Friday 31 May 2013

Seizing the Utopian Possibilities of our Robot Future

Baxter is coming for your job
According to increasingly credible accounts (egeg, eg), the robot economy is on its way. Perhaps by as early as 2040 robots will be smart and dexterous enough to do pretty much everything humans call work as well as or better than us, and at a lower cost. If this scenario comes about, human societies and indeed the human condition will be radically changed. But will this future be utopian or dystopian? At least two dystopian threats must be actively addressed: inequality and meaninglessness.



The first dystopian threat has been well analysed by lots of people (egeg, eg). At present our political economy provides individuals with purchasing power claims on goods and services mainly through the labour market. That is, most people provide for themselves (and their dependents) by finding a job that pays enough to afford to buy what they need for a basic standard of living, and at least some of what they want as well. Government welfare policy is mainly oriented to supporting this central labour market mechanism, for example by providing public education for people to improve their employability, and social insurance nets for the disabled and temporarily unemployed. 

The problem that robots pose is that they may make this labour market obsolete by causing 'technological unemployment' for humans. If robots can not only perform mechanical tasks more quickly, accurately, and tirelessly than humans (the problem the Luddites confronted), but also cognitive tasks (like exam grading, driving, legal discovery, etc) then what will humans have left to sell on the labour market? Our birthright - the ability to use our bodies and minds to create things that others find valuable - will be worthless. Yet people will still need food, shelter, and the rest. How will they get it?

Robots will revolutionise the supply side of the economy, resulting in much cheaper goods and services. Yet the economic gains of this efficiency will not be split between labour (wages) and capital (profits), since robots don't need to be paid. Thus the owners of capital - the owners of the machines - will end up with an increasingly large share of whatever income the economy generates. (The ratio under capitalism 1.0 has historically been about 2/3 labour, 1/3 capital.) The pessimistic conclusion is that the society of the future would be characterised by an unimaginable abundance that only a very few can afford to buy (as Marx prophesied).

Yet perhaps that scenario is not so likely. Not only can one expect the political mobilisation of the 99% objecting to their economic disenfranchisement. There is also a contradiction in the capitalists' own position. For robots, unlike humans, are not consumers. That is part of what makes them so cheap to use in producing goods and services. Yet at the aggregate level that is a big problem. If no one (except the handful of capitalists, software designers, and hangers on) can afford to buy what you're selling, then it hardly matters how cheaply you can produce it. Such an economy will be relatively small ('depressed') despite its enormous potential, and thus the capitalists as a class will be poorer than they might be.

Given the convergence of the interests of both capitalists and ordinary citizens, it seems reasonable to expect that some kind of accommodation can be reached to transform the political economy to cope with the end of human labour. Specifically, governments will have to reorient themselves from supporting citizens' opportunity for waged labour to providing them with a direct rights based entitlement to economic purchasing power (on the model of universal pensions). Income is now redistributed from capitalists to ordinary citizens through the labour market. In future it will have to be redistributed through another mechanism, whether that be direct corporate taxation or perhaps some system of universal share ownership. That would be a radically different political economy than we have had for the last couple of hundred years. Call it Capitalism 2.0. [Update: I've developed this point here]


The second dystopian threat assumes a successful (redistributive) solution to the first threat. Perhaps that's why I haven't seen it much discussed in the robots are coming literature. Once we have an economy of gross abundance, rather than the merely moderate abundance that capitalism has so far achieved (in some parts of the world), what will we do with it? Will we be able to fashion meaningful lives for ourselves without the need to work?

There is reason to worry. We have the example of the dystopic failure of hunter-gatherer societies in Australia and N. America to transition from a culture adapted to scarcity to the moderate abundance of capitalism 1.0. We also have examples of dystopic adaptation to gross abundance provided by the citizens of oil rich countries, like the UAE, whose political order grants them unearned entitlement to great wealth (as in capitalism 2.0). From what I have heard and read, many beneficiaries live an empty and superdicial hedonism. To the extent that this is true, I don't think it is a cultural phenomenon. Rather, it reflects a general pathology of the human condition. 

We live in a materialistic society in which we assess our self-worth and even identity in terms of our command over material goods. Capitalism doesn't force us to think like this, but it is very conducive to such thinking, as Adam Smith noted, with some disappointment: 
To deserve, to acquire, and to enjoy the respect and admiration of mankind, are the great objects of ambition and emulation. Two different roads are presented to us, equally leading to the attainment of this so much desired object; the one, by the study of wisdom and the practice of virtue; the other, by the acquisition of wealth and greatness. (Theory of Moral Sentiments, I.III.29)
One of the social transformations of capitalism is to bring the "gaudy and glittering" road of fame and fortune within the aspirational reach of just about everyone. It attracts many more people than the strictly superior road of the pursuit of excellence for its own sake, because the very superficiality of materialistic achievements makes the lives of the rich and famous appear more glamorous to the observer, and thus more worthy of emulation, than the internal achievements of true wisdom and virtue. Yet, as Smith went on to note, interpreting the drive to better one's condition in materialist terms is compatible with decent lives and a moderately flourishing society, because "In the middling and inferior stations of life, the road to virtue and that to fortune, ...are, happily in most cases, very nearly the same." (TMS I.III.32). That is, achieving materialist success in a commercial society generally requires and reinforces the bourgeois virtues (like prudence, self-command, honesty, industriousness, and justice) even if you didn't set out to master these for their own sake. 

The threat to human flourishing posed by the robot economy is becoming clear. In Smith's analysis the labour market doesn't only play a mechanical role in turning over a 'fair' share of the income produced by an economy to the ordinary people (WN I.viii.36). By identifying and rewarding virtuous conduct it also plays an important role as a school for virtue, for both individuals and society as a whole. The members of a commercial society, generally, live meaningful and ethically good lives despite our pursuit of gaudy glittering baubles, not because of it. If we take away the school for virtue and leave unlimited access to baubles, we may end up with nothing but baubles.

Here it is worth noting that the robot economy is not entirely a new phenomenon. Previous societies have also had to cope with the problem of mass-leisure, though in those cases all the work was being done by slaves and lower castes. The Athenian gentleman class, for example, developed a 'post-materialist' ethos. As Aristotle put it in the Nicomachean Ethics,
The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.
Securing one's material independence was important, but the pursuit of further material wealth was disdained in oneself and frowned upon in others. Instead the Athenian gentlemen (only men, of course) channeled their energies into the pursuit of greatness through politics and art. And the ultimate post-materialist lifestyle, the one which doesn't require trying to do better than or impressing other people but which is valuable for its own sake, the pursuit of wisdom and virtue: philosophy

A similar transformation in our cultural values seems required by the gross abundance and mass leisure promised by the robot economy. Not only for the sake of our souls, but also to head off the immense environmental problems that universal mega-consumption might otherwise produce. Yet the scale and speed of the transformation we are facing requires taking an active role in our socio-cultural adaptation if we are to avoid the fate of places like Dubai, deserts of meaninglessness amid plenty. We must begin now to forge our mental independence from mere opulence, if we are not to find ourselves drowning in it. 

I have little idea how to effect this politically, but I will try to say something about what it might involve. Much of this is also relevant to our lives now, and would be worth doing even if the robot economy never comes to pass.

1. Distinguishing between means and ends. The pursuit of material wealth is not a bad thing, so long as one keeps firmly in mind that it is only a means to some ends, and not a valuable thing in itself. It is helpful here to remember the many valuable things in our life that money can't buy - like friendship, the contemplation of a beautiful landscape, or a good conversation - which the emphasis on wealth distracts us from appreciating. 

2. Filling the gap. The decline of the school for virtue provided by waged labour leaves a worrying gap in our secular ethics. People will be in desperate search of meaning. The Abrahamic religions might seem attractive as anchors for building meaningful lives amid plenty. Yet the example of the oil rich gulf states already suggests their deficiencies in a world of mass leisure. Moral philosophers should move to address this challenge, by taking some time away from abstract universalistic theorising to think about the perspective of ordinary moral agents in the real world. But artists, novelists, film-makers and others also have a role to play in providing stories and illustrations of different kinds of lives for us to think about. If nothing else, this competition will force the religions to raise their game.

3. Experiments in living. For all its benefits (relative to other regimes) capitalism has led to a certain degree of homogenisation of lifestyles: as any way of life we choose must somehow be paid for, it must make 'economic sense' in the capitalist world. Yet this monoculture will be a problem in adapting our societies to the kind of radical and rapid transformations wrought by a robot economy (and who knows what other challenges the 21st century will throw up). People should be encouraged to experiment with different ways of living, for example in their relation to Art, radical moral and political theories, spirituality, Nature, family arrangements, and so on. In fact, their efforts should be subsidised by the rest of us, since the requirement that lifestyles make 'economic sense' is exactly the criterion that seems of least relevance in considering a future of gross abundance. The rest of us can learn much about the human condition and its adaptability from observing and listening to the experiences of such 'pioneers'. We will need that knowledge to make wise decisions about the paths to take as a society.

4. Non-vocational education. Governments are currently scrambling to counter technological unemployment by increasing vocational education in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). This makes sense in the old political economy, in which the government's role is to support the central welfare mechanism of the labour market. But if the robots do come then none of that training will save human jobs. Under conditions of gross abundance, useful skills will be useless. Instead it will be familiarity with things that are interesting and valuable in themselves that will allow us to fashion meaningful and flourishing lives. Rather than teaching useful things - skills to help people get ahead in life - we need to refocus education on what we need to live as free people. The humanities can make a particular contribution since they offer nothing useful, but rather an endlessly deep well to draw from (e.g. literature). 


For eating the forbidden fruit, the Abrahamic god cursed Adam to a life of endless labour: "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food" (Genesis 3:19). The robot economy presents a utopian vision: a world freed from that curse. But given the immense forces in play, that utopian potential can easily turn into a dystopian reality. The original industrial revolution was basically an energy revolution that replaced puny human brawn with fossil fuel powered machines. This second industrial revolution will replace puny human brains with artificial intelligence powered machines. Though it brought immense benefits - and escape from the Malthusian trap - the industrial revolution also wrought immense devastation, and created many losers, like the impoverished proletariat (see the illustrations provided by the likes of Dickens, Engels, etc).

If we are to avoid or mitigate such harms this time around we need to start planning now. We must find a way to convert the engine of capitalism to run on this new fuel without exploding. We must also change ourselves. We are not mentally prepared to live meaningful and flourishing lives under utopian conditions. Freedom from want and freedom from work will be a curse, not a blessing, if we cannot wean ourselves off from the materialistic mindset induced by capitalism 1.0.

Further Earlier Reading
John Maynard Keynes' Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930)
Bertrand Russell's In Praise of Idleness (1932)
The Ad Hoc Committee on The Triple Revolution (1964)