Artificial intelligence and robotics are now part of our everyday experience and zeitgeist. From Tesla and Uber advancing the state of the art in self-driving cars (and soon trucks), to robotic milking machines, driver-less trains, to space exploration, to algorithmic news filtering, summarisation and selection, to using computers to detect cancer, to military drones, many traditionally human jobs are being replaced, or augmented, by robotics, algorithms and technology.
We can place this evolution in a long and continuous line of human invention of better and more efficient tools. The scythe “revolutionized” the harvesting of crops, as did the horse drawn plow, as did the tractor, as did the combine harvester, as did the self-driving-GPS-guided tractor. The typical small farm has gone from employing dozens of workers to barely two in the space of two generations (sixty years). The number of farm workers in all developed economies is trending towards zero.
The price of food has dropped accordingly. In 1900 US households spent 40% of their budget on food, this has now dropped to about 10%. Fewer people have to do back-breaking work for long hours just to put food on our tables. On the flip-side farmers are now struggling to produce healthy food at a price that the supermarkets (and consumers) are prepared, and able, to pay. They constantly have to push the boundaries of animal, human, plant, insect and soil welfare to extract marginal gains.
This soul-searching about the impact of technology on society is not new. The Luddites in 19 century Nottingham famously destroyed textile machinery out of fear for their livelihoods. It is only a matter of time before unemployed taxi drivers lure unsuspecting autonomous Uber vehicles into a dark alleyway and exact their frustrated revenge!
We all know that correlation does not imply causation, but it is also noteworthy that income inequality has been steadily rising since the mid-1970s, when it was at an historical low, so some of the extra productivity/value from automation has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of those that control the means of production, and the technology required for automation.
As a society I see three paths open to us in an era where all jobs are susceptible to automation (yes, even computer programming and the design of robots!):
- Continue to do nothing in the vain hope that people can quickly retrain and find new jobs in new industries. We allow wealth to become concentrated in the hands of those that control the means of automation. Those at the top of society will have to exert punitive control to maintain order in the face of inequality of opportunity. This state of affairs is incompatible with democracy, so society will be some form of autocracy, monarchy or dictatorship.
- Pay people to perform work that could be performed more efficiently by robots or algorithms.
- Pay people to do something intangible, essentially imposing a tax on the labour performed by robots and redistributing the money to the general population.
Arguably option 2 and 3 are the same as they involve collecting taxes and some form of subsidy. Option 3 could take the form of paying people to do “nothing”: think, study, write, produce art, music, travel etc. Although this option is anathema to free-market capitalists it is gaining in credibility, with Finland the latest country to experiment with a Basic Income.
It is also worth pointing out that we’ve used subsidies to protect jobs in strategic industries (including defense and farming) for decades.
So, we are faced with an increasingly stark fork in the road.
To the left is a world where the optimists say we will continue to drive down costs and increase productivity through automation, opening up whole new fields of human endeavor. Meanwhile, the pessimists see a Dystopia where a totalitarian state controls the general population through surveillance and force, where most labour is performed by robots, and most humans are enslaved to the robots and their masters.
To the right we have a society that taxes the labour performed by robots and distributes the wealth to the general population. Proponents would say that everyone benefits equally from the wealth created by automation (for we all stand on the shoulders of giants), while critics will say that this does not reward innovation, and will make people ignorant and lazy.
Personally I fear the (sinister!) left fork more than the right. We are already well down this path and the painful effects are becoming clearer, even for the mostly middle-class, entitled, developed-world, readers and writer of this blog…
We must urgently address income inequality in our society and invest in education to counter the protectionist and fascist forces that are gaining in strength across the world. Some form of automation dividend, or Basic Income, seems like it must be part of the solution, lifting up the 50% (and growing) of the population that have borne the brunt of automation to date.
Please join the debate and take some time to think about the society you’d like future generations to inherit.