Saturday, 5 August 2017

The Problems of the Age of Automation

Slowly over the last three centuries technology has replaced manpower, muscle power. Before that time muscle power, both of men and animals were the primary way that energy was used to create wealth. In the main that wealth was food and clothing and the excess went to create the churches and governments that existed. Starting roughly around 1700 machines began to replace muscle power, that process is not complete, maybe it never will be. But in most jobs machines began to do the work that once only men could do. Since 1900 that process has increased and since the invention of computers it has accelerated. Now there is talk of machines, Automation, destroying 80% of jobs within decades.

A world in which 80% of men would be not only unemployed but unemployable. Recently there has been a push by people such as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates that computers and robots will take away jobs so the answer is a Universal Basic Income. Whereby everyone gets a basic income whether they have a job or not. Now this idea is not new, it's been around since at least the 1800's but it has always been viewed as a Utopian ideal, not as something that would work in the real world. But if machines do the work and generate the wealth then why can't people simply get an income and relax?

Before I answer that I want to point out a problem with the basic idea that Automation will destroy 80% of jobs. Firstly it isn't coincidence that Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are raising this as an issue. If a robot or a computer program replaces you in your job, you have been screwed, but they have gotten richer. They profit from a world with more Automation. In other words they are soliciting for work and that fact should never be forgotten.

However that does not mean that they are wrong, the simple truth is that we all more or less accept that Automation will destroy jobs, we are just uncertain about which ones and how bad that disruption will be. Will it be more of the same or will it be catastrophic, we don't know. But maybe we should be thinking about both possibilities.

Now let us suppose that the future job situation is catastrophic and 80% of men are unemployed and unemployable. That future is unsustainable and will lead to a Civilizational collapse, now people may think I am jumping the gun but I will use Ancient Rome as an example. There were two Roman States, the Republic and the Empire. We have been to the Moon and we still marvel at what they achieved. But it shouldn't be forgotten that both suffered crises that lead to their collapse. The crisis of the Republic was political and it lead to a political solution. The Republic ended and the Empire came into existence. However the crisis that ended the Empire also ended it's Civilization.

The crisis of the Republic was created by slaves, the conquests of the Republic meant that free workers, citizens of the Republic were replaced by free labor, slaves. However a world in which only 20% of people have jobs means that we have a new form of Feudalism. The Empire tried to solve it's problems by creating a form of Feudalism. It failed because the central administration and new Feudal Lords had nothing in common and worked against each other.

Here we would have both situations at one and the same time. In fact it would be worse because the unemployed have no reason to be loyal to either, so now we have three groups who hate and despise each other. And there can be no compromise because no one has anything that they can compromise with. Because everyone wants the same thing, money. Everyone loses and there can never be any economic downturn because no one can afford it. We would be left with a super rich who can do as they please, a Government that only exists as a form of peacekeeper or peace enforcer and everyone else who really doesn't serve any purpose at all. How long is such a society sustainable?

The age of Automation is not some Utopian paradise were everyone has unlimited free time and spending money, it is a living nightmare. If such a future looks like existing it would be better to smash the machines, before we end up getting smashed!

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1 comment:

  1. A good well thought out summary even though you have elected to explore the worst possible outcome. But in any event more discussion and debate is sorely needed. From a longer term perspective another risk is as we increasingly allow robotics and artificial intelligence to do all the work and thinking for us. We may begin a long period in history where our brain power as a species deteriorate through lack of use. Stephen Hawking’s sees this as a real threat and concludes it will be “either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity”, “We spend a great deal of time studying history,” So it’s a welcome change that people are studying instead the future of intelligence.”
    But modern day technology seems to me to be already influencing the next generation who seem to have much lower attention spans. If there is any good news it seems so far we are making a muck of it all as multifaceted productivity shows the gains are somewhat illusory because of the amount of rework and systems breakdowns. And how much work is actually done in modern offices with frequent checks to Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn whilst receiving and sending texts on the guise this is all work related.