December 2, 2014 – A utopian world is possible if we act prudently.
By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond
Long ago I recognized the inevitability of the eventual replacement of all human laborers with machines and have often ruminated on what such a world would look like. That future is rapidly approaching, clearly evident in the constantly rising unemployment figures, not just in the U.S., but globally. Although people continue to hope in vain that the next “recovery” will bring the jobs back, in many instances the jobs are being lost to machines and therefore, will never return. Nevertheless, the human population and thus, the number of potential human laborers continues to rise, which is in obvious contradiction to the trend toward automation, so something’s got to change. Either we have to terminate the trend toward automation and put people back to work, or we have to have fewer human laborers or we have to find some way to accommodate all the humans for whom no jobs exist.
Decades ago when people dreamed of future utopian worlds – instead of paying attention in school, my childhood classmates and I used to spend hours drawing blueprints of utopian communities – they generally imagined a world in which people were freed from the rigors of hard labor and could spend their time improving their intellects. For most people today such utopian fantasies have been displaced by a carnal desperation to merely survive. Are dreams of utopian worlds just that? Dreams? Or are such worlds feasible?
Although I believe the current human population is too large for planet Earth to sustain, I also believe that the planet contains sufficient resources to sustain a smaller human population in relative luxury, in which every person would live in comfort and be free to pursue the utopian dream of improving their self, especially if we utilize the planet’s resources prudently and sustainably instead of rapaciously.
Although today’s trend of replacing humans with robots is accelerating, the origins of this trend date back centuries, with the steam engine arguably being the first great leap. Continual advances in the technology of computers, robotics, materials and energy, along with relentless pressure to maintain profits assures that the automation trend will not only continue but accelerate. It’s reasonable to conclude that going forward every conceivable human task that can be performed by a robot or a computer will be, regardless of the upside down logic in rendering unemployed the very consumers of one’s product. The shortsighted requirements of profitability outweigh the long term need for sustainability.
A tiny sampling of recent headlines serves as the proverbial writing on the wall regarding the future of human employment:
Tesla Motors Part 1: Behind the Scenes of how the Tesla Model S is Made-The Window-WIRED
As Smoothie Store Sales Slow, Jamba Juice Turns to Machines
47% Of All Jobs Will Be Automated By 2034, And 'No Government Is Prepared' Says Economist
Economic Elite Announce Plan to Replace Human Labor with Machines
Amazon deploys 10,000 robot workers
US Army considers replacing thousands of troops with robots
Even future warfare will be automated, beginning with aerial drones today and ending with fully simulated computer warfare as posited in the original Star Trek episode titled, “A Taste of Armageddon.” As Anan 7 in the TV episode proudly attests, “Our civilization lives. The people die, but our culture goes on.” While it’s debatable whether a “civilization” in which people are routinely selected for death by a computer is a worthwhile one, in a culture like ours that values “stuff” more than life, there is a coldly efficient, computer-like logic in dispatching human beings while sparing everything else. In a future world in which humans won’t even be needed for wartime cannon fodder, how else will we get rid of “excess” human beings except by indiscriminately selecting them for destruction as in the aforementioned Star Trek episode.
As usual, the government is gearing up for the future of diminishing human employment by going in the wrong direction. Instead of figuring out how to accommodate all the people who will be unemployed in the future, the government is criminalizing poverty and setting up a system of job rationing, otherwise known as the employment eligibility verification system, which is really just a means for the government to decide who gets a job and who does not, with the emphasis being on the latter going forward.
For centuries defenders of property rights – I have long been such a person – have used property rights to justify the relentless acquisition of wealth by a handful of elites. The problem with defending that noble ideal, however, is that human beings are flawed and some have a tendency to hoard things, such as wealth, far beyond any rational need. Thus, directing profits exclusively to the owners of the means of production produces a bifurcated society of haves and have-nots, educated and ignorant, healthy and sick, intelligent and stupid, owners and slaves. Aside from the obvious “unfairness” of such a system, it’s an unbalanced, unsustainable system driven by greed and competition that inevitably produces booms and busts, as well as wars.
As an alternative to the traditional model of profit distribution, sharing profits with both the owners of the means of production and the workers displaced by automation would elevate the standard of living of everyone, as well as result in a more sustainable system by naturally lowering the population without resorting to draconian measures, such as Agenda 21, wars, vaccines and GMO foods.
One mechanism by which this profit sharing might be accomplished is that each worker displaced by a machine would receive a percentage of that machine’s output, which would give both the owners and the workers an incentive to automate. Displaced workers could then choose to look for a new job or live off the royalties from their former, now automated job. As workers are displaced from more and more jobs over time, their royalties would accumulate until they could eventually support themselves on their royalties alone, without working. Eventually all work would be performed by machines, and humans could reap the benefits. In such a future world, humans who chose to work would work on things that interested them but without financial compensation, for there would be no need for money. Their compensation would consist of public recognition of their achievements or discoveries.
If all jobs are performed by robots and all resources come from the earth and the sun and there is no longer any incentive for people to hoard wealth, then there’s no reason why “things” have to cost anything at all. For instance, if a human wanted an automobile, robots would dig the ore from the ground, robots would turn the ore into metal and robots would build the vehicle. Robots would also design the automobiles, build and maintain the factories in which the automobiles are built, and design and manufacture the robots that dig the ore, refine the metal and assemble the automobiles. So why would an automobile produced by such a system have to cost us humans anything? Putting a price on such a vehicle would be purely artificial and serve only to enrich another human being. But in a world in which everything was free and we didn’t need money, putting a monetary price on things would be as meaningless as the monetary prices we place on properties in the game of Monopoly.
The only people who would insist on putting artificial prices on such goods would be those who wish to control other people and would use money as the control mechanism.
Naturally, the ruling elites would resist such egalitarian changes with every fiber of their being, even though such sharing would still leave those elites exceedingly well off and even more secure than they are now because they wouldn’t be surrounded by a mass of impoverished, uneducated people. People suffering from what I designate as a mental illness of “pathological greed” can never be satisfied with “enough” or even “a lot”; they want it “all” even though it is logically impossible for every such mentally ill person to have it all. Only one person can have it all and only at the expense of everybody else having nothing. Even then I doubt such people would be satisfied; they’d want everything on Earth and then some.
We certainly need to change both our political and business systems to prevent psychopaths from dominating them. In politics, perhaps the random selection of politicians, just like the random selection of jurors would solve problem. In business, perhaps the profit sharing mechanism followed by the obviation of money as I described above would solve the problem.
There is at least one fly in the ointment of this potential utopian future: peak oil. Peak oil may interrupt and reverse the trend to automation, which might not be a bad thing either. Overnight we could return to a “world made by hand,” to paraphrase James Kunstler’s book title, restoring everyone to full employment. Of course, if “free” energy sources are truly available and are being kept from the public, then peak oil may be irrelevant.
Interestingly, we are already on the path to obviating work. Look at the employment statistics. The U.S. labor force participation rate is down to 63% and falling, which means that only two thirds of those capable of working are working. Furthermore, around half the U.S. population is receiving some form of financial support from the government. These two statistics indicate that a significant portion of the working population is not working and yet it has not expired, so how is it being supported? Most of the support comes in the form of government entitlements, but the funds for those entitlements come from the productive output of the private sector, output that’s increasingly generated by robots. So in effect, robots are already generating revenue, a portion of which is paid to the government in the form of taxes, and those taxes are used to fund entitlements that are paid to people rendered unemployed by the very same robots.
While I viscerally recoil at the idea of supporting “freeloaders,” it might just turn out that this system we have is the path to a future in which all work is performed by robots and humans are free to focus on self improvement. Unfortunately, given my low opinion of the human species, I suspect that the majority of those feeding off the public teat today are not focusing on self improvement, but are more likely downloading porn, sleeping, partying, drinking, gulping down illicit and pharmaceutical drugs and lounging on the sofa while eating junk food and being mesmerized by the TV. I doubt that there are many unemployed people improving their physical fitness, learning to play a musical instrument, writing philosophy or poetry, painting or sculpting, or generally trying to become a better human being.
There’s another potential outcome that’s rather depressing, which is that humans, deprived of the need to solve problems may experience intellectual degeneration, a phenomenon clearly in progress already. While I’ve long attributed this disturbing trend to the dumbing down effects of the public school system and the mainstream media, perhaps it’s equally attributable to the declining participation of people in the workforce. After all, nothing motivates people to solve problems more than having their job on the line. People who have no job to protect have little reason to solve problems but can simply delegate such tasks to others.