Monday, August 3, 2015

Dialogue: Machines and the Jobless Future

Ethan: Indeed, this is an important question. I may frame it a little differently, though. To start, let's get a few things straight. We are trying to predict the future here. And what we envision as the logical course of earth and the human race will vastly influence the critical judgements we make. A single wrong move, a detail left out, or an impure projection thrown in, and we will have spoiled everything. That being said, this is also the most important thing that any ethicist can do. If you want to figure out the right thing to do right now, then figure out what everyone will be doing in the future. This is based on a strict belief that the universe knows what it's doing. In other words, even if it seems like things are getting worse, they are not. Things are getting better, because that is the natural course of the universe. All it knows how to do is balance itself out. Anyway, we can debate that topic another time. Onward, to the (likely) future!

I don't exactly agree with your image of the future. I believe that when the dust has settled, almost every job will be done by machines. The only jobs that will remain to humans will be the ones they really want (i.e. the most lucrative) and the ones that are really needed (i.e. the ones that require a human touch). So what does that leave us with? Certainly CEOs, as you mentioned. But not laborers. That work can and will be done more efficiently by machines. And if we live in a world where a small group of producers support the rest of the non-laborers, I'm assuming we will have already arrived at a more ethical world. In other words, we will no longer ask people to break their backs picking plants from the ground. 

Once more, we risk falling into the trap of a side-tracked discussion on the nature of the likely (or unlikely) utopia that lies before us. But let's get one thing straight. In this world, people will have the option to work. And once that's true, then I only see two classes: people who choose to work in order to get more than their allotment, and people who work because they love to do it. The former will be the CEOs and the latter will be the human touchers. Artists, most likely. Therapists. Doctors, perhaps. Perhaps not...

We have to tackle a very difficult question before we can go any further. Is it not true that a machine can do the job of a CEO, an artist, and a doctor better than a human? Imagine machines that are far more advanced than they are today. Machines that can learn exactly what people need and want and, for example, adjust its algorithm to thrust paint at a canvas in a different direction. In this world, the only desire for work would be the desire for greatness. To somehow outdo the machines. But honestly, I see this as a losing battle. Machines will always outdo humans. And humans in turn will accept the difficult truth: that greatness is a thing of the past. So to answer one of your questions, anyone who does a job that a machine could do better will struggle. People will likely see him or her as a hopeless romantic. Hell-bent on one-upping the machines, but always falling short. I imagine that these people would give up after a while and, if anything, produce for the sake of producing. For the pleasure it brings.

And what of the consumer who wishes to experience the thrill of the human touch? This too will go the way of the artist. Already, there are machines that can make a person feel loved. Little fuzzy robots that nuzzle and cuddle you. Again, if we're talking about effectiveness, the machines will do it better. But if we are talking about something deeper, be it emotional or spiritual, then there will be room for people to work. It would resemble a black market of sorts. You could get the government issued massage, or you can go to the seedy underbelly of the world and get a real-life massage. And so once more you will have a sector of society that will remain in existence, but because it will be marginalized by machines, the workers themselves will have no reason to continue what they're doing. Unless some super rich person is willing to pay for it.

Which brings us to the one job that I see remaining: the CEO. Or, to be more broad, the decision maker. Now, machines can certainly make decisions. In fact, they probably should. I do not give any credence to the myth of machines taking over humanity. It's not going to happen, as lovely a story as it is. Machines will do exactly what they are programmed to do. Which, as time goes on, will encompass more and more. But I can still imagine a person or group of people making decisions. Do we turn Machine A up to full power at the expense of Machine B? Do we invest in Machine C? 

The only reason this job will remain is because people are greedy. And you cannot build this into a machine. To be sure, you can program a machine to grow, in the sense that a company grows. But you cannot program a machine to allocate wealth such that some people get more than others. Unless you allocate it randomly. Or based on the productivity of a bunch of people who, as we have seen, are no longer working. So the humans will decide to leave this one remnant of the past in place. The board of directors will still exist. Companies will still compete with each other. And those decision about Machines A, B, and C will remain paramount. 

And how will these people be seen by the plebeians? Likely the same way we see CEOs today. Greedy and power-hungry. But in this new world, their decisions will have a much greater impact on the world. And so they will also take on the power of gods. But the gods of the Greeks, with all their mortal flaws. 

I'm excited for the future! Aren't you?

Zach: I don't project either omniscience (that machines will someday know more than people) or omnipotence (that they will be able to do everything people can do, but better) onto machines. I merely say that they will do enough stuff, well enough, to create a basic surplus of people regarding the work that needs to be done. There will always be crappy jobs, because machines just can't be taught certain jobs cost effectively. It's a delusion based on class prejudice that we'll be able to get rid of those filthy mexicans - who actually pick our fucking food, mind you! - and replace them with machines. There will always be jobs like that, and how can we say the people who do them are worse than those like me who don't do anything at all?

I don't imagine a utopia. But the fact is that machines HAVE replaced people in many places - car assembly lines, for example. The real crisis, as far as I can see, is how people will get the money needed to buy things. Indeed, we are already experiencing that with the young generation - a lot of young people find the job market very scarce.

I guess I want to boil my question down to an example. Say a power plant only requires ONE GUY to run. He sits in the office like Homer Simpson and just watches the gages. He's only needed for the rare cases that something goes wrong. What kind of social respect should he have, compared to someone who has no job at all? Obviously he's doing something that's needed, but it's not fun. Should the guy who has no job AT ALL be shamed by society because he's "lazy"? If he's not shamed, how does he feel? He has so much free time - life is technically better for him than for the supervisor of the power plant. Thus you have a master-slave relationship - he's the master and the power plant worker is the slave.

Maybe things would break even if society granted the supervisor more money in return for his service at the plant, then the money might compensate the time lost at work - that would actually be the right answer. To avoid a master-slave situation, the worker needs more money. But how much money should the non-worker get?

Maybe all citizens of the world (not countries - dealing with the idea of countries is a different episode…) should get a baseline amount, and working is a bonus on top of that. That was actually suggested in one of the Planet Money shows. The initial (Puritan) fear is that this will promote laziness - but isn't it a kind of unhealthy masochism to morally condemn anyone who doesn't work - even if the the work is completely pointless?! You could simply manufacture pointless work out of thin air just to give people the satisfaction of saying that they work. But which is worse, people working completely useless jobs or simply not working at all? Which is the higher moral status?

Ethan: The answer to your question is inextricably tied up with your vision of the future. You have to decide precisely how things will shake out. Then you can begin to predict social status. I can answer the question for your future, or I can answer it for mine. But I encourage you to carefully think about a couple of questions. What proportion of people will need to work to live? What proportion of people will want to work? And what proportion of people will we willingly support through a general welfare system? Your answers cannot be arbitrary. They must be based on available evidence, or at least some deep reflection.

Let’s say that society agrees to collectively support only 75% of the people. Immigration is another issue, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that the extra 25% are not citizens. Those people will be the ones who need to work to live, and therefore they will be shunned by society, more or less how they are right now. Of the people who do not need to work to live, let’s say that 10% of them choose to work. These are the ones who have big dreams of owning a successful company, or becoming a famous artist. I imagine that these people would be well respected. Even if they try and fail, it will appear foreign to everyone else who chooses not to work. But there will also be an underlying resentment. For the workers will remind the non-workers of their own laziness. And I strongly believe that work is healthy. Service is healthy. The people who choose to work will be happier than those who don’t. And the people who don’t work will secretly know this. There is another level to consider here as well. Of those who choose to work, how many do it for the sake of work, and how many do it for wealth? Likely a very small proportion will choose to work for its own sake. And these people will be seen as foolish. But in reality, they will be the happiest people of all. 

That is more or less how I think you’re envisioning the future. And in summary: People who need to work to live will be shunned. People who choose to work for wealth will be respected, but secretly resented. And people who work for work's sake will be openly resented, but put up with.

I envision the future quite differently. The efforts of laborers will go away because machines are evolving more quickly than humans. Whatever barriers there are to teaching machines to do jobs more cost-effectively will disappear. This has already begun to happen. It is limited by two things. The first is the progress of technology itself. If technology fails, then the world will probably turn out how you see it. But if technology progresses the way I see it progressing, then we will come up against the second limitation: the inherent resistance to this change. We set up the world such that people have to work to live. We only support people through welfare who cannot work. Everyone else has to grind. And this has helped us to collectively grow more efficiently. The insistence that people have to work to live has helped us realize all the technology that can now effectively replace us. But I believe this will go away. Machines will be programmed to innovate, and you will no longer require the limited minds of humans to come up with innovations on their own.

But in order for any of this to happen, there has to be a fundamental shift in our attitudes toward work. It must cease to be a thing we are forced to do, and become a thing we choose to do. We must provide for everyone, regardless of their ability, AND regardless of their willingness to work. 

And in order to get to that point, our values have to change. We need to inject a spirit of service into today's economy. People need to want to work, not for themselves, but for others. Once we achieve this, then we will be ready for the transition to a more perfect economy, one that will be defined by people as a whole serving everyone. We will be willing to give everyone a decent standard of living without asking for anything in return. But this will not be possible so long as:

  1. We expect people to work for a living
  2. We work for ourselves and not for others

But I believe that these core beliefs are relics of a lost time. We needed selfishness to get to this point, but it is no longer serving us. Eventually, the forces of the universe will corner us into accepting this. Not before the earth is scorched and many people die. But eventually, we will form a community or group of communities that is completely self-sufficient without anyone needing to work. In this brave new world, people who choose to work will be admired, for they will be providing that human touch we so deeply crave. 

Pretty different from your world, hmm?

Zach: --> The answer to your question is inextricably tied up with your vision of the future. You have to decide precisely how things will shake out.

I assume they will shake out according to my understanding of history and human nature. I don't have a utopia.

--> Let’s say that society agrees to collectively support only 75% of the people.

I doubt "society" will agree on very much. It's just a collection of individuals, mostly acting out of unconscious self-interest.

--> Of the people who do not need to work to live, let’s say that 10% of them choose to work.... there will also be an underlying resentment. For the workers will remind the non-workers of their own laziness.

Slaves did not historically remind their masters of their laziness.

-->  And I strongly believe that work is healthy. Service is healthy. The people who choose to work will be happier than those who don’t. And the people who don’t work will secretly know this. 

That may be true. This is the issue. People may choose to work on very frivolous things rather than not work at all. In all likelihood, they will continually find new frivolous things to work on - NASCAR and video games come to mind, for example. People will not feel like they are lazy, even if they are occupied with what we would now consider frivolous things. They will find things to work on. There may always be an underclass, as there is now, which does the harder work. The "overclass" will always find new rules and regulations to keep the underclass down, while always flattering itself that it's doing the best it can to help them. Things won't change very much from where they are now.

However... the one difference remains, which is that the distribution of labor will change for some industries. But even today, that has occurred. In the auto industry, for example, it's mostly robots nowadays. Therefore a human autoworker tends to be much lonelier, with few people to keep him company on the job.

I forget what my original point even was... Oh yeah, that there would be no work. But this is wrong. People (of the "overclass", that is) will just do higher level stuff like video games. The truth is that I think we already face every problem I am worried about for the future. Insofar as work is considered "just good", and insofar as robots can build the physical world without our help, there will be activity in the "psychosphere", the non-physical realms of activity, i.e. video games and other psychological things. The world already implicitly sets value on the various activities we do, by how much money people get for doing them. Coming up with money will be an ongoing challenge for those with the power to create money and to distribute it as they see fit. But it will always be according to the basic value people place on things and activities - goods and services.

Ethan: Okay, so things will continue more or less as they have gone before. I can buy that. But I still have a question. Is that because we have stumbled upon the right way to do things? Or is it because we are stubborn? Isn’t it possible that one day we’ll wake up from the dream that was human-driven capitalism and go to the world that we were always meant to have: machine-driven capitalism?

I suppose this may be a pipe-dream. But it’s possible. That’s all I’m suggesting. Because the fact is, we’re trending in a bad direction. As work and welfare remain the only means of living, more and more people will fall into the latter category. Because jobs will continue disappearing. In many ways, society has already agreed to support people who can’t find work. I have every reason to believe that this will continue. But society will also implicitly see them as wrong. As leachers. 

And we shall reap what we have sown. A growing class of people will live on the base assistance of the government. And this meager assistance will never be enough to thrive. Because these people will not be valued above the people who get an education so they can do jobs that, in theory, cannot be done by machines. But there is a dark truth lurking here. And you have touched upon it. The jobs that humans continue doing will be frivolous. This will be the new middle class: people who do jobs that machines probably could do better. But they certainly get an A for effort! And an equally dismal paycheck every other week. I think many of these people will just end up falling into the welfare pool. Because the incentives to work just won’t be enough any longer. 

Even technical jobs will be challenged. Already, there are conversations about computer programs that can do my job for me: data analysis. I imagine that, in the future, if I really wanted to be a data analyst, I would have to get more and more education. Which brings up an interesting point. This trend may not be all that bad. Maybe we are right to force people to become more and more skilled. That way, those people with the ability to do great things, will in fact succeed. But as the overclass is squeezed downward, it will become smaller and smaller.

And to be honest, I do not see this as sustainable. A lie can only hold up for so long. Myriad calamitous events can reset the world. And revolution can occur. But I can imagine a world where things are different. I can imagine a race who transcends the petty notions of goods, services, and property as forms of individual wealth and the only means of exchange and progress. I bet that somewhere in the universe an alien race has already been through what we are going through now, and they came out victorious. They settled into a way of life where machines allow the living to do what they do best: live. Create, exchange, thrive, produce. But not for the sake of wealth. For its own sake, or for the sake of other living things. Will we end up like them? I’m not sure. But I can assure you of this: if we cling to our old values, then we shall surely fail. Even if failure means a perpetual division of ruling class and ruled class. The whole master-slave relationship is archaic, and its supposed synthesis vis a vis Hegel is a false resolution. I shall quote Deleuze on Nietzsche and thus conclude:

Nietzsche presents the dialectic as the speculation of the pleb, as the way of thinking of the slave: the abstract thought of contradiction then prevails over the concrete feeling of positive difference, reaction over action, revenge and ressentiment take the place of aggression. And, conversely, Nietzsche shows that what is negative in the master is always a secondary and derivative product of his existence. Moreover the relation of master and slave is not, in itself, dialectical. Who is the dialectician, who dialectises the relationship? It is the slave, the slave's perspective, the way of thinking belonging to the slave's perspective. The famous dialectical aspect of the master- slave relationship depends on the fact that power is conceived not as will to power but as representation of power, representation of superiority, recognition by "the one" of the superiority of "the other". What the wills in Hegel want is to have their power recognised, to represent their power. According to Nietzsche we have here a wholly erroneous conception of the will to power and its nature. This is the slave's conception, it is the image that the man of ressentiment has of power. The slave only conceives of power as the object of a recognition, the content of a representation, the stake in a competition, and therefore makes it depend, at the end of a fight, on a simple attribution of established values. If the master-slave relationship can easily take on the dialectical form, to the point where it has become an archetype or a school- exercise for every young Hegelian, it is because the portrait of the master that Hegel offers us is, from the start, a portrait which represents the slave, at least as he is in his dreams, as at best a successful slave. Underneath the Hegelian image of the master we always find the slave. 

Ethan: The right way to do things results from people with conflicting motives finding mutually beneficial ways of resolving their conflicts. I don't think you can stop people from being stubborn, so much as find ways to stop that stubbornness from going outside its necessary bounds and messing up lots of other things at the same time.

It's critical to bear in mind what I have suggested - that ALL of the problems we may face in the future are already here in some form or another. I know that's a form of predicting the future, and that the future may indeed bring some new things. But a further look shows how little we all know and agree on how the PRESENT affects us. It seems that a mere effort to understand how ALREADY EXISTING modes of production, economic forces, and psychological forces function will actually be a more fruitful way to spend my mental energy. This is based on a prediction - a single prediction, based on both common sense and my own subjective opinion - that the vast majority, say 95%, of all forces which will affect the future are already fully operating in the present.

It must also be pointed out how strong the urge is to project undesirable things about the PRESENT into an imaginary FUTURE. The subconscious motive for this is that to fully integrate even the PRESENT into ITSELF is too much responsibility for almost any human. The psychological burden is relieved, if one can say, "This isn't me. This isn't us. This is the FUTURE - or one possible VERSION of the future." Now the subject matter becomes approachable for many more people, which easily explains the popularity of science fiction - despite it's utterly hit-or-miss record on actually predicting future events.

Thus, in order to imagine the future at all, one must first understand the motive to project disturbing things from the PRESENT onto the FUTURE, for mere psychological reasons. I suspect most people will get stuck at this stage. The very few people who actually see clearly into the future, moreover, are likely to terrify the masses as much as do the masses' dark visions of the future - precisely because those visions must be already integrated into the PRESENT into order to see the future clearly. 

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