Beating The Eating (Robots)

One of my favorite technology provocateurs, Marc Andreessen, recentlycontributed to the conversation regarding whether robots will progressively eat all of our jobs. His conclusion: they won’t; but even if they do, it’s not much of a worry. I do share Andreessen’s view that this won’t happen as soon as alarmists might imagine. The sci-fi cultists who believe it’s just around the corner espouse a speculative utopian faith in accelerating, compounding technological singularities that I struggle to take seriously (Google, please forgive me for underestimating your majesty if you do become our government three years from now).

But I suppose I have always just assumed that robots will eventually eat all of our (current) jobs. And that seems like a wonderful thing for humanity in the long run: liberation from machine-like labor, flexibility to explore our most genuine passions, and lots of free-time to spend as we wish with those we love. Marc describes this potential future, as well:

Imagine 6 billion or 10 billion people doing nothing but arts and sciences, culture and exploring and learning. What a world that would be. The problem seems unlikely to be that we’ll get there too fast. The problem seems likely to be that we’ll get there too slow.

In this future, many current jobs are replaced by robots, but in their place emerge new jobs more commensurate with human dignity and individuality. The robots make things much more cheaply, and the savings get passed on to the displaced workers, who now do new jobs that we can’t even imagine today: “you don’t make the toilet paper anymore, but hey, the toilet paper is way cheaper now! And what’s more…now everyone is into quazimadoodles so we’ll teach you to code and you can debug quazimadoodle machines for a living and move into a mansion because your toilet paper — and everything else — is so cheap!”

On this view, human needs and desires are “unlimited.” Even if we don’t require any human labor to provide all the “essentials” of existence (food, clothes, shelter, etc) we will find plenty to do in the market. We will invent new needs to service with new types of labor, and we will expand opportunities for people to do things that have previously been reserved for a select few: the arts, sciences, and culture that Marc mentions.

One question I have, though: if technology shores up human freedom and allows us to re-allocate our time to more awesome endeavors, how is the market going to value those endeavors? As my friend, the brilliant philosopher Brandon Terry, pointed out, we can think of labor and work as distince concepts. Work is what we spend our time doing. Labor is what the market recognizes as worthy of economic value.

I suppose I’m less optimistic than Andreessen that the market will inevitably deem all sorts of awesome but currently undervalued work as labor. People have long been making music, doing philosophy, and teaching middle-schoolers algebra. The problem is not just that more people don’t have the time to do these activities; it’s that the market doesn’t adequately price them.

Or, put differently, we as a society, expressing ourselves through the market, do not adequately value plenty of social functions that are obviously of immense social value: artists, teachers, public servants (who right now are in many cases incentivized to prioritize their post-office career security over serving their constituents). In short, as we have chosen to extend market mechanisms to more and more areas of human life, the market has optimized away many non-market values that we potentially shouldn’t discard.

I worry that the rapid progress of human technology seems — by the unexamined assumptions of those driving it — tied to the continued marketization of everything. Perhaps the counterpart to hastening and embracing technology gains must be that we think long and hard about how to re-orient and re-regulate markets / civic society in order to accommodate human flourishing. I am not confident that it simply solves itself. I agree that we have never before lived in a World where every human is connected to all knowledge, markets, and people. That might mean that a free market can recognize every human’s unique economic value.

Or…it might mean that human talent becomes more of a commodity than it has ever been before. The long-tail seems to be a mirage….even in a youtube and Spotify universe, the vast majority of people seem to care mainly about the very “top of the pyramid,” the hits and outliers. In the village of yesteryear, being the best cobbler in town was a scarce good. In a globally connected World, maybe being anything but the best cobbler in the World is irrelevant.

Andreessen speculates that in a World of robot labor, the most human work might be appreciated for its scarcity, and he points to boutique coffee and other premium products as current examples of this. But artisinal everything (food, fashion, etc) feels to me like a cultural backlash against the commodification and globalization of everything. I don’t suspect that time is on its side. Once we can synthesize perfect Kobe Beef at zero marginal cost over any other beef, or once we can 3D print an Hermes Birkin Bag, the only thing left to substantiate the value of the real thing is brand equity, the immaterial product. So perhaps we transition to a World in which the immaterial things have the most value. Maybe we’re already halfway there. In that World, nothing is scarce but the idea of scarcity itself. A company like Hermes at that point does nothing but adjudicate who has status. Perhaps the luxury brand of the future is a bitcoin-like network allocating scarce, invisible, status points. But then why have Hermes status points instead of just money, which is already a more universal, scarce commodity?

This would be a World where money, not just software and robots, has eaten everything. I don’t want to live in that World.

To prevent it, I think we must be vigilant about three things:

  1. That as the means of production become more productive, those who own capital don’t continue to accumulate control over our political systems. These systems are what can protect those displaced by technology with education and safety nets, and these systems must rediscover their loyalty to the average citizen.
  2. That as the value of controlling capital increases (because of increases in the productivity of capital), access to capital is not monopolized. Andreessen imagines that prices will naturally decline under competitive pressures in an increasingly automated economy, but this will only happen if there is real competition. If the means of production become insanely expensive quantum computers that only Google can buy, or shareholder-funded distributional infrastructures like Amazon’s, then this competition will not exist.
  3. That non-market values are somehow embraced by the market economy. We need to figure out how to pay people to do the things that make humanity humanity. The marketization of everything must somehow admit the softer human activities that don’t have a buyer awaiting them. One potential idea in this vein is to provide every human with a stipend simply for being human, or a universal basic income. I’ve written about this a bit here.

In short, we ought to recognize that we are already living in a World in which innovation is eating everything, and we have always lived in such a World. The critical question is whether technology works for us or we work for some arbitrary, dogmatic vision of it. We make technology. We make markets. We make politics. We must never forget our own power to design the future in the the best image of ourselves.