Thoughts On The Future Economy

As I’ve been writing my Space, Time, and the Mind posts, I’ve been thinking a lot about technology and artificial intelligence (AI).  Eventually I want to write about AI since it is our attempt to emulate the actions of the human mind, building intelligent machines which can do various tasks for us.  That got me thinking about the economy in the future.

If you’ve studied economics, you’re probably familiar with a concept called “jobless growth”.  It is a phenomenon where the economy grows but there are no new jobs being created for workers.  Ultimately I think technology and automation brought about by intelligent machines will eventually make the human worker obsolete.  In the beginning, relatively unskilled labor will be replaced by robots, but later all of us will be unnecessary.  When I went to Steak and Shake the other day, I saw a young woman in the back making burgers and thought, “Twenty to thirty years from now, I can easily imagine a robot doing that job.”  The same applies to waitress positions.  With time, truck drivers and warehouse workers will be replaced.  Super market cashiers, shelf stockers, and janitors could all be replaced.  All these unskilled positions will likely be replaced and automated by intelligent robots.  That brings up another question.  How in the future will these displaced workers find jobs and earn their living?

It’s a bit sad to think of a future that doesn’t need us, a future where we’re little more than the robots’ domesticated playthings.  I’d like to quote a passage from a rather surprising source.

But suppose now that industrial society does survive the next several decade and that the bugs do eventually get worked out of the system, so that it functions smoothly. What kind of system will it be? We will consider several possibilities.

First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better that human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained.

If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can’t make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines. It might be argued that the human race would never be foolish enough to hand over all the power to the machines. But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decision for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better result than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.

On the other hand it is possible that human control over the machines may be retained. In that case the average man may have control over certain private machines of his own, such as his car or his personal computer, but control over large systems of machines will be in the hands of a tiny elite — just as it is today, but with two difference. Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the elite is ruthless the may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity. If they are humane they may use propaganda or other psychological or biological techniques to reduce the birth rate until the mass of humanity becomes extinct, leaving the world to the elite. Or, if the elite consist of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to play the role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race. They will see to it that everyone’s physical needs are satisfied, that all children are raised under psychologically hygienic conditions, that everyone has a wholesome hobby to keep him busy, and that anyone who may become dissatisfied undergoes “treatment” to cure his “problem.” Of course, life will be so purposeless that people will have to be biologically or psychologically engineered either to remove their need for the power process or to make them “sublimate” their drive for power into some harmless hobby. These engineered human beings may be happy in such a society, but they most certainly will not be free. They will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals.

Who do you think wrote that?  A prominent philosopher?  A futurist?  An economist?  No, not quite.  It was written by the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.  I’m certainly no apologist for his cause, and find his idea of bombing innocent people to bring attention to his ideas appalling.  Even so, he makes some powerful arguments.  He felt that our technology was going to, at worst, lead to the extermination of our species, and at best, create a miserable world without purpose or meaning.

I already see unskilled labor being displaced.  Most people think that we need to create education programs and help such workers get into more highly skilled positions.  After all, we all need to carry our weight.  Our workforce needs to step up and compete.  Or do we?  One thing to consider is this:  our technology is supposed to make life easier for us, not harder.  You’d think if we automated a job with robots we could relax and let them handle the work while we reap the rewards.  Instead, our intelligent machines will leave us working harder and, even worse, unemployed.  We’ll have to work our butts off studying at universities, having to master more and more difficult material in order to be able to contribute to the economy and land a decent paying job.  Also, not everyone has an analytical type of mind, capable of doing difficult mental work.  Considering this, it seems inevitable that once technology reaches this point (and it’s not all that far away), unskilled people need to be given a comfortable minimum amount of wages even if they’re not currently employed.

What!  Are you crazy Jason?  That’s the ultimate welfare state!  Yes, it is.  But we’re entering a new age that’s unlike anything humanity has ever experienced.  When robots are doing all the grunt work, performing all the menial tasks to support our everyday existence, humans should relax, and not be forced to compete with the technology designed to help them.  Scientists and other highly skilled positions should continue their jobs, and help improve the machines until they too are displaced.  During the transition, however, once a robot takes your job you should be able to just sit back and enjoy yourself.  Let the robots serve you in the restaurants, go see a movie, visit the lake and go fishing, learn a hobby, read some books, compose music, and just do whatever you want to do.  If you want to work for fun, that’s fine, but you shouldn’t have to.

I know this is troubling, but we really will be worthless at this point.  It will be harder for the average person to find any meaning to their existence.  Nobody will need you outside of emotional bonds, such as love.  But even that will likely be replaced.  People will find their lovers in virtual reality, and probably fall in love with AI beings who are better lovers than you could ever be.  People may well fall in love with realistic robots.  The upcoming world is crazy.  It’s really hard to put your head around it.  And you want to know what’s worse?  This is pretty much inevitable.  It’s not like people are going to stop improving technology.

I don’t know what to think of a world where robots can outperform us in every way.  We pick up a guitar and play in a restaurant.  Then a robot plays the next song and makes you look terrible, even if you’re the best human guitar master alive.  And if we merge with the machines, we lose our individuality and uniqueness.  In many ways, we become one.  We can share abilities, memories, experiences, and everything else, just as easily a networked computers can share files.  Who and what are we?  What does all this mean?  On the plus side, we can understand one another better than ever before, but that’s not to say there’s no downsides.

How will we manage and distribute our resources?  There’s several ways to look at that problem, but I’ll share my own view on the matter.  The main factors you need to keep in mind is nanotechnology and virtual reality.  Currently scientists are building what are called nanofactories.  These machines have billions of micro-machines, conveyor belts, and lifts.  They take raw materials and produce anything you desire, molecule by molecule.  Watch for yourself.

Our future economy will be geared around sharing what you create.  As for physical products, you’ll share information and blueprints.  I imagine that everyone will have nanofactory appliances in their homes, and if we see a product we like, we’ll simply download the blueprints off the internet and have a nanofactory assemble one for us.  When we’re finished with something, similar technology will dismantle it back into the raw materials.  If every type of food and product can be produced by such methods, why should people have to work jobs?  There’s no need.  People should focus on being creative and sharing what they create.  Most economic theories revolve around scarcity.  Even in this system there is scarcity, but it’s limited to the raw materials and energy to use in the production.  These changes are going to require us to rethink the economy.

Once people have nanofactory appliances, will people even need to work or earn money?   The only time you’d need money is when nanofactories cannot produce what you’re wanting.  Overall though, most all labor will be truly voluntary.  I can’t imagine people easily being forced to do things.  They won’t have to worry about bills or grocery money.  They’ll be able to produce any food they need by pressing a button on their nanofactory appliances.  We can make it a mandated law that every household have access to nanofactory appliances and a certain liberal amount of raw materials and energy.  Projects which use a lot of raw materials, energy, and public land can be voted upon.  As for who gets the most land to build on, that will probably go to whoever is the most creative.  If you produce music people like, or design some helpful invention, or something else creative, then people can “like” your blueprint, and you get rewarded with land, and maybe computational power.  I don’t know.  There will certainly be a shift in what’s considered valuable.

This is where I worry.  Once the masses are useless, as Kaczynski points out, the elite may well just have them exterminated so that they can have the entire world for themselves.  Sadly, I see this as a very strong possibility.  If we don’t blow ourselves up with nuclear weapons, bioengineer a plague which kills us all, or pollute our planet to an extent to which its uninhabitable, we may well survive only to be slaughtered by the greed of powerful elites.

You know, sometimes I wish I wasn’t a thinking person.  I saw a young man the other day with his girlfriend.  They were holding hands, smiling, laughing, and I seriously doubt any of these things were of any concern to them.  I chose to pursue the truth about this world and learn what makes it tick.  I find myself baffled by quantum mechanics, troubled by the forces running our economy, and blown away by what the future may hold for humanity — everything from pure bliss where humans are practically gods, to mass extermination, even dystopian scenarios of pure misery and slavery ruled by transhuman overlords.  Sadly, this deep knowledge I now possess makes me sound like a crackpot to the average person, who has no idea what I’m talking about.  Honestly, my mind often feels so rattled that I don’t care anymore.

Bertrand Russell felt that the human race would annihilate itself if technology continued to progress yet humanity lacked an understanding as to the scientific principles which make it all work. I agree with him. I feel like we’re placing a powerful gun in the hands of a young child. Superstitions, hatred, greed, I really wonder if we’re capable of handling the powerful technology of the upcoming century. I don’t think we’re ready, but there’s no stopping it. We’ll see if we make it out alive.

In the meantime, as long as humanity trudges on and robots replace us in the workplace, I worry that many will continue to hold an antiquated mindset toward labor, and a lot of suffering will result.  It’s still commonly held that everyone should have to earn their way in the world.  I believe in hard work, but we work to reap the fruits of our labor, not to work in and of itself (unless you enjoy the work, which is a small minority of cases).  If robots can do it, let them do it.  If I live a normal lifespan by today’s standards, I expect to see this being a huge problem by the time I’m an older man.  I’m currently 28 years old, and in thirty years I’ll be around sixty.  By then, I expect robots to be powerful enough to very easily do unskilled labor as well as a human.  I don’t know how long before we’ll have nanofactories, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them within my lifetime as well.  I’d be surprised to see robots doing creative work as well as human beings during my lifetime, but overall, that’s not far off either.  It’ll happen before the century ends.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts On The Future Economy”

  1. Outstandingly thoughtful and, I think, prescient post, Jason! Thank you. I’m linking to it on Facebook and sharing it via e-mail with my friends.

    Decades ago, I was struck by a passage from Alan Watts where he said that machines would someday take over so much of our work tasks that people would need to be paid for the work those machines did on their behalf. Now, as you say, that appears to be inevitable or, at least, necessary if most of the human population doesn’t end up starving because they can’t earn money to buy life’s necessities. But I, like you, worry about the suffering that will ensue while world economies make the transition to this new model.

    And I also agree that not everyone is suited to learn to perform the increasingly higher-order tasks that future jobs that pay a livable wage will require.

    But you raised a point I hadn’t fully realized before when you wrote about the paradox of how, in creating machines to make our lives simpler and easier, we’re making our lives more complex and difficult on the job, for those of us who still have jobs, and off.

    Your ruminations on nanotechnology and nanofactories are mind-boggling. I too wonder if people will find life worth living in such a world. I’m 30 years older than you and don’t expect to see things get to the point you describe, but you may well see this dystopian or, perhaps, utopian world by the time you’re my age. I don’t know whether to envy you or pity you. I can certainly understand your apprehensions, but I suppose I would simply counsel you to cultivate a kind of Buddhist anchoring in the present so that you absorb yourself in what interests you and realize that even when you’re anticipating potentially unpleasant futures, you’re doing it in the here and now. “This is it,” as Alan Watts used to say.

    But, again, I’m extremely impressed by your post. I think it may be your most thoughtfully provocative one yet, at least of the ones I’ve read.

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