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Will technological unemployment impoverish us?

The popular view

It’s common in contemporary sci-fi movies to see the future portrayed as a place of vast inequalities, where a tiny elite enjoys advanced technology and a life of leisure, while the masses slave away in poverty, in a polluted world stripped of resources. But sci-fi is very often not a vision of the future, but a mirror of our present-day concerns. So it is the case with concerns over inequality and fears of technological unemployment.

The worlds portrayed in these dystopian movies are filled with contradictions. Often the world’s resources have been depleted, and yet advanced technology exists, capable of generating cheap, unlimited energy. Often, this technology makes human work obsolete, yet the masses are depicted scrabbling in the dirt for a living. And the elite have access to unparalleled health, longevity and synthetic enhancements, while the masses live short brutal lives, without even twentieth-century standards of healthcare and comforts.

Blade_Runner_spinner_flyby

Of course, this is Hollywood, so conflict and injustice are the cornerstones of the plot. Inconsistencies are not the director’s prime concern. But these logical contradictions persist in people’s thinking. They prevent us seeing clearly where our world is headed.

Technology creates wealth

If we want to find real-world examples of a tiny elite living a pampered life, while the huddled masses toil in poverty, we can find them in the past, not the future. The defining feature of pre-industrial societies was their lack of technology. This led to inefficiency, requiring most of the population to engage in hard manual work for long hours, and with little to show for it, except poverty and subsistence.

Our present world is characterised by its extensive use of technology. Technology allows humans to achieve more with less work. It improves efficiency, reducing costs and creating wealth.

But whenever new technology reduces work, it necessarily puts workers out of jobs. This is the point of technology, after all – getting machines to do work, so we don’t have to. In the short term, for those who have lost their job, this is clearly a problem. In the longer term, and if we consider the whole of society – not just those who lost their jobs – the effect is universally beneficial, but those wider, long-term benefits are harder to see than the immediate suffering of the newly unemployed. If we focus all our attention on the problems, we may form the view that technology creates wealth for the few and poverty for the masses. In reality, the reverse is true – technology creates wealth for the masses, and its economic downsides are short-term.

The link between technological development and unemployment has been noted for centuries. Adam Smith, in his classic economics treatise of 1776, Wealth of Nations, wrote that, “a workman unacquainted with the use of machinery employed in pin-making could scarce make one pin a day, and certainly could not make twenty, but with the use of this machinery he can make 4,800 pins a day.” By implication, the invention of pin-making machinery rendered 4,799 pin-makers unemployed for every pin worker who kept his job. A queue of 4,799 unemployed men desperately looking for work is highly visible. What is less visible is the benefit to the rest of society of reducing the cost of pin-making by a factor of 4,800. The cost of living is reduced, and the money saved is spent on other goods and services, creating new jobs in other industries. It should be obvious that the net benefit to society as a whole is vastly positive, and that what is happening is a shift of employment from one industry to another, not permanent unemployment.

Technological Unemployment

The history of agriculture in the United States is an excellent example of this process at work. The US Census reported that in 1870, agricultural workers comprised half of all workers and that agricultural technology was characterized by manual labor and horse-drawn machinery. By 1950 less than a fifth of all workers were agricultural workers, and tractors and electrical machinery had largely replaced the horse. Now, in the twenty-first century, hired farmworkers make up less than 1 percent of all US wage and salary workers. It is too obvious to point out that this has not led to vast unemployment, nor has it impoverished ordinary workers – quite the opposite.

In 1900, the average American family spent more than 40% of its total income on food. Now it is less than 15%. Food is cheaper, the money saved on food is spent on other purchases, and ordinary Americans are vastly wealthier as a result of technological progress in agriculture.

Is it different this time?

One of the most influential writers on technological unemployment in recent years, Martin Ford, in his books The Lights in the Tunnel, and Rise of the Robots, seems to accept that technological advancement creates wealth, but advocates that this time, things are different. Ford’s primary argument is that for the first time in human history, technological advancement threatens to make a large fraction of the human workforce permanently obsolete.

Looking at how the agricultural revolution rendered half of all US jobs obsolete, and how the industrial revolution had effects of similar magnitude, Martin Ford’s argument that “This time is different” seems difficult to justify. The principles of economics do not change. If Ford was writing in 1800, as steam-powered machines began to do the work of hundreds of men, or in 1900, as the introduction of tractors and other technology destroyed 30% of all American jobs in 50 years, he might well have arrived at the same conclusion. Indeed, Eleanor Roosevelt clearly felt the same when she wrote in 1945, “We have reached a point today where labor-saving devices are good only when they do not throw the worker out of his job.”

When it comes to economics, “This time is different” is a common refrain from down the centuries, but the evidence doesn’t support human obsolescence now, any more than it has done in the past.

Ford cites as evidence the stagnation of wages in the Unites States since the 1970s. Yet wages aren’t necessarily a useful statistic if we want to examine real wealth. Wages are affected by inflation, immigration, and other factors. Instead, if we look again at the proportion of income spent on food, this has continued to fall steadily throughout the twentieth century, and did not stop in 1970. The proportion of US personal income spent on food was 13.9% in 1970, falling to 13.2% in 1980, 11.5% in 1990, 9.8% in 2000, and 9.6% in 2010. Another indicator of American wealth is the proportion of families owning cars. In 1969, 80% of American households owned at least one car; 32% owned two or more. By 2009, car ownership had increased to 92% of households, with 58% owing two or more cars. This is a story of steadily growing affluence, not declining wealth, and is exactly what we would expect form the rapid developments in technology over the past 40 years.

The pace of change

What is undoubtedly true is that the pace of technological progress is faster than ever before and is continuing to accelerate. Thus, both the long-term benefits and short-term problems are increasing. For most people, in their everyday lives, it is the short-term problems that are most clearly visible, especially if they or someone they know loses their job.

Fortunately, we are well placed in the modern world to help with the transitions needed when jobs are made obsolete by technology. In Victorian London, the working classes were left to sink or swim as machines took their jobs. In the 1930s, society was able to do little to help those who lost their livelihoods in the Great Depression. Now, due almost entirely to the increased wealth that technology has given us, society has the means to offer transitional help to those who need it.

Inequality

Perhaps our real concern isn’t unemployment, but inequality. The fear is not that robots will do our work for us (which would be a good thing), but that unemployment will cut off our means of earning a living. In short, we are conditioned to see ourselves as workers, under the power of a wealthy elite. A popular narrative tells us that inequality is growing, and that capitalism, globalization and technology are the driving forces for this.

I beg to differ.

Technological efficiency creates wealth and raises living standards for the poorest in society as well as the rich – perhaps for the poorest most of all. It always has done and it always will. After all, in ancient times it was not Kings and Queens who had to carry water from the well, or plough the fields, but ordinary people. Mechanization benefits those who do the work.

Kings and Queens have always enjoyed leisure time and luxuries – now ordinary people do too. Our ancestors toiled in the field, and starved whenever droughts or famine hit. Now you and I are well fed (I presume), and have leisure time to read and write articles such as this.

An ordinary American born in 1900, worked an average of 60 hours a week and had a life expectancy of 47 years, whereas a modern American works 40 hours a week and can expect to live to 78.

The fact is that wealth becomes more available to more people as time goes on. Augustus Caesar (63BC – 14AD) ruled over an empire that accounted for 30% of the world’s economy, but he didn’t have access to even basic healthcare. Genghis Khan (1162 – 1227) ruled a kingdom that spread from China to Europe, but he didn’t use a cell phone, fly in a plane, or watch TV – activities that all of us take for granted. My point? That real wealth increases inexorably as time passes, for the poor more than for the rich, who have always enjoyed the privileges of luxury and leisure. This increase in the wealth of ordinary people is driven by technology.

If we’re really interested in the effects of technology on inequality, we should look beyond developed nations, and compare ourselves with those in the poorest countries. The big picture is not one of increasing, but of decreasing inequality.

In fact, the advancement of technology during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has led to startling (and generally under-reported) changes in wealth, health and equality.

The usual narrative of growing inequality that we’re constantly fed fails to capture what’s actually happening in the world. And as always, technology is the driving force for good.

Thanks to technology, poverty is diminishing at an unprecedented rate around the world, life expectancy is increasing, diseases are being eradicated, and more people than ever before have access to clean water. These are all exponential trends.

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Stephen O'Brien MP, on a recent visit to Ethiopia

Accelerating technology, falling costs

A striking feature of new technology is that it benefits the poorest in society, not just the richest. In fact, it’s the most powerful force known for reducing wealth inequality. One of the myths perpetuated in Hollywood movies is that life-enhancing technology will be prohibitively expensive and available only to the elite. All the evidence points to the opposite being true.

Moore’s law that says computer processing power doubles every two years has a flipside – processing power halves in cost every two years. And Ray Kurzweil’s familiar graphs (after Hans Moravec) of exponential increase in technological capability can equally be used to show its exponential fall in cost.

Already, one of the most remarkable trends of the twenty-first century is how cheap and universal the latest technology is becoming. As of January 2014, 90% of American adults owned a cell phone. And as of October 2014, 64% of American adults owned a smartphone.

Globally, the picture is perhaps even more dramatic. As of May 2014, there were nearly 7 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide, equivalent to 95.5 percent of the world population.

Mobile_phone_subscribers_1997-2014_ITU.svg

Technology drives social change

Technology isn’t merely an engine for creating material wealth. It’s a powerful catalyst for social change. It’s no coincidence that the enormous growth in wealth in recent centuries has brought profound changes in social attitudes and human rights.

  • The printing revolution was a necessary precursor to the rise of education, secularism and democracy in our modern world.
  • The invention of machines for sowing seeds and harvesting crops made the abolition of slavery in 1833 a political possibility.
  • Birth control and washing machines liberated women in the 1960s just as much as progressive social attitudes.

Again and again, technology has helped to break down social barriers, giving rights to minorities and the oppressed. It is the friend of the poor and the disadvantaged, not the enemy.

Capital and inequality

A lot has been written about capitalism, and how it must be overthrown, or superseded. If we fail to do this, it is said, in the future a tiny elite will control all the world’s wealth, while technological unemployment will leave the rest of us living in poverty. But that is not a vision of the future, it is Karl Marx’s vision of the industrial revolution in Britain in the nineteenth century.

Marx was wrong about the industrial revolution. Rural peasants flocked to the cities not to be exploited, but because the economic opportunities created by new technology made their lives better than before. While agricultural jobs were destroyed by technology, new industrial and commercial jobs were created. The factories raised income levels and life expectancy for the poorest in society. The murder rate plummeted. Famine became a thing of the past. The cost of essentials such as food and clothing fell dramatically. And social discrimination began to diminish, with women participating in the workforce in increasing numbers, and the fledgling feminist movement beginning amongst the middle classes, becoming a potent force for change as the nineteenth century progressed. The driving force for all these changes was technology.

Annie_Kenney_and_Christabel_Pankhurst

Marx was wrong then, and predictions of future poverty are wrong too. It is the same error again. Marx saw the world divided into rich and poor. In his world view, the elite controlled the wealth and the means of production. Marx focussed his attention on how technology gave the elite ever greater power. But what Marx failed to see was how technology gave everyone more power over their lives, lowering costs for everyone, most especially the poor and disadvantaged. Now, in the twenty-first century, the means of production is just as likely to be held by a work-from-home tech entrepreneur or a mom-and-pop business as by a mega corporation. In the future, the means of production might actually be free.

Perhaps it already is, in some cases. My 12-year-old son is making and publishing his own YouTube videos. My 16-year-old son is learning how to code smartphone apps. The technology that enables this is empowering, and it is completely free.

Everywhere, barriers are falling. Want to write and publish a book? Traditional barriers to publishing have gone, and online tools enable anyone to publish their own e-book or paperback for zero cost. More music is being created and shared now than ever before. Crowd funding is unleashing a tsunami of creativity, and barriers to entry are being swept aside in the flood.

Marx was wrong – the means of production are becoming available to everyone, even the poorest and disadvantaged. The luddites were wrong – technology liberated the masses, not enslaved them. And today’s heralds of doom are wrong too – increased efficiency will create wealth and opportunity, and lift us all out of poverty.

In the Middle Ages, the wealthy elite owned land, and ownership of land was the means by which they exerted control over the population. In the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, control of mines, steelworks, railroads and oil gave the elite their power. Now, in the first part of the twenty-first century, knowledge is power, and corporations like Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon are key players in this knowledge-based economy. When knowledge is power and ideas are wealth, they can more easily be spread and shared. As long as we are careful not to create barriers to sharing, such as patents and IP protection, the source of wealth in the future can be made accessible to all.

What if robots do everything?

In the short- to medium-term, rapid advances in technology will make us more efficient, eliminate more jobs, create new ones to replace them, lower costs, improve standards of living, and reduce global inequality. Computers and robots will do more and more work, until ultimately, little or no human work will be necessary. Eventually a day may come when computers and robots really can do everything for us and jobs will be destroyed and not replaced. What then?

 

'80sRobot

Extrapolating current trends too far is fraught with pitfalls. Remember poor Malthus, who extrapolated population and food production trends to predict global starvation in the eighteenth century? Let’s not make the same mistake again.

Errors come about by extrapolating certain trends (the tendency for jobs to be destroyed by new technology) and ignoring others (the tendency for new technology to reduce the overall cost of living). A dramatic increase in technological unemployment would necessarily go hand in hand with an equally dramatic reduction in the need for people to earn money.

Let’s consider an example of how this works in practice. The production of books by scribes was once a very slow and time-consuming process. Few books were produced, and the ownership of books was restricted to a wealthy elite. The invention of the movable type printing press by Gutenberg put those scribes out of work, but greatly increased the availability of books. And the unemployed scribes soon found new work in the ever-expanding printing industry, which continued to innovate in the centuries that followed. Waves of new printing technologies destroyed jobs, and created new ones, all the while bringing down the cost of books and increasing their availability.

Now, in the twenty-first century, those books, which were once available only to the privileged few, are now available to literally everyone. Much of what we now read (this essay, for example) is actually free. Imagine how that would play out if all goods and services were rendered essentially free.

This is the world we must try to imagine if we are to glimpse the future.

A common objection to this is to counter that the world’s resources are finite, and that as time goes by, their costs will rise because of scarcity. But again, this ignores the effects of technology. In particular, it ignores the fact that technology creates resources. Coal only became a resource once the technology to harness it was invented. Oil became a resource later, once the technology to drill, pipe and refine it became available. Solar power, computing power and healthcare are examples of resources that are currently growing exponentially. So new technology creates new resources, rendering old ones obsolete. That’s why peak firewood and peak horse are in the distant past, and peak coal has perhaps already been reached.

It’s also the reason why new industries are increasingly software-dependent, with zero marginal cost to produce and sell their wares. As writers like Ray Kurzweil have noted, zero marginal cost industries are poised to explode into the real world during the twenty-first century, reducing the cost of living in unprecedented ways, and probably upsetting governments whose economic and monetary systems are founded on a faith in relentless inflation.

Those who argue that automation will make 99% of the population unemployed, and concentrate all of the wealth in the 1% who own the robots, are making simple errors. They ignore the fact that total automation will make the cost of goods and services tend towards zero, eliminating the need for money all together. In any case, the scenario is a logical contradiction. If working people lose their productive power by being replaced by machines, they will have zero purchasing power, and the greedy capitalists will have no source of income.

Projections of future poverty due to technological unemployment are fallacies. Instead, imagine a future where robots and computers do all the work. They grow, mine, harvest and collect all the raw materials necessary for this. The robots also repair themselves, and manufacture more robots when needed. They even design new and improved versions of themselves, so that ever more work can be done. In this future, nobody needs to work. Nobody is paid to work. Nobody has any money, because none is needed. People can spend their time doing whatever they want.

What will people do when they no longer have to work? Technology doesn’t render people useless – it enhances their creative potential, and expands their options enormously. That’s actually what technology is for.

Technological unemployment? Yes! Problem? No! Fantasy? Not necessarily.

Working towards a better future

Technology is making our lives materially better, and this trend is accelerating. Whatever happens next, it is almost certainly unstoppable. But we could still make the wrong policy decisions that will cause the future to be worse than it might otherwise be. The right policies will enable technology to deliver its benefits to all, without creating barriers to its adoption or ownership. They will also support those in need during the inevitable transition and turmoil as the world changes.

Transitional welfare payments will be needed to support those who cannot work, or whose skills have been rendered obsolete. Some economists have argued for the introduction of universal welfare. But logically, universal welfare would only become necessary if unemployment is universal. And in that case, who would the government tax to pay for the welfare? So perhaps our current system is the right way forward.

Old forms of wealth, such as agriculture and mining were resource-based, and tended to promote inequality. New wealth is knowledge-based, and can easily be shared and taught. To ensure that technological advances benefit everyone equally, we will want to ensure that they result in the cost of living falling to zero, or near-zero. A knowledge-based economy can reduce the costs of goods and services only as long as an efficient and competitive market operates.

So we will need to eradicate protectionism and barriers to trade. We will want to minimize intellectual property rights, so that knowledge becomes common and available to all. We will want to encourage industry standards and open source systems that promote competition and drive down costs, rather than proprietary software and operating systems that create artificial scarcity and inflate prices. We will want to disrupt monopolies wherever they occur, either in the private or in the public sectors. And we will want governments to refrain from imposing intrusive regulation that protects vested interests and discourages competition – such as in the banking, telecom and energy sectors, and most recently illustrated by attempts to regulate the Uber taxi phenomenon.

Many economists have long argued that we need all those things already.

Thanks to technology, the present is better than the past, and the future looks set to be better still. Unemployment isn’t our real fear. Poverty is. And the solution to poverty is technology. If universal technological unemployment does eventually happen, it will not be something to fear. It will mark the end of poverty, and bring to a close this chapter in human history.

 

About the author:

steve-morris-thumb111Steve Morris studied Physics at the University of Oxford and spent ten years working for the UK Atomic Energy Authority. He now runs tech review site S21.

 

 

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  • kitnyx

    @Steve Morris, well-written, thank you. I thought your points about costs nearing zero were particularly relevant.

    In your third to last paragraph, you list the things that we should strive for in order to ensure we do not slide into that dystopian possibility that you call a fallacy. I agree these are lofty goals we should be aiming for.

    Many would argue, however, that, with the exception of lowering barriers to global trade, your list is actually the opposite of what is occurring. We see increased intellectual
    property rights (and enforcement), industry standards and access to them further
    regulated and protected, reducing the ability for public oversight, competition, and creative evolution, creating artificial scarcity and inflated prices. Fewer and fewer megacorporation owning more of the worlds businesses (and resources, http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1107/1107.5728v2.pdf)
    creating illusions of competition. Governments imposing intrusive regulation that protects vested interests of these corporations and discourages competition? In fact, even the
    lowering of global trade barriers seems an attempt to prevent jurisdictions from being able to govern themselves in a way that might reduce the profits of these corporations (http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9354310).

    Do you still think the fear of this possibility is absurd if the above were true? And, for the record, I am not saying they are, I am just asking the question.

  • Steve Morris

    Hi kitnyx, thanks for your comments, and I agree with your analysis. The current political climate isn’t one that I think is optimum, but I am still optimistic for the future. I believe that economically we are moving forward, despite what governments are doing.

  • Michael Hrenka

    “As long as we are careful not to create barriers to sharing, such as
    patents and IP protection, the source of wealth in the future can be
    made accessible to all.”

    That’s a very crucial point. This is where new systems facilitating digital abundance like Quantified Prestige fit in: http://radivis.com/quantified-prestige/

    By transitioning to a reputation based economy, we can easily compensate content creators for their work, while at the same time being able to access their products for free! That way, zero marginal costs translate into actual zero costs for any kind of digital good. And since digital goods comprise a large fraction of the cost of material goods and services, their free availability will contribute to reduce the costs of those goods and services radically.

    “Some economists have argued for the introduction of universal welfare.
    But logically, universal welfare would only become necessary if
    unemployment is universal. And in that case, who would the government
    tax to pay for the welfare? So perhaps our current system is the right
    way forward.”

    You seem to be missing the point that a universal basic income is not a necessity, but a policy that is easier and more efficient that the messy, bureaucratic, and incentive-diminishing welfare system we currently have. Basically, you are arguing for a broken system merely on the basis that it’s good enough not to mess up everything completely, while ignoring that we could have a much better system. If you really believe that progress is what creates wealth, you should argue for the most progressive system that we can establish.

    Check out http://www.scottsantens.com/ or http://transpolitica.org/2015/04/12/the-case-for-universal-prosperity/ for some arguments why UBI would probably increase economic efficiency.

  • Steve Morris

    Michael, you make a very good point about how “digital goods comprise a large fraction of the cost of material goods and services.”
    On universal benefit, I am not arguing either way.

  • Michael Hrenka

    Thanks for your clarification regarding universal benefit. The tone in your article sounded dismissive of the idea. And in any case, it seemed to be tangential to what you tried to say, so I wonder why you have even mentioned that topic.

    On a different note, the message of your article reminds me a lot of the book “The Singularity and Socialism: Marx, Mises, Complexity Theory, Techno-Optimism and the Way to the Age of Abundance” by C. James Townsend: http://www.amazon.com/The-Singularity-Socialism-Complexity-Techno-Optimism/dp/1503034739

    Have you read that book?

  • Steve Morris

    I haven’t come across that book, but it sounds like it should be on my reading list!

  • Steve Morris

    OK, I just downloaded it!

  • marco alpini

    Thanks Steve, well structured and documented. While I agree in principle with everything you said in relation to the technological unemployment, there are three aspects of your approach I am not sure they represent the world we are going to face in the future.
    This paper substantially endorse the way technology is developing by extrapolating positive trends of the past into the future, depicting an optimistic scenario where we shouldn’t
    worry too much and everything will be fine. The system somehow is set in a way that it will sort problems out re-balancing automatically any disruptive force that we come across.

    My observations are the following:

    The first one is about the fact that our technology is not sustainable and therefore it is not given that past trends will repeat themselves equally in the future. There will be constraints we didn’t have in the past to deal with.

    The multiplication of wealth through technology will certainly lead to what you have described if unconstrained. However, even if few components of this wealth have been digitalized improving dramatically their efficiency reducing to almost nil their cost and effort to replicate them, this is not true for most of the hardware our civilization needs. Proof of it, is the accelerating need of all kind of resources and the continuous natural habitats
    conversion into productive land destroying ecosystems and biodiversity. This is a trend necessarily capped by nature.

    As far as the input that our civilization and technology need to keep developing goes upward and until we are limited by one planet only, your equation:
    developing technology = ever increasing wealth
    it is doomed, it cannot be open ended. It is not sustainable, it worked in the past but it has to be seen how it will play out in the future.

    We may assume that technology itself will somehow fix everything while running a business as usual way of life, but it won’t likely go that way and therefore it is a very dangerous assumption.

    This never happened in the past, we never over consumed the planet resources before, we never destroyed the ecosystems losing a huge amount of biodiversity and we never caused global warming.

    The second is about the assumption that the past will repeat itself in the future with a similar dynamic based on the flawed assumption that the brainless mechanization we have experienced with the past industrial revolution is similar in kind to the intelligence revolution of the future.

    Intelligent machines will be nothing like we have ever seen and experienced before. Taking mankind out of their jobs completely, freeing us from mere subsistence and allowing our intellect to express itself without being concerned about our corporal needs, may be fantastic for who is able to handle this new way of living.
    However I believe that one profession that for sure will not become obsolete and will be on high demand are the Psychiatrists. This is only the end point, what we will have to go through in order to get there, could be so destabilizing that its consequences cannot be underestimated by any means. Again, this never happened before, in terms of scale and in terms of kind of change. Past experience is not representative, on the contrary it is deceiving. A transition into this unimaginable world will not be smooth and automatic.

    The final observation is about the weight of information technology with respect to the entire economy and human activities. The IT revolution has dramatically changed the economical paradigm of the products that can be digitalized such as telecommunications, music, pictures and information.

    We have seen amazing changes in this domain that made us to fantasize about how a world dominated by the characteristics of the digital economy could be.

    However digital products represent a small part of human activities. Industries such as miming, transportation, construction, heavy manufacturing, health care, just to say few, have not changed much in the last 30 years.

    Their cost, the resources they consume and the way their products and services reach the final users have not been affected significantly by the digital revolution. So it is perhaps not appropriate to assimilate everything to the digital world domain.

    The fact that our civilization is more and more eager for resources, energy demand keep rising, state debts keep rising, our impact on the environment keep rising, are exactly the opposite signs of what we could expect to see if the world is really following the trail of the digital revolution.

    This is because the world is still dominated by the old fashion industrial revolution and it is heavily driven by hardware not by software.

    In conclusion, it appears to me that, even if we will eventually accommodate our civilization in a way machines will work and we will do something more interesting, this will not come smoothly and naturally without peril. We have to be very careful, plan for it and not under evaluate the challenges in front of us because there may be a great reward waiting us but also the risk of going down the drain.

  • Steve Morris

    Marco, thank you for your very detailed comments.
    1. Resources and sustainability. I talked about this in the article. I believe that we create resources through technology. In the case of scarcity, economic forces motivate the development of new resources, or more efficient use of existing resources. Consider the improvements in energy efficiency of engines, microprocessors, and so on in recent decades. Of course, these improvements rely on the ultimate resource – human creativity – and if this fails, then economic and technological progress will stop. I see no signs of that happening.
    2. Your second point is very valid. How would people cope without work to give life meaning? That is certainly a challenge that our descendants will have to deal with. Great religious thinkers and intellectuals have asked this question for thousands of years – what does it mean to be human? Increasing longevity is already causing many retired people to address the question of life after work right now.
    3. Resources. I think this is essentially the same as your first point. However, even the examples you give – mining, transportation, construction, heavy manufacturing, health care – are all industries that have been changed significantly in the past 30 years. Much more of the heavy and dangerous work is done by machines. Robots have made factories much more efficient – including heavy industries like ship-building. Healthcare has been transformed in recent years, especially with regard to preventative medicine and diagnostics. Logistics are much more reliant on computers and information technology. So even here, the world is changing rapidly because of the digital world.

    I don’t want to downplay risks. We should remember that 99% of species on this planet are extinct. Life is always risky. My concern is that many people are focussed on the wrong risks.

  • Pieter de Jong

    Dear Steve Morris,

    Are you an expert on Intellectual Property-laws? Can you understand policy proposals like
    https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-112hhrg74258/pdf/CHRG-112hhrg74258.pdf
    http://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-15382-2015-REV-1/en/pdf ?
    If not, then how dare you to be optimistic about the future?
    It is one thing to state casually that “We will want to minimize intellectual property rights”, it is another thing to judge whether such a statement is realistic.

    Please take no offense. I just like to warn that just a little bit of wishful thinking about quagmires like protectionism and intellectual property rights is not enough. The stakes are enormous.The sole purpose of Transnational Corporations (TNC’s) is to make as much profit as possible for the shareholders. When the market value of everything has fallen to zero, there is not much profit left, so the TNC’s wlll keep creating artificial scarcity, buying governments (and media and scientists) in the process. In the long run, this is also true for “benevolent” Technological Companies, that now seems to give everything for free (in exchange for privacy.) A lot of civic courage is needed to counterbalance this.

  • vakibs

    Well. What’s so special about humans that we look at only the statistics affecting humans (Max Roser style) and ignore the broader picture, about what’s happening to life in general on the planet.

    The picture then is not rosy. A lot of species are going extinct, and this rate of extinction is accelerating. The species facing the greatest selectionary pressure (imposed by our human industrial civilization) are the apex predators who are dependent on a greater surface area and ecological resources. But all species are going extinct, including tiny critters and bacteria. We humans are very good at killing large mammals. A lot of them went extinct just as we spread out from Africa. A further large number of them went extinct when we created agriculture.

    By the time of the industrial revolution, humans are undoubtedly the “apex predator” on the whole of the planet. They were spread on all the continents, though not with equal amounts of technology. What happened as a consequence of industrial revolution can be understood as a selectionary pressure on large human populations. A lot of populations got exterminated (through disease and encroachment of habitat, now termed as colonialism), and among those that survived, significant elements of culture went extinct: languages, customs etc. Thus, the process of cultural and human extinction can be understood as a continuation of natural extinction of biological species.

    With AI and computing, we are now under a new machine age, something far more powerful than the last industrial revolution. The consequences will be profound. We don’t know who exactly in the pool of human populations will survive and benefit from the effects of this AI revolution. How many branches of the human civilization will have to go extinct ? It is very likely that large areas of the earth will be conquered by the industry and the existing biomes will be smashed. All forms of life dependent on these ecological biomes, including humans, will go extinct.

    This is not a Hollywood nightmare scenario. In fact, this is such a mundane reality, lacking any drama, that most people don’t bother to think about. The life of people getting sucked out of pristine green forests and placed into a stinking, poverty-ridden slum is not exactly Hollywood material. But this is what is happening all over the world: the slums are rising in Brazil, New Guinea, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh.. All the biodiversity hotspots on this planet are under extreme stress imposed by the forces of modern capitalism and industry. AI will just expand this sphere to cities of the western civilization. People will lose well paying jobs and move into slums. Welcome to the global third world.

  • Pieter de Jong

    The human worker will go the way of the horse:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pq-S557XQU

  • vakibs

    I saw this video, quite informative and entertaining.

    But we should start thinking in terms of ecosystems instead of individual species. In any natural ecosystem, there are complex interdependencies between species. Some are keystone species, which if get damaged, will take down the entire ecosystem with them. A great example is that of wolves in the Yellowstone national park. Another example is that of large whales in the ocean.

    We have to cultivate such an ecological mindset to analyse culture and business. We don’t do that today. We think simply in terms of individual jobs. This gives a faulty impression.

    So in order to capture the full reality of technological unemployment, we have to analyse it similar to biological extinction. We then will realize that there are many powerful non-direct and complex effects.

  • Pieter de Jong

    Will it be good for the global-ecosystem if the species Homo sapiens is decimated due to the consequences of technological unemployment?
    And if it takes a global nuclear war to do so?
    Just for the sake of argument.
    I sincerely hope that neither will happen!

  • vakibs

    Actually if we achieve sufficient robotization, homo-sapiens might be unnecessary for the continued function of the economical system. So the extraction of natural resources and dumping of waste into the environment, and the destruction of the eco-systems will continue even after the last human being dies off the planet, due to a virus or a nuclear war or whatever… Our robotic children (who might be extremely dumb, by the way) will ensure the continued destruction of the planet. Another plausible scenario is an extremely tiny population of humans will survive and oversee this destruction. In fact, they might be helpless – mere survivors like rats in a world controlled by an intermeshed AI which they cannot reprogram.

    We humans already achieved something of that sort by introducing rats, rabbits and dogs into fragile ecosystems like in New Zealand and Galapagos islands. The machinery will be a similar tool in the current age.

    Basically, all this environmental destruction is mindless. It is not aligned with the interests of even our species of Homo Sapiens. It is just a force of nature, an exponential curve of destruction of which we humans are an operating tool. I don’t know if we can bend the fate off this curve.

  • Pieter de Jong

    I fully agree!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_paradox#It_is_the_nature_of_intelligent_life_to_destroy_itself

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existential_risk_from_advanced_artificial_intelligence

    Are (some) humans smart and powerful enough to prevent this fate of the planet and the human race?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friendly_artificial_intelligence

    Or will the greedy people win and destroy all?

  • Steve Morris

    Hi Pieter, no offense is taken, but since we are both concerned about IP, I am not sure why you have decided to attack my article. I agree with your point.

  • Pieter de Jong

    Hi Steve,

    OK, you are right, I humbly admit my error: my attack was more directed to the recent proposal for EU-law ( http://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-15382-2015-REV-1/en/pdf ) than to your article. The new EU-law will not only strengthen further the Intellectual Property rights of TNC’s, but also will make independent journalism about TNC’s impossible. Those things make me a pessimist, in contrast to your optimism.
    I have a question: who should own the Intellectual Property of an invention/design/novel made by Artificial Intelligence? What is your opinion?

  • Leopold31

    One of the things I’ve noticed about technology is every time technology makes something more efficient, it was providing something that people truly wanted or needed and made those goods much more affordable. Clothing was once incredibly expensive. Some people would have only one set of clothes. Middle class might have two sets of clothes.

    Today, that middle class might have a deep wardrobe with hundreds of articles of clothing.

    And what people wanted/needed rotated. When you really needed food, you bought that first. Before the second set of clothes. When you had food but then needed clothes, you bought that as that became more affordable.

    We’ve seen what people bought rotate from sector to sector from food to clothing to housing to cars to vacations to (long list of consumer products).

    There was always the next “hot” thing that everyone wanted.

    That appears to have stopped for about 10 years now. The last thing was the smart phone. And yes, they keep introducing new models, blah, blah, blah. But the consumer has pretty much bought everything they ever wanted. They went NUTS in the consumer years. They bought a rubber fish on a plastic wood grained board called a “Billy Bass” and the fish flapped. But after you’ve bought all those gimmicks, you just don’t want any more. Except for new versions of the smart phone, there just has not been a “Gee Wow, I have to spend my money on that” product for a decade.

    What does this have to do with technological unemployment? The industrial age didn’t create unemployment, because consumers had other things they desperately needed that they could now spend money on. So the workers were quickly hired for those new products.

    But today, with no new amazing consumer product, people who are replaced by technology don’t have another sector to get into for the first time in 250 years. We are seeing incredible job competition, and a race to the bottom in wages.

    Yes, there are a couple products that “wouldn’t it be nice to have”, but GPS is already old, the popular eBook readers have been around for nearly a decade, there’s some more apps available for your phone, there’s more data available on the internet (usually free, and advertising supported), you can download another GB on your data plan. Big wow. What, people, just what are you going to get excited about? And I think that’s the biggest thing holding back the economy. There is nothing that people are excited about.

  • I share the author’s enthusiasm for the potential of technology to solve problems. The problem is that there is no reason to expect this to be a graceful process. If accelerating automation has taught us anything, it is that major changes can start innocuously, progress slowly, and then suddenly roar ahead exponentially, upending major industries and societal structures.

    Those who claim automation will produce plenty of jobs to replace those soon to be lost tend to give short shrift to the power of deep learning. Already, machines are learning complex tasks far faster than people, and the range of this will rapidly expand.

    Those who believe, like the author, that plunging prices will make the necessities of life effectively free, are not considering the likelihood that powerful interests controlling these technologies–at least, in the short term–will not willingly share the bounty with others. In my opinion, many techno-utopians overestimate human rationality.

    What will happen when many millions, and perhaps billions, of people are suddenly unable to compete economically with machines as productive units? Presently, safety nets are absent in most countries housing the vast majority of Earth’s residents. In advanced countries such as the United States, they are inadequate for long-term unemployment.

    While many are touting conventional guaranteed income proposals as a solution, those face huge political, economic and social hurdles to adoption. (I have written an article addressing this.) One major hurdle to adoption is social attitudes.

    Most of the wealthy consider their success to be due to their own efforts and the failures of others to also be a personal matter of choice. They greatly underestimate luck and circumstances, as Warren Buffet brilliantly pointed out in his famous quotation about running from lions.

    It appears that this view has also percolated through much of the middle class, though as their jobs rapidly disappear to robots and AIs in the 2020s in a massive and lasting surge of unemployment, many will find their faith in individual initiative sorely tested.

    Oxford, Bank of America, Brookings and others have forecast 40%+ levels of job displacement in multiple countries by 2025, with levels up to 85% in some cases. We really don’t want to go through a Greater Depression on the way to universal abundance, if we can avoid it. We might not make it through the upheaval.

    I have proposed one solution that has been well-received in my book, A Celebration Society. Others are also possible. We should start exploring, simulating, debugging and refining such solutions now, while there’s still time to prepare.

  • Your argument for the potential benefits of exponentially accelerating technology is well made.

    However, potential is not certainty. Humanity does not always accept fundamental change gracefully, and serious, sudden disruptions to employment and wealth are likely to cause intense backlash, both from workers and the old-line wealthy.

    You ask, “who would the government tax to pay for the welfare?” I point out the enormous challenges of getting a Universal Basic Income adopted within scarcity-based societies here: http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/Kolber20160514

    Considering the prevalence and intensity of beliefs in the body politic that have no connection to empirical evidence, it is hard to have confidence that this will change quickly enough in established societies to accommodate exponential change without some very ugly consequences.

    Therefore, expecting a wave of abundance to sweep across the world without accounting for the opposition of entrenched interests may prove dangerously optimistic. This is one reason why I have proposed in my book, A Celebration Society, the creation of one small model society based on sustainable abundance. A relatively small group of evidence-based people can step away from the gridlock, starting afresh elsewhere.

    Once such a model is widely seen as viable and rapidly duplicable, neither stealing anyone’s work nor their wealth and adjustable to local cultures, we may have the basis to avert a new, greater Luddite movement. Or worse.

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