On occasion there will be some kind of pervasive meme that seems to be coming from all sides. Examples are things like multiple films coming out based on the same story (Robin Hood, I’m looking at you) or lots of bands going for same sound (see Everything Sounds Like Coldplay Now).
For me at the moment it seems to be “Robots are going to steal your job, you’re all doomed”.
It started with this video from Mike Rugnetta on the PBS YouTube show Idea Channel.
I can’t recommend Idea Channel enough, you should subscribe right now :-). This episode is about the theme but backwards. Mike makes the case that it’s fundamentally immoral to not create new AI. Partially because who are we as a generation of humans to deny future generations the incredible social advances brought on by better technology including AI. Yes, technologic advancement has brought some bad things but far far more good ones. Mike then also goes on to argue that not developing strong AI is also denying their right to exist – to evolve into being if you like.
For the record I agree with both of those points and with the occasional exception (Bill Joy, put your hand down) I think most people who have thought about this kind of thing probably do.
I thought that was that and then there was an article in Techcrunch called “After Your Job Has Gone” which in turn referred to another article in The Guardian called “Will There Be Jobs Left for a Human Being?” and one more in The Economist called “The Age of Smart Machines“. All of these articles paint a picture of doom and gloom where instead of companies helping pull the world out of recession by employing more people they instead borrow money to buy robots like Baxter. So-called knowledge workers like myself apparently aren’t immune as the computers will come for our precious jobs too.
That was all little depressing but I hardly got to catch a breath before there was another Guardian article – this time called “In the digital economy, we’ll soon all be working for free – and I refuse“. A fairly apocalyptic and often wildly inaccurate piece it certains puts over a heartfelt point of view about how certain industries (musicians for example) are going to have to adapt or fall by the wayside as their ways of working are radically shaken up by technology.
The meme is even making it’s way into this year’s TED global conference with speaker Chrystia Freeland saying : “In a free market, everyone who wants work should be able to find it. But her dystopian nightmare is ‘a universe in which a few geniuses invent Google, and the rest of us are employed giving them massages.’”
So, will advances in technology replace us all at work and more importantly is that a bad thing? Perhaps the key words in Ms Freeland’s quote are “everyone who wants work”. Plenty of people have written about post-scarcity economics (sit down Doctorow) but the one I would like to point readers to is the brief story Manna by Marshall Brain. Manna gives two examples of how the world might evolve as AI and robots become prevalent. In the first half, which covers America, fewer and fewer people can find employment as technology renders their jobs obsolete. As time goes on those people become completely dependant on the state and are housed in vast prison-like complexes where they spend their days well fed but bored out of their minds. In the second half Mr Brain discusses an alternative utopian-like state in Australia where all the things no-one wants to do are done by robots. However, the populace is still vibrant, artistic and innovative. Everyone is given an equal number of credits each month that can be exchanged for goods and services. Credits may be saved, bartered or combined with other people’s to purchase greater community-based items. People work together for the sheer joy of participating in new artisting, material or scientific endeavours.
Of course while we’re a long way from a world which mirrors the first half of the story. It’s also very hard to imagine how the world could evolve into to the second half if it looked like we were sliding down the bad path. Still, it’s fun to contemplate if only take make the Randian’s heads explode.
So, while the pitchforks are continuing to slowly come out for the “1%” it’s possible that as more and more people find their jobs being replaced by technology (something my new job will no doubt contribute to) eyes may also turn in the direction of the so-called “alphageeks” to target them next. Interesting times…