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Robots Will Take Your Job

A robot, or an advanced artificial intelligence, or some other kind of machine, will probably be able to do your job better than you in the future. It may not happen in the next year, or even the next decade, but a growing group of economists, along with futurists and social commentators, have come to the conclusion that robots really are going to take your job. To put that in another, perhaps slightly less sensationalist way, over the course of the next few decades the number of human jobs lost to mechanisation and automation will outweigh the number of new jobs created.

Dystopia: Twenty First Century Luddites

You may have heard of the Luddites. They were a group of protesters from 19th century England, who had a penchant for breaking into factories and destroying their shiny new machines. This was during the late period of the industrial revolution, when the first wave of mechanisation to sweep across the economies of the 'developed world' was in full swing. Many new labour-saving machines were being developed, allowing the wealthy Industrialists who could afford to buy them to replace the old economic model of small artisan workshops with a new economy built around large factories and mass production.

Because a single machine with a single human operator could often do the job 10, 20 or even 100 traditional workers, many members of England's working classes found themselves suddenly out of a job, replaced by a machine. This was nowhere more apparent than in the textile industry, where the development of large industrial power looms was transforming one of the country's largest industries. It was from these newly unemployed textile workers, and others who feared that they would lose their job soon, that the Luddites drew their power-base. Named after a man called Ned Ludd, who had destroyed his boss's power looms after losing his job, the Luddites took to the streets to protest against mechanization, and in a number of incidents broke into factories to destroy the machines which they saw as their nemesis.

The Luddites believed that mechanization would lead to mass unemployment. They thought that machines would keep on taking people's jobs, until everyone but the wealthy elite who could afford to own such machines would be destitute. They therefore claimed that machines were the single biggest threat to the working population, and called for a return to the pre-industrial economy in which goods were made by hand in the workshops of artisans.

Clearly the dire predictions of the Luddites about the horrific effects that the growing number of machines would have on the economy, and on the working class in particular, turned out of be completely wrong. Far from leaving people without work, the wealth created by these new machines allowed for the development of new and ever more advanced products, and entire new industries emerged, in which the laid off workers could find jobs. Although one could argue that new levels of inequality also emerged at this time, as the gap between unskilled workers at the bottom and factory owners at the top widened, it is all but impossible to argue that ordinary workers did not benefit from this wave of mechanization. In fact, it was this mechanization that created our modern economy with all the creature comforts which it affords us.

But now, some 2-300 years after the industrial revolution in the early twenty first century, a new wave of automation and mechanization has started to sweep across our economy. And this time things may be very different. In the time of the Luddites machines could only perform a limited number of very specific tasks; they were nowhere near as flexible as humans. That meant that for every job lost to a machine, a new job could be created for a human to do, which no machine was yet capable of doing. But in our modern world, we are rapidly approaching a tipping point, where anything we can do, machines can do better. This is partially driven by advances in robotics. Already there is one robot worker for every 5000 human workers across the world, and this varies greatly by country: In Japan, for example, for every 1,000 human workers there are 34 robots performing similar tasks. It has been estimated that by 2025 in the United States 22 million manufacturing jobs will have been lost to robots, and even sectors such as food services will be affected, with the loss of another 9 million jobs1).

It seems fairly certain that, at some point in the future, robots will be capable of doing anything that a human being can do. We don't know when that will be, but we can be pretty sure it will happen eventually. At that point it is highly likely that robots will take over the vast majority of manual and many service related jobs. They will do the job more efficiently and for less money. When a manual job is lost to a machine, a new one will not emerge for the unemployed worker to take up – because if it did, because machines could do anything humans can do, that new job would go straight to a machine as well.

But of course manual and service industry jobs do not make up the whole economy. There are also many other office based jobs. There are sales jobs, intellectual and academic jobs – jobs for people to design and build the machines for example. Well, it may be that not even these jobs will be safe in the future. The Futurist and now high profile Google employee Ray Kurzweil has famously predicted something that he called the 'technological singularity'. This is the point at which artificial intelligence will have progressed to the level at which it surpasses human intelligence. Kurzweil, who is one of the world's top authorities on artificial intelligence, has predicted that we will reach this 'singularity' sometime around 2045, and that it will have a radical effect on human civilisation.

One effect of machines having superior intelligence compared to humans is likely to be the fact that computers will be capable of doing any mental work that a human being can do – only better, more efficiently, and for less money. Everything I wrote about robots above will then apply to not only manual labour jobs, but to almost every other job that there is. Human workers, in an economy such as this, will be akin to the craftsmen and women of today producing handmade products – they will exist, but could only ever make up a tiny part of the economy. Even the jobs of designing and maintaining machines are likely to start going to other machines.

Estimates are already emerging to suggest that, by the middle of the century, developed economies could be facing 50-75% unemployment2) – and that is purely based on robots taking over manual jobs (4 million driving jobs in the US alone going to driverless cars, for example). If Kurzweil's predictions are even remotely close to being accurate, then we could actually be facing near total unemployment within our lifetime.

Of course those lucky few who own the technology and the patents for its creation would become fabulously wealthy. But the rest of us would become dependent on the state or on charity. Current levels of economic inequality would pale in comparison to the difference between the haves and the have nots in this future society. Governments could potentially become all-powerful, as the already well established trend towards greater dependency on government3) accelerates into overdrive as a result of mass unemployment.

Utopia: A Life of Idle Luxury

The scenario described above seems very much like a dystopian vision – a hellish future in which some of our worst fears are realized. But that is only the case because of the way are society and economy is structured. Machines themselves are, and as far as we know will remain, devoid of moral value – they are simply tools that we can use for the betterment or debasement of humanity according to our preference.

The same scenario can be presented in an entirely different way: From around the middle of the century onwards human labour will start to become unnecessary. We will have created machines capable of taking care of our needs for us. Eventually we will not need to work at all, as machines will do it for us. They will do a better job than us, and they will do it more efficiently and using fewer resources, meaning that wealth will be abundant. We will all live a life of idle luxury, engaged in our hobbies and our passions whilst the machines take care of all the drudgery and chores needed to run a successful economy.

The difference between scenario A – dystopia – and scenario B – Utopia – is very small. The only difference, in fact, is in who owns the machines. If the technological progression described above takes place within the currently prevailing socio-economic model then we will end up in scenario A, dystopia. The machines will be owned by a staggeringly wealthy elite, whilst the rest of humanity will become increasingly dependent on handouts from that elite, probably via the government which will collect taxes from them.

In order to avoid this hellish dystopian future and to move instead towards the utopian vision described in scenario B, it will be necessary for us to find some way for the general public to take ownership over these machines, in order that the benefit of their work can be enjoyed by all. In many ways what I am writing about here looks a lot like the old socialist call for workers to take ownership of the 'means of production'. If the public as a whole has ownership of the machines, which would be the means of production, then we would all benefit, instead of a small elite owning them and taking the benefit of their work. But the solution that I want to present here looks very, very different to what you might think of as socialism.

Communism and socialism are failed ideologies. The reason for this is because they were based around an economic structure being imposed by the state – which is inherently oppressive and stifles innovation. In fact, my dystopian scenario A is very similar to the traditional communist model in many ways, as it creates a situation in which the majority of people are dependent on the state for their living, rather than being free to forge their own destiny. The only difference between the two is that in one the government is funded by the technological elite whose machines are still able to innovate, whereas in the other the government is funded directly by the labour which it steals from the people as a whole.

There is, however, a different way to go about reaching the utopian vision of a life of idle luxury for everyone. That solution is, of course, open source technological development. In this model, rather than the state owning the means of production as a supposed proxy for the people or representative of the collective will, the means of production are made freely available to anybody who wants to use them. In the open source model people (and machines) work collaboratively to develop technological advances which are then made available for anybody to use and to build upon – giving rise to a collective model of ownership which is not controlled by an oppressive central authority such as the government.

Rather than stifling innovation as communism did, this actually accelerates it – as the benefits of one advance in technology can be used by anybody to make the next advance, rather than withheld and defended by patents and copyrights.

There is, however, one problem. The open source model is perfect for creating and running our utopian, rather than dystopian future. In fact it may be the only way to ensure that the benefits of technological progress are shared by all and do not lead to mass unemployment, poverty and government dependency. But in the present, whilst the number of open source technologies available for people to use for free is limited, it requires people to give their labour to open source projects for little or none of the rewards which people usually get from working, and which we still require today to maintain a reasonable lifestyle.

If we wait until the 'technological singularity' (in the broader sense presented here, to include robots as well as artificial intelligence) has already happened then it may well be too late. The only way for us to attain utopia then, rather than dystopia, would be for the super rich to give up their privileged position voluntarily (not likely, since a person buying a super-yatch today could already have chosen to save hundreds if not thousands of lives in the developing world for the same money, but yet the rich choose to give a smaller proportion of their income to charity than the poor) or through a violent revolution pitting the masses against a wealthy and technologically empowered elite – which would not be pretty.

For the sake of your future self, your children and your grand-children: do what you can to help this revolution succeed whilst it is an economic revolution, before it becomes the bloody global revolt envisioned by the socialist writers of the past. Open source software, open source hardware - open source everything - may not be the future: but if it isn't we're probably all screwed.

Giving a small donation of time or money is much less of a sacrifice than that which was asked of our grandfathers when they fought and died in the trenches of world war 2, but it may turn out to be just as vital to our future, and the only way to avoid a similar fate for our children.

Categories: Technology | Economics | Work


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