A recent Pew report found that a majority of Americans believe that most human jobs could be automated by 2065. With tech giants like Google and Chrysler collaborating to produce autonomous passenger vehicles, as well as new tech firms like Otto positioning themselves to revolutionize the commercial transportation industry, many are already discussing how we’ll handle history’s first slew of “driverless” experiences.
It’s no wonder, then, that talk about technological unemployment is becoming increasingly popular, with many commercial drivers beginning to question whether or not they’ll still have jobs in the coming years.
While the concept of a world filled with autonomous workers is relatively new to us, digital disruption obviously isn’t, and we’ve consistently overcome technological unemployment in the past.
Sure, there have been winners and losers, à la Netflix and Blockbuster, Uber and taxi cab companies, etc., but empirically, we’ve seen that when an industry is affected, key players will usually make a big shift, users are happier and life goes on. This is what we’d call the optimistic view of things, the side of folks who like to think that even if robots begin to take our jobs, we’ll always find a way to create new ones.
On the other end of the spectrum we have the pessimistic view of things, and you can see this explored by TechCrunch columnist Jon Evans in multiple articles. He wrote a piece in mid-2013 titled “Jobs, Robots, Capitalism, Inequality, And You” that really dove into what could happen on the macro scale after the robot revolution occurs, invoking images of “post-capitalism,” the haves and the have-nots and the dangers of Orwellian dystopia.
Economic identities die hard.
This dichotomy often causes the focus of the discussion to revolve around whether or not technological unemployment will become widespread — but more interesting than that is how few are discussing whether it should happen. Yet, why shouldn’t human beings shoot for a future where automated labor creates abundant resources and kills person-based labor as we know it?
Our economy is already having a hard time filling positions with meat-based bodies and income inequality has reached astonishing highs. Wouldn’t the ultimate outcome of a labor-less society be some sort of technologically induced, universal equality?
Evans touches on this a bit. To many, technology is a great equalizer. It almost always has been, which is why Luddites were pondering technological unemployment more than a hundred years ago, worried that low-skill workers aided by machines would replace master craftsmen during the industrial revolution (spoiler alert: they did).
A more recent example of technology as a potentially broad equalizer comes in the form of blockchain technology. Those following the tech industry have no doubt heard it touted as the next great thing since sliced bread, capable of disrupting and decentralizing everything from banking institutions to social networks. Blockchain is particularly relevant in this case because of that term: decentralization.
Without getting too heavily into it, blockchain is the driving technology behind bitcoin currency. Because it’s not printed by banks or governments, nobody “owns” it, meaning that no centralized authority can control it. Applied to autonomous work, centralization means that somebody would own the world’s best source (or sources) of labor, controlling who gets to benefit from and reap the proverbial fruits of this labor and who doesn’t.
This is where all the doomsayers get their ammo. In a world where robot workers autonomously provide humans with innumerable resources, most importantly food and shelter (what else do humans truly work for and require?), currency no longer becomes important. Labor sources are currency at that point, and the ingrained human assumption, “objects must have owners,” gives rise to the idea that autonomous labor sources will inevitably become patented and centralized.
The ideas of value, ownership and work are intrinsically tied together in the Western world. Decentralized technology that indiscriminately provides unlimited resources to a planet full of flesh-and-blood-humans might sound like a communist pipe dream, but would be the ultimate equalizer in the long run. Societies would no longer be able to measure the value of a human being by their individual economic contributions to the system.
Fortunately, economic identities do die.
Let’s go back to the oft-used self-driving car example. Once driverless technology is perfected, estimates show that between four and 10 million jobs will be destroyed. This is only a problem because these people will no longer have a source of income, while many others will. If, on the other hand, all of the world’s jobs were destroyed and handed to decentralized, autonomous robots, the playing field would be level.
Of course, any attempt to achieve this future would most likely be met with resistance by those who currently benefit from a centralized system, and the short-term future would most likely see marked inequality amidst the chaos. Economic identities die hard.
Fortunately, economic identities do die. The Guardian ran an article in 2014 on how job uncertainty is causing Americans to redefine who they are as technology creates a more uncertain, gig-based economy. Evans calls this shift job atomization, and posits that society’s ingrained “assumption that every able-bodied adult should have a full-time job” is the actual problem standing in the way of an automated future.
“I submit that the actual problem is that full-time jobs are assumed as the fundamental economic building blocks of our society,” he says, “and that we lack the flexibility or imagination to consider, much less move towards, any alternative structure.”
The debate covering centralization, decentralization and our individual economic identities is the first hurdle — and it’s not necessarily a one-sided debate. If a decentralized system was doling out resources equally to a seven-billion-and-growing population of human beings, how long before overpopulation and lack of resources would do us in as a species?
What potential downsides would come with abandoning the values of labor and discriminatory resource attribution? Would equal distribution mean that we have to relegate “eating” to consumption of basic Soylent shakes or other nondescript Tasty Wheat-esque goop to conserve resources? It might sound silly to some, but all facets must be considered.
Let’s imagine, however, that some semblance of Utopia is actually achieved. Technology not only allows us an unlimited, autonomous source of labor, but also endows us with the ability to extend our resources, achieve lasting peace and basically cure society of all ills. What then? What would humans do with their time if they didn’t have to compete with one another to garner wealth and resources?
As a sort of thought experiment, let’s imagine that the other most successful animal on this planet, ants, were suddenly magically endowed with the ability to build autonomous, self-replicating versions of themselves. These “artificial ants” can work more quickly and efficiently than their organic counterparts, and can do everything from hive construction, to territorial defense, to gathering food. The philosophical question is, if not work, what is left for an ant to do?
Perhaps we’ll see sequels to the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods.
There are recent studies showing that some ants actually do nothing in colonies — workers kept in reserve until they’re needed for a really big task. Would the rest of the “working” population join these idle ants and simply do nothing, forever, while the artificial ants plug away, performing the jobs organic ants used to? What would the difference between the two ant populations really be besides chemical makeup? Are carbon-based ants truly just tiny organic machines? Cogs in a behavioral/social system that evolved over time to optimally promote survival and reproduction?
Are human beings cogs in a similar machine?
Obviously, the analogy isn’t perfect. There are huge differences between populations of humans and ants. For example, while many believe that ants are controlled by their queens, the truth is that ants have no leaders. They’ve evolved a working, decentralized system that puts the interests of the whole over the interests of any one individual ant. Sure, each ant has a job to do, and some ants do nothing sometimes, but everybody gets fed, everybody has somewhere to live and everybody is essentially equal.
Human beings, on the other hand, consider the individual in the equation, and not just the sum of parts. We want to be better than our neighbors, so we try to buy a better TV or a more stylish car or a bigger house. In developed worlds we work hard to make money so we can buy things, live lifestyles or have experiences. These things define us.
If, suddenly, every human being on the planet was given access to anything they ever wanted, with the caveat that they could never actually own anything again, how much of the population would try to find a way to exploit and elevate themselves above others anyway? Additionally, how much would really change out of the scenario if we dropped the “no ownership” caveat? Is the inevitable formation of hierarchy via social values such as “exclusivity” and “ownership” simply the result of Zipf’s Law and Pareto distribution principles we see everywhere else in nature?
The truth is that nobody knows. A society that fully embraces technological unemployment will be forced to make extremely personal and existential observations daily that most people put off until they’re over 60 and retired, after life has already “passed them by.”
If history is lucky enough to repeat itself, perhaps we’ll see sequels to the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods — but we’ll never know until we start getting excited about robots taking our jobs.