Emily Howell can’t see. She can’t speak English, or at all. She can’t understand anything you say. She can’t run, walk, or even move. She can’t taste food or feel warmth. She has no arms, nor legs: no digestive system, no lungs, no heart. Her brain is made of metal and electricity rather than of neurons and synapses. And yet, she can compose classical music.
For decades we have imagined artificial intelligence and robots as pseudo-humans. As people, made of metal and electricity, maybe, but people nevertheless. Maybe they are less creative than humans, maybe they can’t feel love, maybe they want to kill us, maybe they are much smarter than we are. This type of artificial intelligence may come. But they will not be the artificial intelligence that will arrive first. Emily Howell will only ever experience a negligible fraction of the human experience. But she and her kin will change society forever.
It’s already happening. Go to the nearest grocery store and look at the checkout aisles; you’ll see a dozen stations that are operated by a simple AI and overseen by a single human. Google has already built a self driving car, and every major car manufacturer expects to have a self driving car on the market by 2025; 4% of the workforce drives automobiles for a living, and who knows how many more have moving things around as part of their job. Lawyers, once a highly demanded and prestigious profession, are less in demand than ever, in part because of a growing number of people going into that possession, but also because most of a lawyer’s job is reading documents looking for a single piece of information or discrepancy; something that a computer can now do in a hundredth of the time with twice the accuracy. And robotics is finally conquering the difficulties it has struggled with for half a century; robots that can see, follow instructions, understand English, and manipulate physical objects have already been built.
Every job is at risk for becoming worthless with the advent of this new technology. Whether you’re a highly educated intellectual, an office worker, a blue-collar worker, or a creative savant, your job can be done at ten times the speed for one-tenth the cost in quite possibly less than ten years. And this will massively impact the way our society works.
In classical economics, we are told that the price of an object is determined by supply and demand. However, except for in specialized markets, such as stock markets, or for objects with a very small supply, we rarely see supply and demand directly. Often, prices are more accurately determined by the amount of work people have to put into an object; how much the stable worker is paid to milk the cows or gather the egg, how much the overseer is paid to watch over this worker, how much the farmer is paid for what is grown on the farm, how much the truck driver is paid to move the produce – which includes a chain of production involving the driver’s higher ups, the manufacture of the truck, and gas prices – how much the person baking your bread is paid, how much the person scanning the bread and putting it on the shelf and the cashier, and all of their higher ups are paid – and all of that is factored into how much the bread costs. Sure, if there’s a high supply the cost may go down, and if there’s a high demand the price may go up, but on average what is sold must cover the costs of all of that labor.
Now what happens if AI and robots do all of that labor for free? Suddenly those who own the robots have no need to hire any of these people; they will get what they want regardless of the economic status of the common people. And prices will become nonexistent; if money were given in exchange for said product, to whom would the money go? There’s absolutely no reason to need to pay anything in exchange for these AI created products.
There will be the ultra-rich; those able to buy the robots and AI before the production line ceases to exist. Below them will be the technicians, if they manage to not build something that can do their job of looking after the AI and robots. There will be the vestiges of the service jobs; maybe robots can do anything they can do, but the rich will probably still cling to human maids and butlers for a variety of reasons. On the bottom rung of civilization will be the 99%.
Perhaps you are confident that the richest 1% will be generous and share the benefits of this amazing technology. Well, even if you deny the numerous studies showing how little empathy people who become rich have for the poor, and you claim that humanity has changed since this exact scenario happened in the medieval era, you can’t deny that this is the exact same problem we have with world hunger today. The world produces enough food to feed everyone in the world, one third of this food is never eaten, and yet one eighth of humanity is underfed. Why? Because the first world countries can’t give enough of a fuck to give the wasted food to those who need it. There are even laws against supermarkets and restaurants giving unsold food to the homeless in some first world countries.
I do not truly believe we would reach this point; unemployment would be driven higher and higher, and finally the entire system would crash, leaving us with the worst depression in all of history. The AI would do what jobs they could, but the revolution would have essentially stopped before it could get started; people would starve, lose their property, and riots would fill the streets. Then we would reach a revolution – and I’m not even sure it’s a revolution we can win. Revolutions in the past have always succeeded when the people in charge can no longer afford the losses, the losses of their soldiers lives, the losses of productive citizens, or when the soldiers step down to avoid killing their brethren. But with mechanized production lines and AI soldiers, I’m unsure these conditions would ever be met.
So how do we avoid this point? We must not allow those who could replace us with robotic AI to do so with abandon. The solution that liberals currently endorse is shortsighted and idiotic. When people are threatened to be replaced, there is often talk of having the government force the company to keep these people on. But if the company could replace these people for cheaper, but instead use them because the government tells them to, what is this besides a welfare check that requires people to do eight hours of work before they receive it? Why not allow the companies to replace them and tax the difference?
This is beneficial because it allows the people who would have been laid off to receive a large portion of their pay, but gives them the freedom to seek out education and better themselves; it is a welfare check that allows people to actually be productive in their lives, rather than providing them with the economic equivalent of digging ditches to merely fill them again.
The reason we do not do so is because our society is built around the concept of work. If you don’t work, you’re a bad person. If you don’t work, you don’t deserve food or a house. And this was a useful rhetoric when humanity was truly scrabbling at he dirt, trying to survive. Now, however, we have more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet, and more than enough houses to house everyone twice over. We must let go of our focus on work. We must allow people to live without forcing them to work; because we are entering an era where there will literally be one job for every ten thousand humans, and we must allow the other nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine humans to survive.
Some people disagree with a basic income guarantee – an annual salary that is given to anyone simply for existing – on the grounds that we don’t have the money to do so. But we pay everyone for their job – if we no longer have to pay anyone to produce objects, then we have a lot of money that no longer needs to be given to people to do their job. And we can instead split this money up amongst everyone.
Current numbers suggest that under this system the US could pay everyone around $35,000 every year based on the money we used to pay people for jobs. Add in the $6,000 we could already give everyone because of the US welfare budget, and that’s $41,000 per person.
That’s twice the US median income. And in case this seems far less than what you make, and you don’t want to give that up, remember that you take this pay cut in order to never have to work a day of your life again. That book you’ve been meaning to read, the trail you’ve always wanted to hike, the art form you’ve always wanted to learn, the math problems you’ve always wanted to solve, or the sport you’d love to play are now all legitimate options. You’re no longer held back by society to do something that’s productive.
If you’re worried that you’ll not have enough money to do any of this, keep in mind two things; people with more time on their hands actually spend less money – cooking is cheaper than going out to a bad restaurant, but we go to bad restaurants because cooking takes longer. Plus, now you’ll finally have time to learn how to cook properly. And remember how much of what you buy is actually based on the cost of the labor it took to make it? Now all of the stuff you want to buy is much cheaper than it is today.
Eventually, the prices will be small enough, the supply large enough, and the populace will be happy enough that there will be no need for explicit money. This is paradise; a lifetime to do whatever you want; swimming in Hawaii, skiing in the Himalayas, making obscure mechanical machines, reading a book in your seventh language, and al of our physical needs are taken care of.
Our culture will be forced to change. We currently live in a culture where work is a norm, and expectation. Much of the super rich still work, whether they run a charity or sit on a dozen boards of directors. Much of our political rhetoric is based on the idea of those who work harder being worthy of a better life. There’s prestige that comes with having a high paying job – what will the world be like without such a social ladder? It may be different in ways we can’t expect.
But this change is coming. It may not be coming fast, but it is coming; and the closer we get to it, the better we can predict what it’s like. We can’t stop it, but we do get some choices in how it manifests. Will we be living in a world with a 1% that lives like gods, and a 99% that has to reinvent the wheel in a polluted and wasted earth? Will there be a violent revolution that just barely succeeds? Or will we transition into this new society with grace and poise? It’s impossible to know for sure.
But someday, we may indeed find ourselves in place that some have hastily called utopia.
If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy:
Humans Need Not Apply: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pq-S557XQU
Also, many of the blog posts on http://slatestarcodex.com/ touch on similar issues to the ones above, but they’re scattered throughout his writing and there’s no singluar post that I think should be linked.