Robots and Post-Scarcity Society

November 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Imagine a future reminiscent of the future featured in Frederik Pohl’s “The Midas Plague”, in which the entirety of the labor needed to provide for humanity’s needs and wants is performed by machines that operate automatically–by robots.

This is hardly a new idea; a century and a half ago, many people were convinced that the ever-increasing mechanization and industrialization of production would soon relegate labor as it was then known to the dustbin of history. To a certain extent, this is exactly what came to pass; the kind of work that the majority of people perform in postindustrial societies today is markedly different from the kind that the majority of people performed a hundred and fifty years ago. And yet, there have been–and there will continue to be–growing pains.

As production grows increasingly automatized, the participation of human beings in various sectors of the economy becomes obsolete. Over two hundred years ago, the growth of textile mills took over the market niche previously occupied by textile artisans; in recent decades, robots employed by the automobile manufacture industry similarly took over much of the niche previously occupied by automobile workers. Of course, new professions are also created in the process; someone, after all, must direct and design the robots that build cars. However, it is not at all clear that the number of jobs automatization creates is greater than the number it renders obsolete; rather, the opposite seems to be intuitively true, since a single design can can be replicated in a manner limited only by the available resources. Population growth serves to compound this problem. And what happens when even the direction, design, and production of automata themselves becomes automatized?

Even as the capacity for production increases, then, the rate of unemployment increases, the portion of the population that is able to afford the product in question decreases, and prices consequently plummet, along with profits. In fact, it is precisely this sort of crisis of overproduction (or, perhaps more accurately, underconsumption) that is classically held to have been the primary cause of the Great Depression. Keynesian economics proposed to remedy  this problem through government spending programs that would put people to work in public-works projects and thus provide them with sufficient funds to resume consumption. Yet this solution has a fairly ridiculous air to it; if private-sector work can be automated, can’t public-sector work be as well? If so, human labor in public-works projects is labor for the sole sake of distributing funds to the people performing the labor, which seems a fairly irrational solution to an equally irrational problem.

All this seems to imply one of three possibilities with regards to the notion of a fully-automatized society. First, it is possible that an endless sequence of crises of overproduction/underconsumption will so impede economic growth as to render such a society an unreachable goal. Second, it is possible that such a society is in our future, and we will cope with it by employing close to the whole of the population in public-works projects that could be performed more efficiently by machines, for the sole purpose of providing people with the funds needed to consume the products of the machines. Finally, it is possible that such a society is in our future, and we will cope with it in a rational manner by revising our economic system, particularly with regards to the ownership of property. In a future in which goods are no longer scarce and require no labor on the part of humans to produce, ownership (in the modern sense of the word) of such goods would make as little sense as ownership of air does today.

Richard W.

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