Praxagora: I want all to have a share of everything and all property to be in common; there will no longer be either rich or poor; I shall begin by making land, money, everything that is private property, common to all.
Blepyrus: But who will till the soil?
Praxagora: The slaves.
Aristophanes (Ecclesiazusae, 391 BC)
Two millennia and three centuries after Aristophanes' play, the word robot began seeing wide usage in literature. Czech writer Karel Čapek’s science-fiction play “Rossum’s Universal Robot” is regarded to be one of the first literary examples to use robot in its contemporary form. Its etymology rooted in Karel's native language stems from robota, a word describing compulsory labor, for serfdom, for slavery.
Praxagora may not have had the foresight of today's technological progress, but when the robots begin to till the soil we will be free of our own slavery and enter a new era society.
If you haven't already, I suggest you watch the short, Internet documentary Humans Need Not Apply. The video does not present a solution of massive unemployment, so I aim to flesh out possible economic scenarios in the future of automation.
Arguments contrary to the documentary reveal both a misunderstanding and underestimation of automation. The degree to which automation can change society should not be taken lightly.
To accept the premise that robots are coming to take our jobs, we must be critical of our own preconceived notions. This is not some alarmist baloney. Let's take a look at the past, present, and future of technology's influence on the means of production.
The Industrial Revolution is one of the most noted historical expansions of technology. It increased the levels of goods production and improved standards of living. The inventions created new employment opportunities, but allowed for an even larger growth in population. This growth necessitated an even greater volume of production. And the cycle continues.
Great, right? So why the concern?
New jobs brought upon by the Industrial Revolution were repetitive, specialized tasks housed in factories. Machines did the heavy lifting, accelerating production and efficiency. The explosion in production demanded a large enough workforce to keep up with the machines. People who once specialized in the production of fine goods such as textile workers and cobblers found themselves out-competed by the factories. And without the necessary skills, they were forced to close their businesses and faced uncertainty.
Labor activists Luddites fought against the growing trend. Fueled by the looming fear of technological unemployment and poor working conditions, they argued that the machines would reduce the demand for skilled work and lower wages. Their efforts were ultimately defeated as the consumer market preferred the cheaper products made in the factory. Born out of this struggle is the Luddite Fallacy; the belief that advancements in technology reduces the total number of available jobs. Where in actuality, the new technology only changed the composition of the labor workforce.
Should we not just apply the Luddite Fallacy to the future of automation? Not so fast. Let's look at recent history.
Historically, there has a been a joint rise in gross domestic product, labor productivity, private employment and median household income. Yet, over the last 10-15 years, what we see is a steady increase in capital and production and a flat-lining of employment and income. This is the decoupling of the US economy.
There does not seem to be a temporary situation or one that will correct itself with ease and innovation. Going forward the factory and business owners (or the robot overlords, as I prefer to call them) will see an increase in profit and a decreased reliance on human labor. The discrepancy this causes between business capital and personal income is already evident when we examine the rapid rise of income inequality.
Labor unions have and will fight against this. They will go as far as inciting the same fear of technological unemployment (the same that you might think I’m spouting). Mocked for falling for the Luddite Fallacy, they will lose the battle. They will fail because automation is an economic no-brainer. Greater levels of productivity lead to less scarcity. Lower overhead leads to cheaper products. And higher wages should lead to higher standards of living, right?
What happens when we reach a point where there is sufficient automation that mass employment is not necessary? I'm not talking 10-15% unemployment. I'm talking 20%, 30% of the population being unemployable. It is not unfathomable. Automation is cheaper, safer, and more productive than their bag-of-bones competition. As cataloged in Humans Need Not Apply it’s clear that the future of automation is not something of science-fiction. It is the present situation of science fact.
But didn't we establish that new technology opens the door to new employment?
Look at the list of "new" jobs created in the past 10 years: big data analysis, app developer, social media manager. These are jobs that don’t need 4 million new employees. Those four million are coming straight out of the job sector poised to be one of the first jobs to be completely automated: transportation. Most new jobs created in the past 100 years account for a small percentage of all current jobs. Most jobs in 2015 already existed 100 years ago. in one form or another. And they are ripe for automation.
The future of automation has the potential to raise the standard of living and free society from the shackles of wage-slavery. Most everything will be produced at a near-zero cost, with little to no physical labor, and in abundance.
Yet, our current capitalistic economy is built upon the scarcity of resources and the buying and selling of those resources. In the process of delivering a utopia, automation eliminates the consumer’s ability to purchase the goods produced by the robot workforce. Capitalism will collapse in on itself and will take society with it. To maintain order a new economic society must prevail. That society will be nothing short of socialism. It’s crazy to think that Marx might have been right all along.
Karl Marx (the butt of all free-marketeers’ jokes) predicted socialism would develop in an advanced capitalist society, where profits reach zero and efficiency was high. Automation has the potential to fulfills both requirements. But to get there we must do a few things, because between now and the automated utopian future lies a tumultuous period of poverty and uncertainty.
So how do we mitigate it?
First, dissolve the stigma of unemployment. We should be critical of the notion that work makes a person. Consider how much value one's employment holds on our social interactions. Next time you meet someone new try to go a long as you can before asking "what do you do?". It's not as easy as it sounds. The future of the labor force won't be unemployed because we're lazy; we will be unemployed because we will be unemployable And it would be through no fault of our own.
Second, provide a guaranteed basic income. As more and more people become unemployable, they are going to need a basic and guaranteed method of buying food and providing shelter. To prevent riots-in-the-streets level protests a guaranteed basic income is a necessity. We can even take a step back and consider arguments that new employment opportunities will emerge. How does one provide for their self and family when they have to develop new skills? Social security is essential.
There are three options to provide a guaranteed income: corporate, philanthropic, andgovernmental. There is currently no incentive for corporations to provide a living wage. Corporate lobbyists actively combat any attempts to raise even the minimum wage. That said, a corporate granted living-wage would need an essential ingredient: employment. Philanthropy is limited and dependent upon the altruism of the wealthy. Such endeavors are usually targeted toward a specific circumstances. This leaves us with government. Governmental solutions are regarded as taboo, but this is the only viable solution. The pie of GDP is growing, but a vast majority of it goes toward capital rather than income. The social security of a guaranteed income can only be paid for by socially mandated taxes on capital and profit.
The current relation of production and labor cannot sustain itself in light of automation. Shifting labor market exploitation from warm flesh to cool steel leaves the vast majority of profits to the factory owners. If we instead opt for public ownership of the means of production it can prevent mass poverty. The public ownership of robotic factories can deliver a direct returns on investment to the people. Allow us to feed and house ourselves and each other.
We mustn't fear the future of automation and robotics, but embrace it and share the wealth of freedom with all.