Aristotle, Robots, and a New Economic System

My post of March 31, 2014, discussed the role that technology plays in both eliminating jobs and increasing income inequality. That post mentioned Jaron Lanier, whose recent book “Who Owns the Future?” touches on this topic. Early in that book, Lanier quotes from Aristotle’s Politics:

If every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the tripods of Hephaestus, which, says the poet, “of their own accord entered the assembly of the Gods;”if, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves.

Aristotle saw that the human condition largely depends on what machines can and cannot do; moreover, we can imagine that machines will do much more. If machines did more of our work, everyone, even slaves, would be freer. How then would Aristotle respond to today’s technology? Would he advocate for a new economic system that met the basic needs of everyone, including those who no longer needed to work; or would he try to eliminate those who didn’t own the machines that run society? 

Surely this question has a modern ring. If, as Lanier suggests, only those close to the computers that run society have good incomes, then what happens to the rest of us? What happens to the steel mill and auto factory workers, to the butchers and bank tellers, and, increasingly, to the accountants, professors, lawyers, engineers, and physicians when artificial intelligence improves? (Lanier discusses how this will come about in his book.) 

Lanier worries that automata, especially AI and robotics, create a situation where we don’t have to pay others. Why pay for maid service if you have a robotic maid, or for software engineers if computers are self-programming? Aristotle used music to illustrate the point. He said that it was terrible to enslave people to make music (playing instruments in his time was undesirable and labor intensive) but we need music so someone must be enslaved. If we had machines to make music or could get by without it, that would be better. Music was an interesting choice because now so many want to play it for a living, although almost no one makes money for their music through internet publicity. People may be followed online for their music or their blog, but they rarely get paid for it.

So what do we do? Should we eliminate the apparently unnecessary people, so we no longer have to deal with them? (Remember that virtually all of us will become unnecessary in the near future.) Should we retire to the country or the gated community where our apparent safety is purchased by the empire’s military outposts and their paid mercenaries around the world? Where the first victims of society sleep on street corners, populate our prisons, endure unemployment, or involuntarily join our voluntary armies? (Remember all you accountants, attorneys, professors and software engineers, this world is coming for you too.) Or should we recognize how we benefit from each other, from our diverse temperaments and talents, from the safety and sustenance we achieve in numbers?

So a question we now face is this: what happens to the extra people, almost all of us when technology does all the work or one is unpaid for the work that the machines cannot do? Are the rest of us killed or slowly starve? Surprisingly Lanier thinks these questions are misplaced. After all, human intelligence and human data drive the machines. Rather the issue is how we think about the work that machines can’t do.

I think that Lanier is on to something. We can think of the non-automated work as anything from essential to frivolous. If we think of it as frivolous, then so too are the people who produce it. If we don’t care about human expression in art, literature, music, sport or philosophy, then why care about the people who produce it.

But even if machines write better music or poetry or blogs about the meaning of life, we could still value human generated effort. Even if machines did all of society’s work we could still share the wealth with people who wanted to think and write and play music. Perhaps people just enjoy these activities. No human being plays chess as well as the best supercomputers, but people still enjoy playing chess; I don’t play golf as good as Tiger Woods,  but I still enjoy it.

I’ll go further. Suppose someone wants to sit on the beach, surf, ski, golf, smoke marijuana, watch TV, or collect coins. What do I care? Perhaps a society composed of contented people doing what they wanted would be better than one informed by the Protestant work ethic. A society of stoned, TV watching, skiers, golfers, and surfers would probably be a happier one than we live in now. (The evidence shows that the happiest countries are those with the strongest social safety nets, the ones with the most paid holidays and generous vacation and leave policies; the Western European and Scandinavian countries.) People would still write music and books, lift weights, volunteer, and visit their grandchildren. They would not turn into drug addicts!

This is what I envision. A society where machines do all the work that humans don’t want to do; and humans would express themselves however they liked, without harming others. A society much more like Denmark and Norway, and much less like Alabama and Mississippi. Yes, I believe that all persons are entitled, yes entitled, to the minimal amount it takes to live a decent human life. All of us would benefit from such an arrangement, as we all have much to contribute to each other. I’ll leave with some words inspiring words from that auto-didactic Californian, Eliezer Yudkowsky

There is no evil I have to accept because ‘there’s nothing I can do about it’. There is no abused child, no oppressed peasant, no starving beggar, no crack-addicted infant, no cancer patient, literally no one that I cannot look squarely in the eye. I’m working to save everybody, heal the planet, solve all the problems of the world.

For more on this topic see my “Summary of Marshall Brain’s “Robotic Nation.”


Note: This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, April 11, 2014,

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6 thoughts on “Aristotle, Robots, and a New Economic System

  1. I hope this is our future. I don’t know if this hope is justified but I have it still. We need to start living with more integrity. We must be kinder to the environment, foster the education of youth, promote public health and taper overpopulation. Think we’re on the right track and there’s hope on the horizon.

  2. 1. I’m pretty sure that automation and abundance will force the U.S. into accepting an income guarantee (a la Marshall Brain), probably within my life time.

    2. Eliezer sure is ambitious. The big difference between him and me (other than his superior intelligence) is that I have a much strong streak of fatalism.

  3. It seems even some political conservatives are advocating for minimum incomes now. As for Eliezer Yudkowsky and his hopefulness about the future (which I assume you are referring to) I just don’t know. I don’t know if reason favors optimism or pessimism. But I know that being optimistic is a better way to live. I’ll read and write a post about it today.

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