robots, with no one else having any source of income.  According to this article on, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk are all concerned about the threat of machines that can think for themselves.
Having gotten terribly depressed by our prospects for the future, I tried to think of some scenario in which this yields a utopia. My optimism is not unfounded. Overall the world has improved since the Industrial Revolution- it's more tolerant of diverse religions/ethnicities/cultures, we do a better job taking care of the poor, we have less premature death from preventable or treatable diseases, the crippled can often be enabled to walk, and less people die violent deaths than ever before (see Steven Pinker's TED talk on The Surprising Decline in Violence from Biblical Times to the Present). Could things keep improving for us with the aid of the singularity?
My utopia would go something like this: since there wouldn't be any need for human labor, we would need to be provided welfare by the "government" (whatever that would be). Also, most humans I know thrive from activity (while reclining in sun under palm trees year after year, or spending all day playing video games, sounds appealing, I think in reality endless relaxation is a recipe for depression), thus we would need something to keep us being productive and active. One possibility for ensuring we stay busy in a world where human labor is obsolete is to create an economic system that rewards improvements in well-being. For instance we could be rewarded with "Well-Being Coins" for performing or achieving things that are likely to increase the well-being of ourselves or others. We might get 1 Well-Being coin for 30 minutes of exercise, 2 for visiting with an elderly neighbor, 4 for hosting a party, 1 for practicing violin, 2 for meditating, 2 for contemplating the divine, and 10 for completing a painting. We might even lose points if we spent all day alone despite feeling lonely, or if we didn't exercise all day but could have. Achievement of goals, nurturing relationships, improving health, finding sources of meaning, or doing activities that allow for "flow" would all earn people coins (this could all be tracked effortlessly by the tiny computers we'd all be wearing). The coins would be the only form of currency, and could be used for purchasing robotically-derived goods and services, or perhaps there would still be some commodities that people would still insist be human-produced (such as live music, art, drama, religious services, perhaps food?).
Kuwait is a modern-day demonstration that we are capable of creating such a society.  Kuwait is one of the top five wealthiest per capita nations thanks to proceeds from oil. If you're a citizen of Kuwait, your income is guaranteed- you're either provided with a government job (most people take this option), or some 10% work in the private sector, but if they don't make some minimum amount of income, then the government supports their income anyway. Note that everyone's given a government job, apparently to keep them busy.
Even in the run-up to the singularity, we're already experiencing declines in the need for human employment I'm afraid. I'm glad I didn't end up in the field of artificial intelligence, which is potentially an unethical profession if you believe the above, and I'll be supporting hand-made items and local small farms whenever possible. I'd say I won't be using Siri anymore, but for the moment she seems harmlessly simple.

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