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.

@carissaveliz

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit

4 Responses to A jobless world—dystopia or utopia?

  • Keith Tayler says:

    You say, “We once thought that it would never be possible for a computer to beat a world champion in chess”. From 1770 for over fifty years The Turk or Automaton Chess Player was for the most part accepted as being a machine that could play chess at a very high level. Even Alan Turing, who greatly overestimated the complexity of the ‘chess problem’, believed that computers would be able to play chess by about the turn of the century. The phenomenon of how easy some people can be fooled into believing a machine can play chess, and how others could believe that cracking the chess problem by a machine would herald machine intelligence being coextensive with human intelligence, should not be overlooked at time when assessing and predicting the future of machine intelligence has again become very fashionable.

    The issues you raise about the “coming of the machines” have been in and out of fashion for centuries. Adam Smith sketched quite a dystopic view of the future under the relentless application of the division of labour. Karl Marx took the sketch and painted a more detailed and utopian view of how the machines would end capitalism (see “Fragment of Machines” in the Grundrisse and Toni Negri’s ‘Marx beyond Marx’). In the 1960s and 70s the future was often popularly portrayed as being populated with autonomous intelligent machines that would do most of the work, thereby allowing the prosperous human population endless amounts of time to pursue the “good life” you describe in your penultimate paragraph. As a long-term prediction I am sometimes inclined to the Marxist view (with modifications), but by objections to utopianism soon creep in and I return to reality. When it comes to medium and long-term predictions about the future, I am sometimes inclined to hope that whatever we think or do we will get it wrong, for if we get it right it might be a sign that our thoughts and actions have become ‘mechanical’ and we will therefore have no future.

  • Paul Treanor says:

    I think part of the explanation is the degree to which ‘full employment’ has become entrenched in the political culture of western societies. To my knowledge, no politician has ever been elected in any western democracy on a “less jobs” platform. The commitment to job creation and ‘reducing unemployment’ is shared by the entire political class, and the entire policy-making elite. Under these circumstances, governments will indeed pursuit policies aimed at higher employment, and fund them from taxation. That might be sufficient to offset any technology-driven job losses, in the recent past, and in the foreseeable future. As I say, the issue is under-researched, and we don’t really know what is happening.

    It does suggest that it is time to re-assess the debate on the future of labour. The terms in which that debate is conducted are increasingly archaic, and this piece by Carissa Véliz does not really offer anything new. She generally ignores the reality of work in modern societies. Work is increasingly specifically imposed on individuals as a form of punishment, and is not intended to be an “instrumental activity” or a “challenge”, or to allow “gaining mastery at something” or “making a meaningful contribution”. That’s not what it’s about.

    We also need to look at the role of employers. Take this well-quoted British example: Conservative George Osborne told his party conference in 2012:

    “Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?”

    It is obvious that many people, not just in the UK, sympathise with such attitudes. They want to see certain other individuals get up early in the morning, go to work, and work hard. So why should we assume that these attitudes never motivate people?

    Conventional economic theory says that an entrepreneur would not start a business, for the purpose of making lazy individuals get up early in the morning. But if they strongly believe that is the right thing to do, why would they not start a business for that purpose? If we want to understand why there is so much employment, we have to look at the origins of employment, and conventional economic theory never really looks at that issue. Economics says that a business enterprise is there solely to produce goods and services at a profit. Economics treats labour as a cost, which the entrepreneur would prefer to avoid. I think we have to drop that model, before we can understand the persistence of employment, in the face of productivity gains.

    Without a political and historical understanding of employment, then thinking about an imminent “jobless future” is just speculation. What’s worse, it’s a very well-worn speculation, because this theme has been around for decades, probably since the late 19th century. It’s like speculation about the imminent arrival of aliens. True, they might come tomorrow, but the speculation doesn’t really get us anywhere.

  • Paul Treanor says:

    Part of my response above disappeared during posting, here is the full version…

    This lacks historical perspective. Since about 1800, productivity in almost every form of work has dramatically increased. There are some people – bricklayers for instance – whose work is unchanged since the Middle Ages, but most of the specific work tasks that existed in 1800, have effectively disappeared though technological change. The required labor has dropped to zero, so that entire occupations simply disappeared, such as ostlers. (The ostler fed and stabled travellers horses, while they stayed at an inn for the night).

    Given the huge increase in productivity, in theory we should almost all be jobless already. Why that did not happen, is an under-researched aspect of economic history. What we can say, is that all previous predictions of imminent mass unemployment due to technological change have been proved wrong. Until now, at least. Of course, this might indeed be the transitional period, but we can only confirm that in about 20 years. Until then, not only should we be sceptical of “jobless-future” prophecies, but we should try to understand what happened in the past, and what is happening now.

    I think part of the explanation is the degree to which ‘full employment’ has become entrenched in the political culture of western societies. To my knowledge, no politician has ever been elected in any western democracy on a “less jobs” platform. The commitment to job creation and ‘reducing unemployment’ is shared by the entire political class, and the entire policy-making elite. Under these circumstances, governments will indeed pursuit policies aimed at higher employment, and fund them from taxation. That might be sufficient to offset any technology-driven job losses, in the recent past, and in the foreseeable future. As I say, the issue is under-researched, and we don’t really know what is happening.

    It does suggest that it is time to re-assess the debate on the future of labour. The terms in which that debate is conducted are increasingly archaic, and this piece by Carissa Véliz does not really offer anything new. She generally ignores the reality of work in modern societies. Work is increasingly specifically imposed on individuals as a form of punishment, and is not intended to be an “instrumental activity” or a “challenge”, or to allow “gaining mastery at something” or “making a meaningful contribution”. That’s not what it’s about.

    We also need to look at the role of employers. Take this well-quoted British example: Conservative George Osborne told his party conference in 2012:

    “Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?”

    It is obvious that many people, not just in the UK, sympathise with such attitudes. They want to see certain other individuals get up early in the morning, go to work, and work hard. So why should we assume that these attitudes never motivate people?

    Conventional economic theory says that an entrepreneur would not start a business, for the purpose of making lazy individuals get up early in the morning. But if they strongly believe that is the right thing to do, why would they not start a business for that purpose? If we want to understand why there is so much employment, we have to look at the origins of employment, and conventional economic theory never really looks at that issue. Economics says that a business enterprise is there solely to produce goods and services at a profit. It treats labour as a cost, which the entrepreneur would prefer to avoid. I think we have to drop that model, before we can understand the persistence of employment, in the face of productivity gains.

    Without a political and historical understanding of employment, then thinking about an imminent “jobless future” is just speculation. What’s worse, it’s a very well-worn speculation, because this theme has been around for decades, probably since the late 19th century. It’s like speculation about the imminent arrival of aliens. True, they might come tomorrow, but the speculation doesn’t really get us anywhere.

  • Hector says:

    Toda la comunidad the informáticos y gente de sistemas debe oponerse al desarrollo tecnológico que reemplace al hombre para dedicarse a otro tipo Ciber especialidades que ayuden al hombre a descubrir nuevos horizontes

Authors

Subscribe Via Email

Name
Email *

Affiliations