Humans Need not Apply: what to do with mass unemployment

AI is a far reaching concern that stretches much further than an immediate need for a better understanding of where ethics come from. It goes to the heart of economics as well. Automation has reduced the number of manual labourers, which has permitted highly skilled specialisations in medicine, science, engineering, philosophy, technology, politics and more automation.

It has seemed clear to many people for quite some time that the cerebral tasks of of human occupation will never succumb to the same fate as the manual labourer. However, this seems false. Progress in artificial intelligence is making very real in-roads into brain-labour tasks of the economy. Deep Blue may have been a highly specialised computer that could beat a human at chess, but that was a very simple iterative algorithm. Google’s Deepmind is a more complex learning algorithm that can learn multiple different tasks without pre-coding specific. And that program beats humans at the chess-on-steroids board game called ‘Go’. The rules are simpler, but the strategies are factorially more complex. And Deepmind learned to win, as opposed to being coded with an existing algorithm that was actually the direct product of a human mind.

Slightly less efficient bots that run off the same principles are already making it towards the market of home-help and industry. Natural language bots are already used to write some news articles―especially in the sports section―and if it can do that, how long before it can write that quarterly review, and then the management plan? There is no inherent reason it can’t.

But robots will make human unemployed before that progress is made. Automated baristas already exist, driverless taxis and long-haulage are already possible, very efficient medical diagnostic bots already exist, using the natural language of the patient.

Politically, now is a good time to start talking about how to deal with the massive automation revolution and following unemployment. We may say that we can no longer ‘afford’ public services, and basic survival. But, what does “afford” mean in this situation? If you sit and think about it, the vacuousness of money and finances is explicit in a world where 50% of people in developed countries are unemployed and there are no other jobs to be done: progress and productivity are still being achieved.

Even I―a democratic socialist―cannot justify 50% of the working age population supporting everyone. But, the answer seems to be that money is the problem. The answer seems to be a system without money. A techno-communism. Another answer might be for the government to run all trade to make the commodities to support the country (the Saudi Arabian oil model).

Another answer is to make these bots implantable bio-upgrades, lie to ourselves that the ‘human’ is doing the work and―obviously―price the poor out of the implant market, perpetuate the cycle of poverty and have all this end in disaster. That’s not just a blatant satire of Conservatives and Republicans, as well as a plot to a book (you’re welcome), but a stark warning about things we really need to watch for and talk about. Because, I’m just cynical enough to think politicians will aim at option B.

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14 thoughts on “Humans Need not Apply: what to do with mass unemployment”

  1. For a very long time, the futurists predicted things like the four-hour work day or the 20-hour work week as a response to technology. Clearly this doesn’t suit the thinking of those paying wages. Our current economy is showing that things requiring significant people skills are earning massive salaries (sports starts, surgeons, lawyers, etc.) but that ordinary labor, well, pah, anybody could do that.

    This ignores whether or not anybody would do the manual labor, which is why so much of the back-breaking labor in this country is done by immigrants, who are glad for the work. What happens when intelligent robots are available to do manual labor? That depends upon the value of the labor and the cost of the robots. I suspect that it may still be cheaper to to have human slaves, aka workers, do such work.

    The ironic thing is the conservatives’ heads will explode when there is no remunerative work for many of the “underclasses” which will then have to be given a dole or they will revolt out of hunger. Corporate greed ends up in either a dole-based culture or a populist revolt! (Why the rich care is beyond me. They have their gated communities and their offshore bank accounts and multiple homes with the boats and planes to get back and forth, yet they still seem determined to fashion a future for the rest of us.)

    1. The common American has traditionally done “all the manual labor.”

      The rich and disconnected hallucinate that only immigrants will do such work.

      I, like 10’s of millions of other commoners, lived well off of manual labor in my lifetime, like the generations that came before me.

      And I only went to college so I could make an easier life for myself.

      Neither America nor Europe needs immigrants to do the so-called “dirty work.”

      That is an urban myth that the unscrupulous, greedy, detached Ruling Class tells its lame-brained, profligate, amoral children.

      1. As someone who has lived with British people who refuse factory work, and worked with eastern Europeans who are proud to work hard, I’m not sure how you’ve decided that’s an urban myth.

        1. Allallt,

          Plenty of people here in the US also refuse to do factory work.

          But as with Britain, many more do not and would not.

          It is a myth that immigrant labor is needed to do undesirable jobs.

          The real reason is a population bust.

          Germany for example, simply cannot maintain its economy without importing foreign labor.

  2. On this topic, the past and distant past can lend us a helpful and hopeful hand.

    In ancient Greece ( circa 500 BC) the economy was powered by slaves – lots and lots of slaves.

    That left the average citizen to a life of leisure. And that leisure is what led to an intellectual, philosophical and artistic BOOM-zilla that formed the foundation of Western Civilization.

    In the 18th century, in his, “The Wealth of Nations,” Adam Smith chronicles the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the stupendous, almost unimaginable increase in productivity that resulted from the division of labor into processes composed of basic tasks.

    In the mid to late 20th century it became possible to organize and manipulate information over global networks.

    This caused another explosion of wealth and productivity because unlike a physical good which could only be used until it was exhausted, information could be used an infinite number of times and ways to produce wealth.

    The effect was a free market economy that possessed the capacity to produce infinite wealth.

    Enter artificial intelligence.

    Far from causing unemployment, it will allow the creation of wealth in unimaginable ways.

    Imagine each person owning his own team of AI-powered companions.

    Local AI-powered factory production and productivity would bestow global volumes of wealth on the individual common man.

    Society would see another golden age of art, science, exploration, wealth and leisure.

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