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Robot utopia or robot dystopia?

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We are at the leading edge of a massive wave of automation. Human labour is being replaced by robots and computers on a large scale, and machine labour becomes increasingly competitive. If the trend continues, most of the work we do today – and much else – will be done by machines. The question is what sort of future this will give rise to.

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KLAUS Æ. MOGENSEN

Senior Futurist, Editor

Posted Jun 07, 2019 in Technology Article from Scenario 02:2015

Robots are really marching into our workplaces, even in the service industries that so far have been spared massive automation. Simultaneously, computers are taking over more and more jobs in the knowledge industries, particularly in banks, where day-to-day bank business and financial speculation largely have been left to computers. Over the next 10-15 years, computers will achieve capacities comparable to the human brain, and robots will become increasingly good at sensing, analysing and handling their surroundings. The cost of machine labour is falling, and the quality is increasing. More and more of the work that today is done by people will in the next few decades be taken over by machines. New jobs requiring human skills will undoubtedly crop up in step with the economic growth created by the machines, but the question is if new jobs will arise at the same pace as old jobs disappear. If not, we will soon face a situation with no jobs available for most people on our planet.

Automation and the labour market

That machines take over workplaces is nothing new. An early example is when Gutenberg invented the printing press. Suddenly, it became easy to mass-produce books; and a lot of monks and scribes who had lived well from copying books by hand lost their jobs. However, it is worth noting that over a few decades, more jobs were created in the book industry than were lost: The much lower cost of books created greater demandand hence stimulated growth in the industry.

Automation really took off in the Industrial Age when steam engines replaced human labour in transportation, farming, the textile industry, and production industries in general. Millions of jobs in crafting and farming disappeared, but in return new jobs were created in production and services. Automation created economic growth, and more people could afford paying others for things they used to do on their own. The consumer society arrived, and growing consumption in itself created more workplaces. Hitherto, then, automation has not caused mass unemployment in the larger perspective – and presumably that will be the case in the future, too? A lot of economists think so, but many technologists are more pessimistic regarding future workplaces.       

The situation is different today, several technology experts say, outlining a scenario where automation happens too quickly for us to adapt. It used to always be possible for people who lost their jobs to automation to retrain for other jobs or fall back on unskilled service work in shops or fast-food restaurants or as cab drivers. However, these service jobs are also facing automation, and the declining cost and increasing abilities of the machines year by year raise the bar for the mental as well as physical work that it is still worthwhile to pay people to do.

Superstar economy

Another factor is the way that automation is changing the market for products and services. Before Industrialisation, the world’s best tailor couldn’t possibly make clothes for all the people in the world, and the world’s best singer couldn’t entertain everyone. So naturally, there was a need for many tailors and singers. However, with computer-guided weaves and sewing machines, a single clothes manufacturer can supply clothes to all the world, and through mass media, a single musician can reach the entire world at once. This creates a superstar economy where the few brightest stars in each field can supply products and services to all customers across the world without leaving room for the less brilliant (or less lucky). This creates polarisation in all fields.

Over the course of the current wave of automation we have seen wages being driven down and unemployment growing in fields where machines have replaced human labour, while wages have increased in fields where machines enhance human labour, enabling a single person to produce more. One place this happens is in the creative industries, where designers e.g. can develop a product faster, and in the service and production industries, where employers save money by replacing human labour with robots and computers.

In the superstar economy, where fewer and fewer ‘superstars’ through automation can serve more and more customers, there is only need for a small elite to create new wealth for everybody. The question is how the new wealth is distributed and what will happen to the people who aren’t lucky enough to be superstars. Here, we need to look at several alternative scenarios for the future.

Gain without pain?

No, pain, no gain; the saying goes: you must work to deserve the benefits of our society. The general political discourse is that citizens don’t just have the right to work, but also a duty to do it – even if no workplace actually needs them. People who have lost their jobs as a result of financial crisis and automation are often considered lazy or in other ways to blame for their own unemployment. This could lead to the attitude that the unemployed shouldn’t have the same access to benefits as people with jobs. This view of unemployment as your own fault, taken to its logical conclusion, could lead to an extreme scenario for the robot age that we here call The Elite Scenario. If, on the other hand, the view becomes widespread that it is unfair to expect that everybody will be able to compete with increasingly able computers and robots, this could if taken to its logical conclusion lead to an equally extreme scenario that we here call The Mass Scenario.

The elite scenario

In this scenario, the elite that enjoy the benefits of automation – basically the people owning the computers and robots – don’t feel any particular motivation to share their wealth with the growing unemployed masses. The elite do not need to hire very many for their companies – just a few technicians and developers – or for their homes. Security guards, chauffeurs, gardeners and cleaning staff will all be robots. If the elite need anything, the machines make or do it for them. A few very skilled artists may receive handouts for live performances or for creating original art for the elite, the way we saw it during the Renaissance.

It used to be that company owners were dependent on a somewhat affluent middle class to purchase their products, but in The Elite Scenario, this is no longer necessary. In a world where an almost unlimited selection of goods and services is available to they who own the machines, true wealth will be to have access to whatever is still in limited supply, particularly land. The disenfranchised masses will be forced to sell what little land they own simply to be able to survive a few years or months more, and since the elite don’t want ‘the rabble’ running around on their property, the masses must huddle together on less and less space. In the very struggle to survive, the masses will be willing to do anything for a bit of food, so the part of the elite that finds satisfaction in letting people work for them instead of machines will not find it difficult to find the needed labour, no matter what the terms. Gladiator fights where only one survives? Sex slaves for a violent psychopath? Everything is better than dying from starvation tomorrow. The upkeep of such a willing labour force is the only motive for the elite to keep the masses alive.

The mass scenario

In this just as extreme scenario, the reigning attitude is that the abundant wealth created by the machines should benefit all of mankind. This is reminiscent of science fiction utopias where there is no need for money because everybody has access to all goods. You only need to do whatever work you find exciting, and as in all ages, there are artists, scientists and inventors who are primarily driven by their creative urge, curiosity or desire for fame.

The reward is the satisfaction and recognition that comes from doing something meaningful that people appreciate. This is not a purely utopian scenario for everybody or even for most. It may well be that you don’t suffer material wants and have ample access to entertainment, but most people lack something even more important: a purpose in life. There is little reason to do anything at all if the machines can do it much better. Where are the new horizons? They have long since been explored by robot probes. Do you have a new idea? The computers will tell you about everybody who had that idea before you. Even destructive rebellion through vandalism is met with forbearing smiles, since everything you destroy is rebuilt the following day.

Utopia or dystopia?

The two scenarios above are extreme visions of futures that still lie decades ahead. The real future will no doubt lie somewhere between the extreme poles of the two scenarios. Precisely what tomorrow’s world will look like depends on human decisions today, and it is up to all of us to contribute to shape the future we want to live in.

Image: Ruin Raider

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