Category Archives: Economics

Summary of Jaron Lanier’s “Who Owns the Future?”

Lanier blowing into a woodwind instrument with several chambers

Jaron Lanier‘s recent book, Who Owns the Future? discusses the role that technology plays in both eliminating job and increasing income inequality. Early in that book, Lanier quotes from Aristotle’s Politics: “If every instrument could accomplish its own work … if … 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.”

In other words, Aristotle saw that the human condition largely depends on what machines can and cannot do, and we can imagine that machines will do much more of our work in the future. 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 or ignore the apparently unnecessary people? Should we retire to the country or the gated community where our apparent safety is ensured by a global military empire and their paid mercenaries? Where the first victims of society sleep on street corners, populate our prisons, endure unemployment, or involuntarily join our voluntary armies? (Remember technology will eventually replace the accountants, attorneys, professors and software engineers too!) Or should we recognize how we benefit from each other, from our diverse temperaments and talents, and from the safety and sustenance we can enjoy together?

So a question we now face is: what happens to the extra people—which will soon be almost all of us—when technology does all the work or the remaining work is unpaid? Are the rest of us killed or must we slowly starve? Surprisingly Lanier thinks these questions are misplaced. After all, human intelligence and human data drive the machines. So the issue is how to 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 to harmful. 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, theatre, sport or philosophy, then why care about the people who produce it.

But even if machines write better music or poetry or blogs than human beings, we can still value human generated effort. Even if machines did all of society’s work we can still share the wealth with people who want 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 write as well as Carl Sagan did, but I still enjoy it.

I’ll go further. Suppose someone wants to sit on the beach, surf, ski, golf, smoke marijuana, or watch TV. What do I care? Maybe a society of contented people doing what they wanted would be better than one driven by the Protestant work ethic. A society of stoned, TV watching, skiers, golfers, and surfers would probably be a happier one than the one we live in now. (In fact, the happiest countries are those with strong social safety nets, the ones with generous vacation and leave policies.) And people in countries with strong social safety nets still write music and books, do science, volunteer, and visit their grandchildren. They aren’t 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 like, 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 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. I’ll leave with some words inspiring words from 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.

Summary of Marshall Brain’s “Robotic Nation”

Recent discussion about the effect of technology on employment reminded me of Marshall Brain‘s prescient essays of almost 20 years ago. (“Robotic Nation,” “Robots in 2015,” and “Robotic Freedom“) Here is a summary of the main theses in each essay.

Robotic Nation

OUTLINE

Tip of the Iceberg – Technology transforms employment because of
Moore’s Law – Exponential growth is leading to a
The New Employment Landscape – where the equation
Labor = Money – will no longer hold, necessitating new economic models.

Brain believes every fast food meal will be (almost) fully automated soon, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Right now we interact with automated systems: ATM machines, gas pumps, self-serve checkout, etc. These systems lower cost and prices, but “these systems will also eliminate jobs in massive numbers.” There will be massive unemployment in the next decades as we enter the robotic revolution.

In the next 15 years most retail transactions will be automated and 5 million retail jobs lost. Next, walking, human shaped robots will begin to appear, and by 2025 we may have AI equipped machines  that hear, move, see, and manipulate objects with roughly the ability of humans. Robots will get cheaper and become more human shaped to facilitate their use of cars, elevators, and other objects in the human environment. By 2030 you will buy a $10,000 robot that will clean, vacuum, and mow the lawn. Robotic fast food places will open shortly thereafter, and by 2040 will be completely robotic. By 2055 robots will replace half the American workforce leaving millions unemployed. Restaurants, airports, construction, hospitals, truck drivers and airplane pilots are just some of the jobs and locations that will have mostly robotic workers. These robots will last for years, and need no vacation or sick time.

While robotic vision or image processing is currently a stumbling block, Brain thinks we will make significant progress in this field in the next twenty years. This single improvement will bring catastrophic changes, analogous to the changes brought about by the Wright brothers. Brain applauds these developments. After all, who wants to clean toilets, flip burgers, and drive trucks, activities that waste human potential.

If all this sounds crazy, Brain asks you to consider a prediction of faster than sound aircraft in 1900; a time when there were no radios, model T’s or airplanes.  At that time many thought heavier than air flight was impossible, and predictions to the contrary were often ridiculed. Thus the employment world is changing dramatically and rapidly. Why?

The basic answer is Moore’s Law—CPU power doubles every 18 to 24 months. Computers in 2020 will have the NEC Earth Simulator. By 2100 we may have the power of a million human brains on our desktop. Robots will take your job by 2050 with the marriage of: cheap computers with the power of a human brain; a robotic chassis like Asimo; a fuel cell; and advanced software.

The new employment landscape isn’t so different from the one of 100 years ago, but it will be vastly different once robots that see, hear, and understand language compete with humans for jobs. The 50 million jobs in fast food, delivery, retail, hotels, airports, factories, restaurants, and construction will be lost in the next fifty years. But America can’t deal with 50 million unemployed, and the economy will not create 50 million new jobs. Why?

In the current economy people trade labor for money. But without enough work, people won’t be able to earn money. What then? Brain argues that we should then provide free housing and a guaranteed income. But whatever we do, we had better start thinking about the kind of societal structures needed in a “robotic nation.”

Robots in 2015” 

OUTLINE

We Will Replace the Pilots – and then
Robots in Retail – but we won’t
Create New Jobs – which implies
A Race to the Bottom – so
Where Do We Want to Go?

If you went back to 1950 you would find people doing most of the work just like they do in 2000. (Except for ATM machines, robots on the auto assembly line, automated voice answering systems, etc.) But we are on the edge of a robotic nation, where half the jobs will be automated in the near future. Robots will be popular because they save money. For example, if an airline replaces expensive pilots, the money saved will give them a competitive advantage over other airlines. Initially we’ll feel sorry for the pilots, but forget about them when the savings are passed on to us. Other jobs will follow suit. What about new jobs creation? After all, the model T created an automotive industry. Won’t the robotic industry do the same? No. Robots will assemble robots, and engineering and sales jobs will go to those willing to work for less.

The robotic nation will have lots of jobs—for robots! Even now our economy creates few high paying jobs. (For which there is intense competition.) Instead, there will be a “race to the bottom.” A race to pay lower wages and benefits to workers and, if technologically feasible, to eliminate them altogether. Robots will make the minimum wage—which has declined in real dollars for the last forty years—irrelevant; there will be no high paying jobs to replace the lost low-paying ones. So where do we want to go? We are on the brink of massive unemployment unknown in American history, and everyone will suffer because of it. How then do we want the robotic economy to work for the citizens of this nation?

Robotic Freedom

Overall Summary

The Concentration of Wealth – is accelerating bringing about
A Question of Freedom – why not let us be free to create
Harry Potter and the Economy – which leads us to
Stating Goals – to increase human freedom using
Capitalism Supersized – an economy that provides for all and has
The Advantages of Economic Security – which is better for
Everybody – because even high-skilled jobs are vulnerable.

We are on the leading edge of a robotic revolution that is beginning with automated checkout lane, and the pace of this change will accelerate in our lifetimes. Furthermore, the economy will not absorb all these unemployed. So what can we do to adapt to the catastrophic changes that the robotic nation will bring?

People are crucial to the economy. But increasingly there is a concentration of wealth—the rich make more money and the workers make less. With the arrival of robots, all corporate income will go to the shareholders and executives. But this automation of labor—robots will do almost all the work 100 years from now—should allow people to be more creative. So why not design an economy where we abandon the “work or don’t eat” philosophy?

This is a question of freedom. Consider J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. Amazingly she wrote them while on welfare and would not have done so without public support. Think how much human potential we lose because people have to work to eat. How much music, art, science, literature, and technology have never been created because people had to work to eat. Consider that Linux and Wikipedia were created by people in their spare time. Why not create an economic model that encourages this kind of productivity, one where we don’t have so many working poor, or people sleeping in the streets? Brain argues that robots give us a chance to transform the human condition.

He also argues that we shouldn’t ban robots because that leads to economic stagnation and lots of toilet cleaning. Instead he states these goals:  raise the minimum wage; reduce the work week; and increase welfare systems to deal with unemployment. What need to completely re-think our economic goals. The primary goal of the economy should be to increase human freedom. We can do this by using robotic workers to free people to: choose their own creative projects, and use their free time as they see fit. We need not be slaves to the sixty hour work week, which is “the antithesis of freedom.”

The remainder of the article offers suggestions (supersize capitalism, guarantee economic security) as to how we would fund a society in which people are free to actualize their potential to be creative without the burden of wage slavery. Now if all this seems unrealistic consider how fanciful our world would be to the slaves and serfs that populated much of human history. Brain says we are all vulnerable to the coming robotic nation, so we should think about a different world. Hopefully it will be one where robotic workers give us the time and the the freedom we all so desperately desire.

Robotic Nation FAQ

Question 1 – Why did you write these articles? What is your goal? Answer – Robots will take over half the jobs by 2030, and this will have disastrous consequences for rich and poor alike. No one wants this. I’d like to plan ahead.

Question 2 – You are suggesting that the switchover to robots will happen quickly, over the course of just 20 to 30 years. Why do you think it will happen so fast? Answer – Consider the analogy to the automobile or computer revolutions. Once things get going, they proceed rapidly. Vision, CPU power, and memory are currently holding robots back—but this will change. Robots will work better and faster than humans by 2030-2040.

Question 3 – In the past technological innovation created more jobs, not less. When horse-drawn plows were replaced by the tractor, security guards by the burglar alarm, craftsman making things by factories making them,  human calculators by computers, etc., it improved productivity and increased everyone’s standard of living. Why do you think that robots will create massive unemployment and other economic problems? Answer – First, no previous technology replaced 50% of the labor pool. Second, robotics won’t create new jobs. The work created by robots will be done by robots. Third, we are creating a second intelligent species which competes with humans for jobs. As the abilities of this new species improves, they will do more of our work. Fourth, past increases in productivity meant more pay and less work, but today worker wages are stagnant. Now productivity gains result in concentration of wealth. This may work itself out in the long run, but in the short run it is devastating.

Question 4 – There is no evidence for what you are saying, no economic foundation for your proposals. Answer – Just Google ‘jobless recovery,’” for the evidence. Automation fuels production increases, but does not create new jobs.

Question 5 – What you are describing is socialism. Why are you a socialist/communist? Answer – Brain responds that he is a capitalist who has started three successful businesses and written a dozen books—he is pro-market. Socialism is the view that centralized governmental planning produces and distributes goods. But Brain argues that by giving consumers a share of the wealth—which they won’t be able to earn with work—we will “enhance capitalism by creating a large, consistent river of consumer spending,” and at the same time provide economic security to all citizens. Communism is usually identified by the loss of freedom and choice, whereas Brain wants people to have “economic freedom for the first time in human history…”

Question 6 – Why do you believe that a $25,000 per year stipend for every citizen is the solution to the problem? Answer – With robots doing all the work, we will finally have an opportunity to do this, which is better for everyone.

Question 7 – Won’t your proposals cause inflation? Answer – Tax rebates, similar to his proposals, don’t cause inflation. Neither do taxes, social security or other programs that redistribute wealth.

Question 7a – OK, maybe it won’t cause inflation. But there is no way to give everyone $25,000 per year. The GDP is only $10 trillion. Answer – Brain argues that we should do this gradually. Remember $150 billion, about what the US spent on the Iraq war in 2003, is $500 for every man, woman, and child in the US. At the moment our government collects about $20,000 per household in taxes each year and so a stipend in that range is feasible.

Question 7b – Is $25,000 enough? Why not more? Answer – “As the economy grows, so should the stipend.”

Question 8 – Won’t robots bring dramatically lower prices? Everyone will be able to buy more stuff at lower prices. Answer – True. But current trends show that most of the wealth will end up in the hands of a few. Also, if you have no wealth it won’t matter that prices are low. For every citizen benefit from the robotic nation, we must distribute the wealth.

Question 9 – Won’t a $25,000 per Year Stipend Create a Nation of Alcoholics? Answer – Brain notes this is a common question since many people assume that if we aren’t forced to do hard labor we’ll just do nothing or drink all day. But he has no idea where this fear comes from (probably from philosophical, moral, and religious ideas promulgated by certain groups.) He dispels the idea with examples: a) he supports his wife who works at home; b) his in-laws are retired and live on a pension and social security; c) he has independently wealthy friends; d) he knows students supported by loans; and e) many receive free education and training. None of these people are lazy or alcoholics! 

Question 9a – Yes, stay-at-home moms and retirees are not alcoholic parasites, but they are exceptions. They also are not productive members of the economy. Society will collapse if we do what you are talking about. Answer – Everyone participates in the economy by spending money. Unless there are people with money there’s no economy. The cycle of getting paid by a paycheck and spending it at businesses who get the money from customers is just that—a cycle—which will stop if people have no money. And giving a stipend won’t stop people from trying to make more money, create, invent or play. Some people will become alcoholics though, just as they do now, but Brain thinks we’ll have less lazy alcoholics if we provide people with enough to live decent lives.

Question 10 – Why not let capitalism run itself? We should eliminate the minimum wage, welfare, child labor laws, the 40-hour work week, antitrust laws, etc. Answer – Because of economic coercion. This economic power is why companies pay wages of a few dollars a week in most parts of the world. Better to have a universal basic income.

Question 11 – Why didn’t you include the whole world in your proposals—why are you U.S. centric? Answer – Ideally, the global economy would adopt these proposals.

Question 12 – I love this idea. How are we going to make it happen? Answer – We should spread the word.

____________________________________________________________________

1. These articles in their entirety can be found here.

Robots and the Economy

A recent post briefly mentioned the computer scientist Marshall Brain’s thoughts on robotics and the future of the economy. Brain penned these prescient thoughts more than ten years ago in three essays and a FAQ section on his website. Because of their importance and insight, I wanted to summarize them for my readers, staying as close to the original texts with little commentary.(As you read, remember all these predictions were made more than ten years ago.)

Robotic Nation

Overall Summary

The Tip of the Iceberg – We now see technology’s impact on employment because of
Moore’s Law – Exponential growth is leading to a
The New Employment Landscape – where the equation
Labor = Money – will no longer hold, necessitating new economic models.

The tip of the Iceberg – Brain believes every fast food meal will be (almost) fully automated within a few years, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Right now we interact with automated systems: ATM machines, gas pumps, self-serve checkout, etc. These systems lower cost and prices, but “these systems will also eliminate jobs in massive numbers.” There will be massive unemployment in the next decades as we enter the robotic revolution.

A feasible scenario suggests that in the next fifteen years most retail transactions will be automated and 5 million retail jobs lost. Next, walking, human shaped robots will begin to appear–Honda’s Asimo is an early example. By 2025 we may have machines that hear, move, see, and manipulate objects with roughly the ability of humans. These machines will be equipped with AI systems, making them seem humanlike. Robots will get cheaper and become more human shaped to easily facilitate their use of cars, elevators, and other objects in the human environment. By 2030 you will buy a $10,000 robot that will clean, vacuum, mop, sweep, mow grass, etc. These robots would last for years, need no vacation or sick time, and eliminate human jobs. Robotic fast food places will open shortly thereafter and by 2040 will be completely robotic. By 2055 robots will replace half the American workforce leaving millions unemployed. Restaurants, construction, airports, hospitals, malls, amusement parks, truck drivers and airplane pilots are just some of the jobs and locations that will have mostly robotic workers.

While robotic vision or image processing is currently a stumbling block, Brain thinks we will make significant progress in this field in the next twenty years. This single improvement will yield catastrophic changes, just as the Wright brothers breakthrough brought about aviation. Brain applauds these developments. After all, who wants to clean toilets, flip burgers, and drive trucks? “These activities represent a massive waste of human potential.”

If all this sounds crazy, Brain asks you to consider a prediction of faster than sound aircraft in 1900; a time when there were no radios, model T’s or airplanes. Then many thought heavier than air flight was impossible,  and one who predicted it was often ridiculed. Such considerations lead to the conclusion that the employment world will change dramatically over the next fifty years. Why? The fundamental answer is Moore’s Law, that CPU power doubles every 18 to 24 months. Computers in 2020 will have the power of the NEC Earth Simulator. By 2100 we may have the power of a million human brains on our desktop. Robots will take your job by 2050 with the marriage of: a cheap computer with the power of a human brain; a robotic chassis like Asimo; a fuel cell; and advanced software.

While the employment landscape is not so different from the one of 100 years ago, it will be vastly different once robots that see, hear, and understand language compete with humans for jobs. The 50 million jobs in fast food, delivery, retail, hotels, restaurants, airports, factories, construction will be lost in the next fifty years. But America can’t deal with 50 million unemployed. And the economy will not create 50 million new jobs. Why?

In the current economy people trade labor for money. But without enough work people wont’ be able to earn money. What then? Brain thinks we might erect housing for the unemployed since you can’t live without a job, and we need to have a guaranteed income.  But whatever we do, we had better start thinking about the kind of societal structures needed in a “robotic nation.”

Robots in 2015 

Overall Summary

We Will Replace all the Pilots – and then
Robots in Retail – but we won’t
Create New Jobs – which means there will be
A Race to the Bottom – so
Where Do We Want to Go?

If you went back to 1950 you would find people doing most of the work just like they do in 2000. (Except for ATM machines, robots on the auto assembly line, automated voice answering systems, etc.) But we are on the edge of the robotic nation and half the jobs will be automated in the near future. Robots will be popular because they save money. For example, if an airline replaces expensive pilots, the money saved will give them a competitive advantage over other airlines. We’ll feel sorry for the pilots at first, but forget about them when the savings are passed on to us. Next will be the retail jobs and then others will follow.  What about new job creation? After all, the model T created an automotive industry. Won’t the robotic industry do the same? No. Robots will assemble robots and engineering and sales jobs will go to those willing to work for less.

The robotic nation will have lots of jobs—for robots! Our economy does not create many high paying jobs. (And for those there is intense competition.) Instead there is a “race to the bottom.” A race to pay lower wages and benefits to workers and, if technologically feasible, to eliminate them altogether. Robots will make the minimum wage—which has declined in real dollars for the last forty years—irrelevant; there will be no high paying jobs to replace the lost low-paying ones. So where do we want to go? We are on the brink of massive unemployment unknown in American history, and everyone will suffer because of it. We need to answer a fundamental question: How do we want the robotic economy to work for the citizens of this nation?

Robotic Freedom

Overall Summary

The Concentration of Wealth – is accelerating bringing about
A Question of Freedom – why not let us be free to create
Harry Potter and the Economy – which leads us to
Stating the Goals – increase human freedom by weaning away from unfulfilling labor by
Capitalism Supersized – economic system that provides for all people which has
The Advantages of Economic Security – better for everyone because
You, Personally, and the Robots – because even your job is vulnerable.

We are on the leading edge of a robotic revolution that is beginning with automated checkout lanes; the pace of this change will accelerate in our lifetimes. Furthermore, the economy will not absorb all these unemployed. So what can we do to adapt to the catastrophic changes that the robotic nation will bring?

People are crucial to the economy. But increasingly there is a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few–the rich make more money and the workers make less. With the arrival of robots, all the income of corporations will go to the shareholders and executives. But this automation of labor—robots will do almost all the work 100 years from now—should allow people to be more creative than ever. Can we design the economy to do this? Why not design an economy where we abandon the “work or don’t eat” philosophy?

This is a question of freedom. Consider J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. Amazingly she wrote them while on welfare and would not have done so without public support. Think how much human potential we lose because people have to work to eat. How much music, art, science, literature, and technology have never been created because people had to work. Consider that Linux, one of the world’s best operating systems, was created by people in their spare time. Why not create an economic model that encourages this kind of productivity? Why not create an economic model where we don’t have to hope the aged die before they collect too much social security, where we don’t have so many working poor, or people sleeping in the streets? Brain says “we are entering an historic era that has the potential to completely change the human condition.

Brain argues that we shouldn’t ban robots because that leads to economic stagnation and lots of toilet cleaning. Instead he states the goals:  raise the minimum wage; reduce the work week; and increase welfare systems to deal with unemployment. What is needed is a complete re-thinking of economic goals. The primary goal of the economy should be to increase human freedom. We can do this by using robotic workers to free people to: choose the products; start the businesses, creative projects; and use their free time as they see fit. We need not be slaves to the sixty hour work week “the antithesis of freedom.”

The remainder of the article offers specific suggestions (supersize capitalism, guaranteed economic security) of how we would fund a society in which persons actualize their potential to create art, literature, science, music, etc. without the burden of wage slavery. The advantages of such a system would be significant. (If all this seems fanciful, consider how fanciful our world would be to the slaves and serfs that most humans have been throughout history.) Brain says we are all vulnerable to the coming robotic nation.Let us then rethink our world, and welcome the robotic workers who will give us the time and the the freedom we all so desperately desire.

Robotic Nation FAQ

Question 1 – Why did you write these articles? What is your goal? Answer – Robots will take over half the jobs by 2030 and this will have disastrous consequences for rich and poor alike. No one wants this. I’d like to plan ahead.

Question 2 – You are suggesting that the switchover to robots will happen quickly, over the course of just 20 to 30 years. Why do you think it will happen so fast? Answer – Consider the analogy to the auto or computer revolutions. Once things get going, they proceed rapidly. Vision, CPU power, and memory are currently holding robots back—this will change. Robots will work better and faster than humans by 2030-2040.

Question 3 – In the past technological innovation created more jobs, not less. When horse-drawn plows were replaced by the tractor, security guards by the burglar alarm, craftsman making things by factories making them,  human calculators by computers, etc., it improved productivity and increased everyone’s standard of living. Why do you think that robots will create massive unemployment and other economic problems? Answer – First, no previous technology replaced 50% of the labor pool. Second, robotics won’t create new jobs. The work created by robots will be done by robots. Third, we are creating a second intelligent species which competes with humans for jobs. As this new species gets better, it will do more of our work. Fourth, past increases in productivity meant more pay and less work but today worker wages are stagnant.  Now productivity gains result in concentration of wealth. This may work itself out in the long run, but in the short run it is devastating.

Question 4 – There is no evidence for what you are saying, no economic foundation for your proposals. Answer – Just Google ‘jobless recovery,’” for the evidence. Automation fuels production increases but does not create new jobs.

Question 5 – What you are describing is socialism. Why are you a socialist/communist? Answer – I am a capitalist who has started three successful businesses and written a dozen books. “I am all for free markets, innovation and investment.” Socialism is the view that producing and distributing goods is done collectively by centralized governmental planning. He argues that individuals should own the means of producing and be free “to earn whatever they can with their products, services, and innovations.” By giving consumers a share of the wealth–which they won’t be able to earn with work–we will “enhance capitalism by creating a large, consistent river of consumer spending. It is also a way of providing economic security to every citizen…”  Communism is usually identified by the loss of freedom and choice, whereas he wants people to have “economic freedom for the first time in human history…”

Question 6 – Why do you believe that a $25,000 per year stipend for every citizen is the solution to the problem? Answer – With robots doing all the work, we will finally have an opportunity to do this, which is better for everyone.

Question 7 – Won’t your proposals cause inflation? Answer –  Tax rebates, similar to his proposals, don’t cause inflation. Neither do taxes, social security or other programs that re-distribute wealth.

Question 7a – OK, maybe it won’t cause inflation. But there is no way to give everyone $25,000 per year. The GDP is only $10 trillion. Answer – Brain argues that we should do this gradually. Remember $150 billion, about what the US spent on the Iraq war in 2003,  is $500 for every man, woman, and child in the US. It isn’t that much in our economy. At the moment our government collects about $20,000 per household in taxes each year and so “it is very easy to imagine a system that pays US citizens $25,000 per year.”

Question 7b – Is $25,000 enough? Why not more? Answer – “As the economy grows, so should the stipend.”

Question 8 – Won’t robots bring dramatically lower prices? Everyone will be able to buy more stuff at lower prices. Answer – True. But current trends show that most of the wealth will end up in the hands of a few. Also, if you have no wealth it won’t matter that prices are lower. To let every citizen benefit from the robotic nation distribute the wealth to all.

Question 9 – Won’t a $25,000 per Year Stipend Create a Nation of Alcoholics? Answer – Brain notes this is a common question since many people assume that if we aren’t forced to due hard labor we’ll just do nothing or drink all day. He says he has no idea where this fear comes from (probably from political, philosophical, moral, and religious ideas promulgated by certain groups.) He dispels the idea with examples: a) he supports his wife who works at home; b) his in-laws are retired and live on a pension and social security; c) he has independently wealthy friends; d) he knows students supported by loans; and e) many are given free education and training. None of these people are lazy or alcoholics! (Perhaps its the reverse, with no possible source of income people give up.)

Question 9a – Yes, stay-at-home moms and retirees are not alcoholic parasites, but they are exceptions. They also are not productive members of the economy. Society will collapse if we do what you are talking about. Answer – Everyone participates in the economy by spending money. Unless there are people with money there’s no economy. The cycle of getting paid by a paycheck and spending it at businesses who get the money from customers is just that–a  cycle—which will stop if people have no money. And giving a stipend won’t stop people from trying to make more money, create, invent or play. Some people will become alcoholics though, just as they do now, but Brain thinks we’ll have less lazy alcoholics “if we give them enough money to live decent, dignified lives…”

Question 10 – Why not let capitalism run itself? We should eliminate the minimum wage, welfare, child labor laws, the 40-hour work week, antitrust laws, etc. Answer – “…because of the power of economic coercion.” This economic power is why companies pay wages of a few dollars a week in most parts of the world. “We, The People, should enact the stipend to give ourselves true economic independence.”

Question 11 – Why didn’t you include the whole world in your proposals–why are you U.S. centric? Answer – Ideally, the global economy would adopt these proposals.

Question 12 – I love this idea. How are we going to make it happen? Answer – We should spread the word.

Thanks you Marshall Brain for such an uplifting vision.

1. The articles in their entirety can be found here.

Aristotle, Robots, and a New Economic System

(This article was republished in Humanity+ Magazine, April 11, 2014)

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 young, 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.

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Note: This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, April 11, 2014 http://hplusmagazine.com/2014/04/11/aristotle-robots-and-a-new-economic-system/

 

 

Do We Need a New Economic System?

Thinking about the future of economic systems got me to wondering about the sinister view articulated by the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.3 He argued that if machines do all the work in the future, as they inevitably will, then we can: a) let the machines make all the decisions; or b) maintain human control over the machines.

If we choose “a” then we are at the mercy of our machines. It is not that we would give them control or that they would take control, rather, we might become so dependent on them that we would have to accept their commands. If we choose “b” then control would be in the hands of an elite, and the masses would be unnecessary. In that case the tiny elite: 1) would exterminate the masses; 2) reduce their birthrate so they slowly became extinct; or 3) become benevolent shepherds to the masses. The first two scenarios entail our extinction, but even the third option is bad. In this last scenario the elite would see to it that all physical and psychological needs of the masses are met, while at the same time engineering the masses to sublimate their drive for power. In this case the masses might be happy, but they would not be free.

The computer scientist Marshall Brain has also thought about these issues. Almost fifteen years ago he said that robotic technology was beginning to replace workers at an unprecedented rate. In order to address these changes, he argued that we need a new economic system where individuals would not have to exchange labor for food. Brain doesn’t want to replace capitalism altogether, but he does want to modify it significantly. And he thinks its in everyone’s interest—including the super wealthy—to do so. For more on his prescient and insightful ideas you can read his online articles: “Robotic Nation,” “Robots in 2015,” and “Robotic Freedom,” at: http://marshallbrain.com/

I think Brain is right; we need to change how wealth is distributed including a serious discussion of a minimum income. This would create, not only a more just society, but one where so much wasted human potential could be actualized. In such a world self-interest and morality would coincide, and we would all be the beneficiaries.

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1. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/03/30/was-marx-right
2. For the broader implications of Marx’s thinking see Terry Eagleton’s: Why Marx Was Right
3. A summary of his argument by Bill Joy can be found here: http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html