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Transitioning To The Inevitable Robot Workforce Could Get Violent

Robots are going to replace humans in every job, and they’re going to do it within the next few generations.

You either agree with that statement or you don’t. I’m not going to try to convince the naysayers. Smarter people than I have already argued this point at length, in mini-documentaries like CCPGrey’s Humans Need Not Apply and books like Martin Ford’s Rise of The Robots. Plus there’s studies that point to half of all jobs being automated in the next  two decades. It’s a foregone conclusion in my mind, but if you don’t agree, that’s fine. Let’s assume it’s going to happen, and go on a thought experiment.

There’s a lot of rabbit holes on this journey – what humans will do without the need for work, whether we still need currency when robots make everything, and which undesirable dystopian scifi future is the most likely during RobotCorp’s ascent to power. Stick with me!

Robots Will Take All Our Jobs, and We Revert to Art

Once robots take all our jobs, what happens? In theory, it’s a utopia. Robots do literally everything that humans don’t want to do, from manufacturing, to transportation, to providing meals, to entertainment, to sex dolls. Given a humanoid body and sufficient intelligence, robots will do them better than any human could. They will take care of every human need imaginable, and all sorts of wants that don’t exist yet. 

So, what will all the humans do? Now that robots do everything better, we can’t compete in the job market. How will we get paid? Will money still exist? Now that we’re cut out of the means of production, we’ll have a lot of time, but no way to earn money.

The best solution I’ve seen to this is the idea of a Universal Basic Income – guaranteeing a steady paycheck to everyone on Earth. Now, that’s a thorny proposition, filled with perceptions of a welfare state and socialism. But it’ll be different this time around – since robots will creating all the value. Before, if you got free money, it was because some other person worked for it, and you’re mooching. But when robots do everything, you’re mooching off robots, and they don’t care- that’s what they’re there for. As long as everyone mooches off the robots and they keep working, there’s no issue.

Basic income is another controversial idea that other smart people have delved into, so I won’t do it here. Let’s continue the thought experiment. In fact, a smart man (and famous venture capitalist) named Marc Andreessen has already done so – here’s what he says the future will look like:

“Since our basic needs are taken care of, all human time, labor, energy, ambition, and goals reorient to the intangibles: the big questions, the deep needs. Human nature expresses itself fully, for the first time in history. Without physical need constraints, we will be whoever we want to be. The main fields of human endeavor will be culture, arts, sciences, creativity, philosophy, experimentation, exploration, and adventure.

A planet of slackers you say. Not at all. Rather than nothing to do, we would have everything to do. Curiosity, artistic and scientific creativity have full rein resulting in new forms of status-seeking (!). Imagine 6 billion or 10 billion people doing nothing but arts and sciences, culture and exploring and learning. What a world that would be.”

In a robotic utopia, there’s only two ways to create value: make the robots more efficient at creating it, or make art. Art is subjective, and for the time being, it’s something humans still do better than robots, since it requires creativity rather than logic. Andreessen thinks we’ll come up with new human wants that robots can’t satisfy which will provide jobs, but I don’t agree. Either way, humans won’t need to do anything.

For those of you who recoil at this lazily luxurious future where nobody has to work, get off your high horse. Work for the sake of work isn’t a good thing – you only think so because you grew up in a Western culture that prizes hard work, thanks to Puritans and robber barons.

 The labor market today entails an unnecessary 40 hour work week and vast amounts of administrative work that don’t really need to be done. All this is due to automation – we got used to working a lot during the Industrial Revolution, and once machines started taking care of manufacturing and whatnot, we just kept finding new work to do, because our culture prizes working for the sake of work. The same thing could easily happen when the robots come – we’ll just keep finding useless jobs to do.

VICE thinks this will happen, because that’s what capitalism does. That’s certainly a possibility, but as the author notes, “There’s no inherent reason that automation could not be harnessed to provide more social good than harm. No, a technologically-motivated movement is not what’s needed. Instead, a political one that aims to divest technological advancement from the motives of capitalism is in order.”

Agreed. Most workers eke out livings with jobs they hate, and spend what little money they have on the weekend dulling themselves to a whole new work doing more of the same. Surely a robotic utopia with no  reason to get up in the morning is better than the modern reality where they have a reason that they hate. Some people might go crazy when confronted with a nihilistic life where they don’t have to do anything, but we’ll all eventually find rewarding ways to spend our time, either in Brave New World-esque entertainment or by creating art.

Long story short – humanity should want to get to robot utopia with universal basic income. But getting there is tricky.

How Will We Get to Robotic Utopia? It’s Up To The Robot Master

I don’t see how we will get to that point without massive upheaval. When robots do all the jobs, nobody needs to worry about a living wage. But when robots do only some of the jobs, they take away livelihoods from the least skilled workers. It’s already happened in the manufacturing and agriculture industries, and it’s going to happen soon in the retail and transportation industries. This transition period between the present and the robotic utopia is the most dangerous.

I think the only chance of safely navigating this period lies in the hands of whoever controls the robots. Whichever human holds the reins of the retail-bots and transport-bots will be the most powerful person on the planet. (At least before their job is taken over by a benevolent AI – fingers crossed on the ‘benevolent’ part.) Their robots do all the jobs, and thus provide all the value, which means by extension that that person get all the money that the robots earn. Let’s call this person the RobotCorp CEO.

They’re more powerful than the president, since they control the national economy from RobotCorp’s central control panel. If the state does something RobotCorp doesn’t like, they can flick a switch and drop the national GDP by ten percentage points. The state could try to seize the bots by lawful force, but who’s to say RobotCorp didn’t use that same efficient robot technology to make war-bots capable of defeating any human force? (They’ll probably be called peacekeeper-bots, for branding purposes.)

There also could be more than one RobotCorp – think Apple/Google duopoly. That would be safer, since neither RobotCorp will hold ultimate power, and they can hold each other in check while working together to get humanity towards robot utopia. Alternatively, they could myopically focus on sabotaging the competitor’s business, and end up plunging the world into a robot war in order to prove the superiority of their specific type of robot. Hopefully that doesn’t happen, and it’s more of a Cold War type scenario, which two robot superpowers racing to get to robot utopia and spurred on by the others’s efforts, like the Space Race.

It sounds straight out of military science fiction, but in a world where machines are more capable than humans it’s eminently feasible – just look at the wars in today’s world, where humans are as capable as humans. Never mind that for now – let’s assume the robot overlord is the most powerful person in the world for the sake of the thought experiment and move on.

Humanity Can Do Things the Easy Way or We Can Do Them The Hard Way

The RobotCorp CEO gets to decide whether humanity gets to the robot utopia the easy way or the hard way. The easy way is through decreeing basic income to all workers her robots displaces, using the massive profits RobotCorp reaps from making and moving everything in the country. Doing this in a way that doesn’t fatally shock the global economy and is fair to the people still working the non-robotic jobs will be tricky, sure, but it’s the simplest step towards the happy robotic utopia above. The less resistance the RobotCorp CEO gets from stealing jobs, the faster she can get to that future.

But maybe the CEO doesn’t see things this way. Maybe she thinks that the robot utopia future is unattainable within the next few generations, or that basic income is a bad idea, and therefore decides not to do anything for the millions of workers her company has rendered obsolete. What then?

It is at this point in the conversation that my futurist friends bring up a Marxist revolution. The proletariat masses of workers will rise up against RobotCorp (owners of the ‘means of production’-robots), dethrone them, and make things right. To that I say – “Preposterous! Did you forget about the war-bots?”

RobotCorp’s CEO  would surely have seen the logical consequences of not providing for the displaced workers, and prepared to defend her assets using military force. And don’t tell me she won’t have war-bots, because DARPA is the single most innovative force pushing forward robots today. Silicon Valley exists solely due to defense spending – the most exciting part of technology for humans remains its potential to kill other humans, sadly.

Of course she will have war-bots, and of course they will defeat the Marxist revolutionaries! Any force less than the US military would surely fail, and even they would be up against tough odds unless they can take out the robot manufacturing centers. It’s possible, but then you just took a step backwards, and now the government is in control of RobotCorp. Depending on how you feel about public versus private entities, that’s basically the same as RobotCorp in power, maybe a tad more bureaucratic. Whatever.

Whether its RobotCorp or the state, now you have a despotic force that controls all jobs with absolute power, and isn’t interested in helping out the poor humans who they’ve booted out. This is the hard way. As long as the despots continue making robots (which they will, since robots aren’t  commodities yet), humanity will eventually get to the robotic utopia described above. It’ll just take a lot longer and result in a lot more human suffering than the easy way, and instead of a benevolent AI as our chaperone, it’s a malicious robot-backed oligarchy.

Alright, so now robots provide everything and someone controls all the robots. Whether the robot overlord is a benevolent Skynet or malicious RobotCorp CEO, they’re fine with people doing whatever as they don’t rock the boat. What’s left that’s not destroying the new world order? Same as before – making the robots more efficient, or creating art. Woohoo – we’ve arrived in the robotic utopia future!

What Can We Do Today?

In summary:

  • We’re at World Order A today – humans do jobs and get paid for them.
  • World Order B is the inevitable robotic utopia future, where robots do jobs and humans do what they want.
  • World Order B is preferable, since humans can do whatever they want rather than what needs to be done.
  • Getting from A to B is scary because violent myopic humans will gum things up, as all we’ve ever known is World Order A.

In the best case, the RobotCorp CEO institutes a basic income for her dispossessed workers early on, and we transition to B without incident. In the worst case, there’s a long period of strife where  humans fight over the robot reins, and do nothing for all the dispossessed workers. This hard way could prevent us from ever getting to Point B, through nuclear war (Matrix scenario) or through a malevolent AI (Terminator scenario). Who knows? Given humanity’s dismal track record, the hard way seems more likely.

So, what can we do today to make the easy way more likely? We as a society need to make sure that the robot overlord is a nice person (so far Elon, Larry, and Sergey seem like they’re on our side, that could just be me). And we need to institute laws that help ease the transition period from World Order A to B. Namely, laws that provide living wages for the robot-displaced workers, maybe using the robotic profits.

It’s gonna be tricky. There’s going to be a lot of unrest at first. But there’s no reason why we can’t do things the easy way, and minimize human suffering along the way. That’s always been what technology is about, and robots should be not exception.

Let’s welcome our new robot overlords, and take steps to hand over the economy in a way that doesn’t gut the rest of us.