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The Ongoing Discussion of Technological Unemployment
Recently on my other blog I wrote a couple of posts on what is now with increasing regularity called “technological unemployment” — Automation and the Human Future and Addendum on Automation and the Human Future. This is simply the idea that increasing automation will replace human labor — perhaps entirely, in the fullness of time.
The topic of technological unemployment continues to generate a lot of comment. An article by Jason Dorrier at the Singularity Hub — Robots Will Do Everything You Do Now Only Better—What Then? (brought to my attention by Andrew Gorospe) — makes some interesting points on technological unemployment.
In addition to making the important point that employment is always a trailing indicator in the recovery of an economy after bottoming out during a business cycle, there is this well-made observation:
Before the 20th century, most folks in the West farmed. Now, thanks to massive productivity gains in agriculture, virtually none do. To a 19th century farmer that would imply nothing less than the collapse of the economy. Why? Because the thing most people did back then was farm. Our farmer might understandably wonder, “What will we do when machines perform our jobs for us? How will we make money? How will we survive?”
As Dorrier notes, we cannot yet say that technological unemployment is structural. But almost everyone today agrees that automation may become a source of structural unemployment in the future — it is simply a matter of how far in the future we extrapolate continuing automation.
The “Job of the Gaps” Argument
I have discussed elsewhere the perennial futurist fascination with an economy of maximized abundance in which the work week shrinks from 40 hours to 30 hours, from 30 hours to 20 hours, until eventually human labor is no longer relevant to economic production. This vision of automation has been around so long that it had pretty much become as much of a joke as jetpacks and flying cars.
That perception of automation is changing. Since the time of the earliest predictions of maximized abundance we have had a revolution in telecommunications and computing which has made rudimentary AI (in the form of expert systems) a reality in many industries.
While at present, many jobs cannot be automated, this pool of non-automatable jobs is incrementally shrinking, and human beings will increasingly need to find jobs in the “gaps” between automated labor. Employment in these economic gaps will slowly shrink over time.
This is not a problem that will become unmanageable in the near future. When the global economy returns to significant growth, and employment eventually picks up, people will laugh about predictions of technological unemployment, but in the next business cycle the recovery will be even slower, returning fewer people to work, and so on, over the decades, until each business cycle chips away at the jobs available for human beings.
Will the devil make work for idle populations?
Every futurist who has considered the question of technological unemployment has asked what people will do with their time when everyone has a life of leisure. There are obvious social problems that will follow from such a scenario, not to mention the possibly of an even more disruptive period of transition when many jobs are automated even while some unpleasant jobs remain to be done by human hands.
We have all heard the old saying that the devil makes work for idle hands. We think of this as the possibility of getting involved in mischief when one is insufficiently busy, but there is an entirely different meaning that the phrase may come to take on.
With increasing structural technological unemployment over time there will be enormous political pressure to create “make work” jobs in order to try to maintain the economic status quo, and to tolerate static or declining productivity in order to accommodate unproductive jobs just because they are jobs and they keep people busy.
Sabotaging productivity to retain inefficient jobs in the workplace is a lot like protectionist legislation: everyone can see the irrationality of it, until it is their job that is eliminated or their industry receiving protection or subsidies. The end result is the same: economic stagnation, and all the institutions of feudalism recreated in the context of an industrialized economy.
This “permanent stagnation” (one of Nick Bostrom’s qualitative categories of existential risk) would mean the end of the expansion of human civilization, declining standards of living, and reduced opportunities for everyone.
A Curiously Selective Skepticism
And for a quick note on how not to think about employment, technology, and the economy of the future… I find it quite remarkable that so many people can be so skeptical or even outright dismissive that industrial-scale energy generation can be achieved with solar, wind, or fusion, even while they act like the economy is going to be transformed overnight by 3D printers, iPads, and Google glasses.
The fact is that the impacts of all of these technologies will be felt over time — over decades and over centuries — just like the impact of technological unemployment. And the interaction of these opportunities, some of which will create new industries while others destroy old industries, will create the economy of the future.
A Different Perspective on Technological Unemployment
Instead of asking what an idle human population will do with its abundant leisure time, or, worse, asking how we can slow down the transition to a fully automated economy, we would do well to learn to think about human activity in different terms — which will almost certainly happen anyway over the long term.
It may well turn out to be the case that industrial-technological civilization is best expanded, extended, and maintained by agents that are themselves products of industrial-technological civilization — i.e., robots, and automatons of one kind or another. We should face the fact that machines have a comparative advantage in building a machine-based civilization. Accept it and move on. Let human beings do other things.
The idea of a “job” is a relic of the “factory system” of the early industrial revolution, and it is probably the least healthy way for a human being to spend a lifetime: inside a building, putting in countless hours of mind-numbing labor, and being too tired after a day’s labor to appreciate anything other than mind-numbing television programming.
Many people have made similar observations; there is nothing new in this. And I am not going to tell you that everyone is going to become an artist or a writer or a philosopher. Most people simply aren’t suited to such pursuits. But there are pursuits for which human beings are eminently suited.
Human Beings and the Comparative Advantage of Being Human
Just as machines are perhaps the most effective agents for a machine-based civilization, it could be argued that the terrestrial biosphere is best expanded, extended, and maintained by agents that are products of that biosphere.
Even as technological agents build industrial-technological civilization into a behemoth that dwarfs the kind of civilization that can practicably be built by human beings, organic agents of the biosphere — in this case, human beings — may be best suited to returning to traditional pre-industrialized ways of life in a variety of forms as the universe is opened up to settlement by the expanding scope and ability of industrial-technological civilization — that is, if we allow it to continue to expand, not crippling it by restricting productivity, and this is best done by handing this civilization over to machines themselves.
Hominids, since their origins in Africa, and even before the emergence of homo sapiens, have exploited their bipedal gait to walk the entire surface of the Earth, and they have used their free hands to row canoes around the world long before there was any civilization. We are, at bottom, nomads — we are a species at home in the world, but only when we have the freedom to roam.
Let us continue to roam, but farther afield. There are many, many lifeways of pre-industrialized peoples that may be applicable on a far larger scale made possible by industrial-technological civilization when it allows us to expand beyond our homeworld: homesteading, pastoralism, transhumance, and so on.
Some of us, of course, love our relationship to the soil, and will want to settle and farm one piece of ground. There is certainly room enough in the universe for this, too.
The Place of Humanity in the Milky Way
I have observed elsewhere that seven billion human beings on the Earth is a lot of representatives of any one species, but spread out in the Milky Way we would be very thinly distributed in our home galaxy.
There are about 300 billion stars in the Milky Way (more than 40 for every human being), and we know now from recent exoplanet research that planets in orbit around these stars are plentiful.
In fact, it has recently been theorized that small, rocky planets (once thought to be relatively rare) are even more common than gas giants, because gas giants need to form relatively early in the history of a solar system before the hydrogen and helium get blown away by stellar winds. The protoplanetary disc needs to be of a higher metallicity to facilitate the rapid growth of planetary cores that could result in gas giant formation. (Cf. Alien Earths Could Form Earlier than Expected)
What this means is that only later generations of stars with higher metallicities (population I and II) can form gas giant planetary systems, whereas small, rocky planets might have been formed earlier in the history of the universe, even around population III stars.
In any case, if we suppose a future global population of 10 billion, and we take a minimum human community size of 500 individuals, each minimum human community would have at least 15,000 stars to choose from to find an appropriate planetary system to settle. That’s a wide of range of choice.
World Enough, And Time
Now, I realize that these numbers are not likely to bear much of any relationship to likely facts on the ground in the future. People will mostly want to stay on Earth, and people who leave for other planetary systems will want to live in communities of more than 500 persons. My only point in this thought experiment is to demonstrate how much room there is for us in the universe — or that little corner of the universe that we call “our” galaxy.
All of this is ours for the asking. All we need do is allow industrial-technological civilization to continue on its course of expansion, and not cripple even those developments that seem to pose terrible dilemmas for human beings, and the growth of that civilization will give us opportunities that we can scarcely imagine today.
If the growth of technology includes the technologies that will ultimately allow for off-world expansion, we need not even count on or think about the industrial-technological civilization that we turn over to our machines, or the alienating and oppressive forms of timeclock labor to which it subjected many generations of human beings.
With a spacefaring civilization, a very different niche for human “employment” opens up to human beings — a niche as different from the jobs of industrial-technological civilization as peasant farm labor was also different from the jobs of industrial-technological civilization.
We will have the opportunity to “return” to our human, all-too-human roots, farming or roaming or tending herds as we prefer, but with far greater opportunities, far fewer discomforts, much longer and healthier lives, and greatly expanded knowledge.
In such a world, there will be something for everyone, and no need to create “make work” because we will all be so busy being human.