Robots and Riots

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You do not see union workers holding benefits for robots. — Stephen Colbert

There’s a Doomsday scenario where machines take over all jobs and everyone becomes unemployed. Evictions, hunger, and illness ensue. Riots in the streets. Calls for a guaranteed national income. Legislation to prevent robots from being built at all. Political calamities. A real mess.

French police unleashed tear gas and water cannons on demonstrators Tuesday as tens of thousands packed the streets of Paris in an outpouring of opposition to the government’s anti-labor agenda. news item

If workers will riot over incremental changes to employment, imagine how berserk they’ll go if all the jobs disappear.

“But robots will never take every job!” Oh, yes they will. We humans are clever — we’ve invented countless labor-saving gadgets over the centuries, devices stronger or faster or more precise than people can be. We’re also clever enough to invent mechanical brainpower that’s stronger, faster, and more precise than our own. In fact, we’re developing this Superior Artificial Intelligence as we speak. Such an intellect will eclipse our own poor powers and take charge. Soon.

(Which would you rather buy, something dirt cheap but excellent from a machine, or something flawed and unreliable and expensive from a human? Hmm.)

This could easily become a bad thing, since people thrown out of work generally don’t have money for food, rent, gasoline, and doctor visits. Also, most of us derive meaning from our labors, and without a job — a way to contribute — people might find themselves existentially adrift. Combine a lack of purpose with a lack of cash, and you get street riots and the other disasters.

And it also could be a good thing … if the automata serve us faithfully and make us all wealthy. We’d have endless free time to pursue our interests, with no need to convert hobbies into jobs. In that world to come, what matters would no longer be how rich you are, but how interesting you are. I call it The Star Trek Future.

(Yes, I’m well aware that this very blog could be replaced by automation. I’d have to find some other way to amuse myself. Tennis, anyone?)

A solution that lately has gotten traction is a guaranteed national income — a stipend for every adult citizen. If all people were unemployed, only those who owned investments would have regular income. The corporations would need to donate money to the unemployed, or none of them would buy any products.

The problem with this plays out as follows: I own a store, and you come in to get a candy bar but don’t have any money. I give you a dollar, and you hand it back to me for the candy bar. Essentially, I’m performing a short ceremony with you, at the end of which I give you a free candy bar. At this rate, I’ll go broke.

Another idea involves a kind of fiscal land reform: the government confiscates corporate stock and hands it out to everyone. We’d all become owners of the robots that took our jobs. Automated production would go to our bottom line, and everything turns out fine.

Except this would basically destroy the market economy. Nobody would invest in companies anymore, lest their hard-won gains be taken from them abruptly in some similar, future upheaval.

But what people aren’t talking about and what’s getting my attention, is a forthcoming rapid demonetization of the cost of living. — Peter Diamandis

What to do, then? It turns out there’s a solution that will likely unfold as a natural consequence of total automation of jobs. It’s called demonetization, and it will cause most prices to plummet. After all, robots don’t take vacations; they don’t need healthcare for their kids; they don’t go on strike; and they perform their tasks vastly more efficiently than can humans. They work much better and much cheaper.

Thus, though we may all one day find ourselves unemployed, our expenses could decline by as much as 90 percent. A meal at a fast-food restaurant would cost 50 cents, and a ride in a driverless taxi would set us back about 30 cents per mile, less than half the cost of car ownership. Dirt-cheap housing will be built using 3-D printing. Meanwhile, online education already is basically free, and the smartphone in your pocket comes with a slew of products and services that 30 years ago would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Given a small stipend from the government and/or a small stake in the big corporations, people would have more than enough cash to pay for basic necessities even if they were out of work.

It’s also important to bear in mind that non-human employment will likely emerge over time and not all at once. Economic downturns in recent decades have tended to resolve themselves with “jobless recoveries” as businesses bought new software first and then hired real people. This hints at workforce automation building momentum slowly over several decades.

Instead of being eliminated, your job might merely get cut back, bit by bit: they’d offer to keep you on at reduced hours that drop even further over the coming months and years. Of course, your pay would decline, but meanwhile your personal expenses will have plummeted due to all that cheap automation everywhere in the economy. So who cares? You just got a bunch of extra hours away from work while retaining essentially the same lifestyle.

(If you’re worried this optimistic scenario won’t play out according to plan, there are a number of ways to adapt your work life to reduce or delay your risk of being replaced by a machine.)

If business and government can coordinate properly (and that’s a BIG “if”), automation might supplant us gradually, so we retain a declining level of employment while prices also decline. We could actually achieve a soft landing into a life of prosperous leisure.

That’s not Doomsday. That’s more like Paradise.

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UPDATE: Will we control AI?

UPDATE: Jobs are already disappearing as robots take over

UPDATE: Automation begins to clean out white-collar jobs

UPDATE: The rise of the useless class

UPDATE: How to get paid in the Age of Layoffs

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