Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Future of Human Labor

Brao Couple Planting Food by BigBrotherMouse - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As we see more and more jobs becoming obsolete due to automation or computer technology changing the way we do things, it's natural to ask where this will eventually lead. How much will society change in the long run if these trends continue?

The conventional wisdom has always been that some jobs will never be replaced by machines, and that for the jobs that do get replaced, new higher skilled jobs appear in their place. But the real answer stems from a simple concept that is almost certain to be true, provided we don't destroy ourselves in the meantime:

At some point in the future, there will be no job that a human can do better than a machine.

If you're already on board with that idea, then you won't need me to try and convince you, but it constantly surprises me how strongly most people seem to object to this idea, as though somehow the identity or intrinsic value of human beings depends on it.

So if you object to this idea, the first thing to do is to stop and genuinely, honestly ask yourself if you object because of some evidence that you think refutes it, or if you object because you don't like it. I suspect that most people simply don't like the idea of humans becoming effectively obsolete, or that they need to believe that humans have something special about us, some soul or spirit or spark that makes us different to everything else, and that could never be replicated by a cold, calculating machine.

And so you hear all the things that machines can never do, in their opinion. And while, right now, there are still plenty of things that machines can't do yet, every day there are more and more things that they can do. If you recognize that the human brain is incredibly complicated, but still just a physical object, you can see that, theoretically, there is no reason why that kind of complexity can't be replicated artificially. And without the constraints of evolution via natural selection, it can probably be done better and more efficiently, since you don't necessarily need a sequence of incremental improvements in order to get there. This opens the door to a lot of alternative processes when designing and building things.

It's interesting just how similar the "there are things machines will never be able to do" argument is to the "science can never explain everything" argument, and I think they're both fueled by the same need. A lot of people want their religious beliefs to be true (obviously), and they see scientific explanation of everything as removing the need for a creator. So they list things that science can't explain, and over time science explains more and more, and so they keep sticking to their "god of the gaps" arguments and trying to identify things that science hasn't yet answered. But this is just being led by what you want to be true, not what is true. Reality doesn't care about what you want, it is whether you accept it or not.

As with the god of the gaps, so to with the 'human ability of the gaps', and these gaps will keep on disappearing over time, until eventually there are none left.

So, without belaboring the point further, let's say that machines keep on improving, machine intelligence gets better, robotics gets better. What jobs are safe from that?

Think about how aircraft pilots have gradually had more and more responsibility replaced by computers, and at least under ideal circumstances, planes can take off, fly, then land all on their own. Over time, they'll be able to handle more and more of the less ideal circumstances, until the only reason to have a person at the controls is to comfort passengers. The same is true for self driving vehicles. These were a fantasy 10 years ago, and already it's become pretty clear to most people that they're going to happen.

People are only comforted by humans controlling things when the automated versions aren't very good. As soon as automated versions outperform people, humans at the controls immediately seem like a liability. How many young people insist on going to physical banks and using a bank teller because they just don't trust their online banking to do as good a job?

You could argue that jobs involving social and human aspects can never go. This is certainly interesting. We definitely need human contact. But consider, for example, just how much people's social patterns have changed over the past 10 years. How much do people happily have their faces glued to their computer/tablet or smart phone rather than interacting with the actual physical people around them? Don't underestimate the ability of people to adjust socially when technology lets them trade one aspect of social interaction for others. In this case, the actual physical presence of another person is traded for the ability to communicate with lots of people at once, and to drop in and out of conversation based on their interest, in a way that would be socially unacceptable in face to face communication.

So where does this lead us, in the long run?

The limits on providing a higher standard of living for all human beings come down to the availability of physical resources, and the availability of labor to turns those physical resources into useful tangible goods or provide services. The more of these you can get for free, the more you can improve the average quality of life for free.

So imagine more automated machinery to get those resources. Imagine machines to refine those resources and turn them into useful items. Imagine if you could go from digging up minerals through to the creation of, say, solar panel arrays or wind turbines, without any human involvement. Imagine if you could build and deploy water desalination plants and pipelines without any human involvement. Imagine if you could collect, sort, and recycle waste without any human involvement.

One possible future, if we humans could get out of our own way, is a future where our basic needs are provided for us, and where no one actually needs to work. If everything could be done better by machines, you wouldn't need or want humans doing those things. Sound crazy? Sure, but there's really no good technological reason why it couldn't happen. If it doesn't happen, it's because we fuck it up for ourselves, because that small minority of people who need to be richer and more powerful than everyone else will do their best to stop something like this happening.

Now, you might say, if machines could do everything better, then what would be the point of living? What would people do? To which I would say, do you need to be the best author in the world to enjoy writing a book? Do you need to be the best athlete in the world to enjoy playing a sport? Do you need to be the best cook in the world to enjoy making a meal? Do you need to be the best lover in the world to enjoy sex?

A future where no one needs to work is a future where people do things because they want to, not because they need to. Think of all the things you never get around to because you don't have enough time. All the things that you'd like to do someday. Think of all the people you'd like to catch up with or spend more time with. Think of all the hobbies you've never even considered taking up because of time. Think of all the books, movies, TV shows, games, music, plays and works of art you wish you had time to enjoy.

Right now we live in a world where the vast majority of people are less well off and suffer more than you do. People are dying all the time due to lack of basic resources and medicine, and struggling their whole lives just to survive. If you could live in a world where all these people could enjoy a reasonable standard of living, without fear or desperation, and no one ever had to work a day in their lives if they didn't want to, and the only real cost is that a tiny fraction of us might have to give up being super rich assholes, would that really be such a bad tradeoff?

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