A jobless world—dystopia or utopia?
There is no telling what machines might be able to do in the not very distant future. It is humbling to realise how wrong we have been in the past at predicting the limits of machine capabilities.
We once thought that it would never be possible for a computer to beat a world champion in chess, a game that was thought to be the expression of the quintessence of human intelligence. We were proven wrong in 1997, when Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov. Once we came to terms with the idea that computers might be able to beat us at any intellectual game (including Jeopardy!, and more recently, Go), we thought that surely they would be unable to engage in activities where we typically need to use common sense and coordination to physically respond to disordered conditions, as when we drive. Driverless cars are now a reality, with Google trying to commercialise them by 2020.
Machines assist doctors in exploring treatment options, they score tests, plant and pick crops, trade stocks, store and retrieve our documents, process information, and play a crucial role in the manufacturing of almost every product we buy.
As machines become more capable, there are more incentives to replace human workers with computers and robots. Computers do not ask for a decent wage, they do not need rest or sleep, they do not need health benefits, they do not complain about how their superiors treat them, and they do not steal or laze away.
Current trends suggest that global wealth is constantly on the rise—along with inequality. Among the many causes behind growing inequality, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson argue in The Second Machine Age that the main culprit is technological innovation and change. The two classical inputs to production in economic theory are capital (goods like money, machines, infrastructure, and raw material) and labour (people who work). When a factory like Changying Precision Technology becomes fully automated, it substitutes capital for labour. When owners of capital get rid of labour in order to increase efficiency and productivity, they become wealthier. Meanwhile, people who only have their labour to offer are left out of the economy when their labour can be replaced by machines.
Optimists point out that it is a matter of time until new technology creates new jobs. There is no reason to think, however, that machines will not be able to do those new tasks better than us too. It may be true that there will always be some place for humans. Maybe we will never want to replace psychologists, priests, and fashion designers with robots. But it is still far from clear that there will be enough jobs for all people.
At least three options lie ahead of us. The first is to try and slow down innovation, perhaps even ban the replacement of humans with machines. This option is both unattractive and impractical, as it would force us to renounce the many benefits technology can bring, and it is unrealistic to think we can achieve that goal; there would be too much of a backlash from capital owners.
The second option is to accept extreme inequality. Judging by how little is being done to fight inequality in most countries, this seems to be the strategy we are opting for at the moment. While easily implementable, it is a profoundly undesirable alternative. It allows for the unnecessary suffering of the majority, and is bound to create social and political unrest.
The third option is to tackle extreme inequality and embrace the machines. While individually there may be reason to pursue jobs that we think may never be replaced by robots (or at the very least might be the last ones to be replaced), as a society we need viable solutions for all of us. We can start by removing all taxes to labour and taxing only capital to incentivise the hiring of humans. Implementing a universal basic income may be a feasible option.
We need cultural changes as well. We need to move away from a Protestant work ethic that only knows how to judge and value people on the basis of how hard they work and what they earn for their work. We need to value others and ourselves for our capacity to feel pain and pleasure, for our ability to love and care for others, for our ability to appreciate and create beauty.
A jobless world does not have to be dystopian. Let’s not forget that a significant number of people hate their jobs. Voltaire is often quoted for pointing out, in Candide, that work saves us from boredom, vice, and need. An economy fully run by machines will be a wealthy one, and if we transcend current distribution challenges, we do not have to worry about need. Boredom and vice can be combated in other ways.
Human beings do seem to need to overcome difficult challenges in order to feel fulfilled. In The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, philosopher Bernard Suits suggests that in a world where all instrumental activity were unnecessary, humans could finally dedicate their lives to what we enjoy the most—playing games. He thinks games are the highest good, and defines them as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” just for the purpose of enjoying the process of overcoming difficulty.
A jobless world may be a world where games and creativity flourish. Most of us are not motivated by money when we play a game, do gardening, edit a Wikipedia entry, or create art. As Dan Pink argues, what drives people are challenges, the prospect of gaining mastery at something, and the possibility of making a meaningful contribution, as well as curiosity, I would add. A jobless world where our necessities are taken care of by machines could be ideal for humanistic and artistic enterprises. One where we can focus on activities that are worth choosing for themselves, where our priorities could be the designing of just societies that protect and promote well-being, and thinking about and accomplishing the good life.
For now, however, the challenge is to prepare for the coming of the machines with policies that diminish extreme inequality. If a machine world comes about in a moment where inequality levels keep rising, and where the economy is still classically divided into capital and labour with no measure to support people who have little or no capital, we might be in for a dystopian future.