In a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post, “The Brave New World of Robots and Lost Jobs,” David Ignatius discusses the problem that society faces as robots start taking jobs away from people, leaving many of them permanently unemployed:
Job insecurity is a central theme of the 2016 campaign, fueling popular anger about trade deals and immigration. But economists warn that much bigger job losses are ahead in the United States — driven not by foreign competition but by advancing technology.
This is not the first such article to address this issue. A diary written almost three years ago by RobLewis calls our attention to a prediction made by Gartner, as enunciated by Daryl Plummer, that as technology reduces the need for labor, social unrest will be the result. An article reporting on this forecast quotes Tom Seitzberg, who agrees with this bleak future:
“Ultimately, every society lives from the backbone from a strong middle class,” said Seitzberg. “If you get just a top level, a small amount of very rich people and a very large piece of very poor people, it leads to social unrest.”
RobLewis also notes that Paul Krugman, in an article entitled “The Rise of the Robots,” has expressed similar concerns, arguing that the economic benefit of a college education is waning:
If this is the wave of the future, it makes nonsense of just about all the conventional wisdom on reducing inequality. Better education won’t do much to reduce inequality if the big rewards simply go to those with the most assets. Creating an “opportunity society,” or whatever it is the likes of Paul Ryan etc. are selling this week, won’t do much if the most important asset you can have in life is, well, lots of assets inherited from your parents.
What Plummer, Seitzberg and Krugman have in common is their emphasis on the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, while the rest struggle at the level of subsistence.
Economics is usually understood in terms of the production and distribution of goods and services. When John Kenneth Galbraith wrote The Affluent Society in 1958, he argued that the production problem had pretty much been solved. This is truer than ever today. We have it well within our capacity to provide our citizens with the all the necessities and quite a few luxuries. In fact, given the labor theory of value, the less human labor is needed to produce these goods and services, the less they will cost. So technology will only make it easier than ever to produce enough for everyone.
Therefore, it is argued, the problem is distribution. For the most part, we expect people to get what they want by working for it: they sell their labor, and in exchange get the money to buy the goods and services they desire. But according to the views expressed above, that option will become increasingly unavailable to more and more people in the future. Therefore, the problem of distribution will have to become one of redistribution, one of forcing the rich to share their wealth.
That rich people have so much money is really a remarkable thing, because we are free to take it away from them any time we want. They have it only because we let them have it. The fact is, however, that people will tolerate the rich, and even admire them, provided their own needs have been reasonably met. But if the disparity of wealth becomes extreme, the situation becomes untenable. In societies where the people are oppressed through force, revolution is the result. In a democracy like ours, however, confiscatory taxation will suffice. If the rich are as wise as they are wealthy, they will even encourage this redistribution, as a way of buying off the mob. If they are not wise, and there is no evidence to indicate that they are, we will take even more of their money as compensation for their insolence.
So the distribution problem can be solved as easily as we have solved the problem of production. But no sooner is that problem solved than we realize that other questions present themselves: What happens when the link between labor and income has been sundered? What happens when the average person has enough money to provide himself with a decent living without having to work for it? What happens when the robots do all the work, and the goods and services produced by them are fairly distributed among the people?
Some of us can handle leisure. We do not need to work in order for our lives to have meaning. In fact, our lives don’t need to have any meaning at all. It is enough for us to while away the time indulging in harmless pleasures, be they sensuous or intellectual, allowing the years to pass effortlessly, until an inconvenient death puts an end to all our enjoyments.
But there are those for whom leisure is a curse. I have known people who, at the end of a three-day weekend, will say that they are so glad it is over, because they were becoming bored and restless. These are the people who will blithely say that they will never retire, that they will work until they drop, in part because they think they will not have enough money to retire, but mostly because their idea of retirement is an insufferable three-day weekend that never ends.
Since the robots have not taken over yet, technology at this time has merely left us with underemployment and declining real wages. One solution would be to allow all those for whom a life of leisure is the ideal form of existence to receive a government check without working for it. For example, there was an initiative presented to the people of Switzerland which, if passed, would have provided every adult with an income of $2,800 per month. That would certainly have been enough for me to quit my job and never turn a lick again. It was rejected, however. In any event, given some such policy, those who need to work could continue to do the jobs that still remain, so that their lives can have meaning, and receive the additional income. Unfortunately, those who need to work, and who say it is the meaning in their lives, nevertheless tend to resent those who seem to get along just fine without it. Like the dog in the manger, they cannot stand to be idle, and yet they are outraged by those who indulge themselves in the very idleness they abhor. There is no need to be overly concerned with this problem of resentment, however, because as time goes by, and robots take over more and more of the jobs, there will not be enough work left for humans to do, even after all the lazy people have removed themselves from the workforce.
Although a college education is not the solution, as far as making people employable is concerned, it may be the solution to making people suitable for unemployment by giving them the real skills needed for the twenty-first century, the ones needed for a life of leisure. Instead of emphasizing all those skills that robots can do better anyway, we should encourage a solid foundation in a liberal arts education, with special emphasis on that most useless of all disciplines, my major and lifelong avocation, philosophy. The problems of philosophy, being perennial, can provide the intellect with unlimited amusement. Nor need we fear that artificial intelligence will solve these problems and leave us with nothing to do. What chance do robots have of figuring out the mind-body problem, of making sense of free will, or discovering the meaning of life, even if they are the ones doing all the work that supposedly provides it?
Not everyone is suited for a life of contemplation, however. Perhaps the legalization of marijuana would help. Marijuana is apparently pretty good at snuffing out ambition, a formerly useful passion, but without the need for work, a troublesome, mischief-making drive. Those for whom a love of leisure does not come naturally may be able to acquire an appreciation for it with the help of a little weed.
Unfortunately, there will still remain those who need to work, for whom the above remedies will not suffice. A lot of them will simply be bored, and marriages will fail as husbands and wives get on each other’s nerves. And then there is the fear is that without the exhaustion that comes with toil, people will become perverted and cruel, and violence will become the entertainment of choice. With the elimination of poverty and inequality, the social unrest that arises from an unfair distribution of wealth may be replaced by the social unrest of boredom, in which mobs go on a rampage just for something to do.
Perhaps the final solution will come when the robots replace us entirely. After all, it is not obvious that the elimination of man and his replacement by robots would necessarily be a bad thing. I suppose the first issue to address is whether robots would be conscious, since the conception of robots as mindless automata would seem rather bleak. Though science fiction movies seldom include dialogue directly addressing the question of robot consciousness, most of us automatically assume that robots in movies are indeed conscious. Whether it be Robby the Robot of Forbidden Planet (1956), HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Colossus of Colossus: The Forbin Project(1970), or the title character of The Terminator (1984), along with countless other examples, these computers or robots in the movies always seem to be conscious. In real life, on the other hand, we never attribute consciousness to computers and robots. Though designers and programmers may get better at making robots simulate human nature, even to the point of claiming to perceive the world around them, to have desires, and even to feel pain, yet we are likely to suspect that it is all just a very good case of mimicry. In all likelihood, the simulation will eventually reach the point where we will presume consciousness on the part of real robots just as we do with their movie counterparts. In any event, as the problem of other minds has always been insoluble even when restricted to people, it will presumably be no less so with robots.
It all may come down to religion. Those who believe that man has an immortal soul that survives the body will suppose that it is this soul that is the seat of consciousness. Robots, not having a soul, will be mindless. Atheists, on the other hand, suppose that one way or another, the conscious mind is something that naturally arises out of matter, and they see no reason why robots will not eventually become conscious too, if they are not so already.
Death will probably come to robots as it does to man, in the sense that machines eventually wear out to the point that repairing them is impractical. However, robot immortality may be achievable nevertheless. Regarding the notion of reincarnation, Leibniz once said that if you tell him that when he dies, he will immediately be reborn in another body, but with no memory of his present life, then you might just as well tell him that when he dies, someone else will be born. And that is because memory is essential to any kind of immortality worth having. You can clone my body, so that someone genetically identical to me will exist in the future, but if that clone does not have my memories, he will still be someone else. But if my memories could be transferred into that clone, then indeed I would count myself as having survived death. What can only be imagined in man could easily be carried out in robots, as memories downloaded from one could be uploaded into another.
But immortality is a good only if life itself is good, and given the misery of existence, I sometimes have my doubts. Now, I have been pretty lucky, as far as health and finances are concerned, and if everyone were as well off as I have been over my lifetime, I guess I would admit that life is good enough. But, regarding reincarnation again, if I had the choice of being reborn after I die, with no control over where in the world I would be born or in what circumstances, I think I might pass on that. The odds are just too great that my next life would be miserable.
But this would not be a problem for robots. Assuming they will have consciousness, we can be sure that they will design themselves so as not to experience any more pain than necessary to avoid harm, and which in any event may be turned off at will. This would be a great triumph in the evolution of life. We evolved to survive long enough to have babies that can survive long enough to have babies, and if we must experience much pain and suffering in the process, that is just too bad. But robots can adjust their sensations to meet their needs, and needless suffering, that great objection to existence itself, can at least be eliminated from this small section of the universe. Having conquered death, robots would also conquer suffering. As a result, robots would not have to bother much about morality, for in a world where you cannot hurt or kill someone, it is hard to imagine what immoral behavior would look like. For a world like that, the elimination of mankind would be a small price to pay.
Just as robots will design themselves to keep from having unnecessary pain, so too will they be able to produce unlimited pleasure. They will not have sex, of course, but there is no reason to suppose that they could not induce feelings of ecstasy in themselves, once they came up with the right circuitry. This could be their downfall. Once they figure out that trick, they may end up lying around all day in a self-induced high, not caring whether anything gets done. Long before they get around to wiping out man, they may be too wiped out to care, and man will simply stroll in, step over the robots, and start having to do the work that they are too wasted to perform. If we cannot keep them from hitting the pleasure button, we may just have run the world ourselves after all.