Monday, April 13, 2015

Response to Humans Need Not Apply video

A friend showed me this video yesterday and it’s worth a watch. I have responded with my thoughts below.

I agree with the video’s central premise that labor automation on a previously unthinkable scale is fast approaching. However, I don’t agree with his argument that this is fundamentally different from prior industrial revolutions, or with his strong insinuation throughout the video that this is scary, dangerous and troubling.

First off, he doesn’t provide much evidence that new and even more specialized labor won’t be created by automation in ways we can’t even imagine, just as it has in the past. I’m not saying it definitely will, but it might. The rest of this post proceeds on the presumption that he’s right on that – that these new jobs will NOT be created, or that they will be replaced by machines faster than they can be created – which is by no means certain and an important caveat.

Even if he’s right that human labor will not be required much longer, his analogy with the horses is flawed, because unlike people, horses do not labor for the benefit of one another. Horses are raised, bred and taken care of for the exclusive benefit of human beings. They’re just our property: their proliferation in prior centuries was only a means to serve our ends. They survived in great numbers because we allowed them to, and they have subsequently depopulated because we don’t need them anymore. As such, using the declining population of horses as an ominous foreshadowing of things to come for humanity is the equivalent to using the declining population of VCR’s, or newspapers, or any other tool we once used but don’t anymore.

The proliferation of humans, by contrast, is not just the means to some other end, but the end itself to which most technology is geared. And unlike the population of horses or VCR’s, the population and wealth of human beings has exponentially increased alongside technology, as a direct consequence of the increased production and efficiency which automation enables in a capitalist economy. This is really exciting, it has lifted billions from poverty in our lifetime, and I see no reason it cannot continue. There is probably some limit to the number of humans this world’s resources can sustain, but we don’t seem to have bumped up against it yet (and with advances in space exploration and underground drilling, it’s possible we might not reach it any time soon).

On a related note, it’s important to remember that employment is not the purpose of an economy: it is, once again, merely a means to the end of production. If we can have more production with less employment, that’s actually even better, because it means we can live at least as comfortably as before without having to work as much or as hard.

This video illustrates how automated labor makes production much cheaper, but it omits how this also stands to lower prices by tremendous margins. Economic research has consistently shown that the aggregate benefit to human welfare obtained from increased affordability for everybody outweighs the costs imposed on a concentrated few from forfeited wages. And even for those few laborers, the lower prices they face in every other sector of the economy mitigates the downside of labor displacement in their sector. There are of course winners and losers from this process, but on net it has always been a good thing. If people can afford the same bundle of goods they consumed beforehand while working fewer hours, they’re actually better off due to their newfound leisure time. So even if people have more trouble finding work, that may be okay, because they won’t need to work as much as they once did.

Before you say it, I get how there’s at least conceptual limit to this. If human labor were to ever become so useless that hardly anybody can make any income at all, then hypothetically it wouldn’t matter how low prices can go, and we’d need some alternate means besides salaries of allocating all this abundant production. In other words, there may someday be a time when instead of approaching full employment (as we are now), we are closer to full unemployment because there’s literally nothing left for people to do. I think this video exaggerates the imminence of this day, if it ever comes at all, but I’ll humor the hypothetical for the sake of argument.

At first glance this seems like a sort of nightmarish capitalist dystopia, wherein merit is completely divorced from economic outcomes and whoever inherits the machines basically owns the world by accident of birth. I suppose modern Marxists hypothesize, just as Marx did, that this will lead to a tipping point where it becomes obvious public ownership of the means of production is necessary (the difference being that instead of capitalists profiting off the backs of other people’s hard work, they are profiting without any help from others, because they own machines which perform profitable tasks on their own). I don’t think it would be as bad as all that, though, for two reasons.

First, we have such a long way to go before human labor becomes useless, and the process of getting there stands to improve the global standard of living by so much in the interim, that by modern standards this scenario might just amount to wealthy people squabbling with even wealthier people. Again, history is illustrative. In many ways, even (temporarily) unemployed people in today’s society are wealthier than some of the wealthiest people were 200 years ago. George Washington was the richest man of his day, but he shat in a chamber pot all his teeth fell out by mid-adulthood because they didn’t have Scope or toothpaste. Today even poor Americans can buy that stuff for $2 at the nearest convenience store. Many if not most of the unemployed have plumbing and electricity and indoor heating and cars and TV’s and cell phones, which today are connected to the friggin’ INTERNET and offer endless entertainment wherever you are. I don’t want to sound belittling or diminish the plight they are in, because by modern standards it sucks. But compared to the vast majority of human beings who have ever walked the planet, today’s unemployed have it pretty good. Tomorrow’s unemployed will have it even better, and that’s thanks largely to the enhanced efficiency automated labor stands to provide.

Secondly, if it ever got to that point, I think even the people who own the machines would have an interest (both a benevolent interest and a profit-maximizing interest) in keeping the rest of the world reasonably well off through some sort of guaranteed minimum income. I’ve supported this as an alternative to our current hodge-podge of social safety net programs for a while now (whether or not machines take over the economy), and so did FA Hayek and Milton Friedman. Whether this comes through state redistribution or private charity or collective ownership or some new arrangement I can’t conceive, I’m not sure (though obviously I'd prefer the least coercive means possible). But in any case, I find it hard to believe that a world with fully automated creation of everything humans could possibly want would be one of squalor for most people. It might even have an equalizing effect on wages, because it sort of puts us all in the same boat; in comparison to computerized robots with artificial superintelligence, we’re all unskilled workers. And even if there is enormous inequality in wealth, if we’ve hit the point where we can make enough for everyone, who would care? If there’s no scarcity anymore, the interests of rich and poor are not in contrast. The only thing left to do would be to kick back and enjoy life.

I’ve rambled a bit, but I guess the most straightforward answer your question is this: “I don’t know what it will do to capitalism, but I’m excited to find out.”

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