The robots are coming

I’ve been wanting to think intelligently about labour, mechanisation/technological progress, and control of resources for a while. I haven’t gotten there yet, and there’s still a whole bunch of reading I want to do.

But, there are a lot of other people thinking pretty hard about it already. So, for now, a set of links to some ideas that I think are extremely interesting, extremely important, and almost certainly connected somehow. I will, I hope, have the chance to think about this in more depth when things are a little quieter.

There’s a nice video over on YouTube, about mechanisation. It’s well-put together, with a voice that somehow manages to sound terribly convincing, even if the video isn’t terribly deep in terms of material. Some key points:

1. Technological change has changed the way the economy works. This is indubitably true; and, in many or most cases, it’s resulted in lost jobs.

2. Yes, technology also creates new jobs. But, he argues that there’s no necessary rule that it will create enough, or even any at all. I hope to read and research more on the area, but as a first guess, that sounds pretty reasonable.

3. This is happening for mental work, not just physical work. This is really important. There isn’t necessarily a clear line between those two categories – it is complicated. But, put bluntly, I think lots of jobs that we used to think of as medium to high skilled, could be next in line. I think it’s the timeframes that are uncertain here, not the trajectory.

4. This has really big implications. For all kinds of things, from economic growth to politics, government, capital ownership and how we structure our society (and yes, the first four are really different parts of the fifth).

So, some initial thoughts that I think are interesting. I’m not sure how exactly they’re connected – think of this more as a brainstorm, than a coherent set of ideas.

1. Population matters. I haven’t read as much as I’d like on technology and fertility rates; but it seems like there’s a possibility that there may be fewer people, in a few decades. I’m not sure how that fits in exactly, but I think it’s important. UPDATE: I came across this article on pets replacing children, recently. Maybe the problem won’t be too many humans, but too few?

2. There may come a point, when only a tiny proportion of the population needs to work. If you think of increased technology as raising living standards for humans, and of work as being bad for living standards, it seems like there could come a point where we get to (much) fewer hours than we think of as a ‘normal working week’ now. I’m not sure about this one – it’s pure speculation. It seems like there’s been a decline over the last odd century and a half, although perhaps it’s not a clear trend over the longer term?

Either way, I think we have an interesting question, about how society changes when people no longer need to work to meet material needs. The crux of the issue, I think, is that humans are simultaneously economic agents, moral agents, and quite effective machines. Economic agents in the sense of actors in the economy, people who make choices, gather information, and make decisions about allocating resources. Machines, in the sense of working effectively at different roles. And moral agents, in that above and beyond the question of how resources are allocated and things are made, they make moral choices in interacting with other moral agents (I won’t get into an exact definition here, but something along the lines of Gewirth’s ideas, maybe? I leave this as an exercise for the reader :p).

But, of course, those three things can be separated. Slavery is effectively removing a human’s other two aspects, and treating them simply as a form of capital, appropriating the value of their labour – treating them as machines. You can do that, and it’s that kind of approach that lets you say there were $3.5b worth of people (slaves) owned prior to the US Civil War.

Conversely, you could see humans as being moral agents, and workers, without necessarily being economic agents. To the extent that human workers are driven by automated algorithms (say, for example, trading bots whose decisions have implications for service jobs), that’s already happening.

But imagine if you took both of those away; you simply had moral agents, without any role in the economy as agents, and no practical labour to sell. What then? It gets interesting, and complicated, and I don’t quite know how it fits together. One model might be something like a guaranteed minimum income. That seems like a better outcome, all things considered. It’s easy to be much more pessimistic, though.

For what it’s worth, I think the video ends with exactly the right questions. Things are changing; they’re going to change quickly, and I don’t think we really know how – but at this point, it doesn’t seem like we’re necessarily asking the right questions.

APPENDIX: I came across the video through this website, in turn via a link from the Lowy Institute. That intermediate website puts forwards two arguments – both of which I think are extremely weak – as to why the trend in technology shouldn’t bode poorly for humans.

This is all speculation, and it’ll be decades before there’s an answer, but for what it’s worth, the arguments I find extremely unpersuasive are:

1. Humans are useful as consumers. I’m perhaps constructing a straw-man, but this argument seems to me to be simply ‘we’ll still need demand for an economy to function, so …’ [actual quote:]

How will this happen? The most obvious way is that a collective agency will step in to ensure those people can pay for the product so that normal market based prices will be formed and transactions will take place. That agency is obvious in democratic society: the government. And before you think that this is some leftist notion (not that there’s anything wrong with that), I’m not theorising that here: I have faith that if it is in the interests of both business and consumers that money go from the employed to unemployed, it will. It will happen. So there may be unemployment but that does not mean that the humans adversely affected will become horse meat.

I think any argument that relies on people acting in their own self interest is too optimistic. More fundamentally, though, I think this is again missing the point; if the resources are controlled by a smaller group (let’s call them the ‘auto-owners’), who have no need for other humans (why would you, when robots can make everything?), then there’s no benefit from the auto-owners from allocating resources to those without. They can trade resources with other auto-owners (this trade will probably be Pareto-efficient), and … the remaining humans will have nothing left to trade, because their labour value is now zero.

2. Maybe the displaced workers will buy the robots?

Why would it be the case that a pure capital owner will purchase the robot rather than a displaced worker any more than it was the case that those who drove horse drawn wagons where [sic] displaced by pure car owners?

I’m not even sure where to start with this one [and yes, mistake in the original]. It seems to be an argument that somehow the ownership of capital will work out okay. I’m deeply pessimistic about this one, but I won’t go into the details here; suffice to say, it strikes me as a variant of the ‘market will solve everything’ wishful thinking that sometimes prevails in economics. But, this isn’t about an efficient market; it’s about how moral agents will get access to the resources they need to live and function, when they have nothing to trade for them.

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