800px-Toy_robotThere’s much heavy intellectual pondering going on among the usual Very Important People about what’s going to happen if and when the robots come to take all our jobs.

I’ve been guilty of such ponders myself. But the part that seriously worries me about the public intellectuals of our current age is that almost all of the potential outcomes are considered to be dystopias. And I’m afraid that I really cannot see that as being true. If we solve the problem of scarcity, the problem that has bedevilled every being that ever did evolve out of the primordeal slime, why would that be a bad thing? Indeed, if we pay careful attention to what Karl Marx said (rather than the misconception of what he said used to justify mass murder) we can see that a truly roboticised economy would enable true communism to evolve.

As a couple of examples of what I mean about these dystopian outcomes, here’s some good research into how likely it is that various particular lines of work are going to be automated:

The approach has powered leapfrog improvements in making self-driving cars and voice search a reality in the past few years. To estimate the impact that will have on 702 U.S. occupations, Frey and colleague Michael Osborne applied some of their own machine learning.

They first looked at detailed descriptions for 70 of those jobs and classified them as either possible or impossible to computerize. Frey and Osborne then fed that data to an algorithm that analyzed what kind of jobs make themselves to automation and predicted probabilities for the remaining 632 professions.

The higher that percentage, the sooner computers and robots will be capable of stepping in for human workers. Occupations that employed about 47 percent of Americans in 2010 scored high enough to rank in the risky category, meaning they could be possible to automate “perhaps over the next decade or two,” their analysis, released in September, showed.

We could look at this and think, my word, 47% of all jobs are going to disappear in a couple of decades. Unemployment will climb to 55% and doom is upon us! This is, however, to slightly misunderstand what happens in the economy. It destroys some 12 million jobs a year in the US.

Yes, each and every year: the reason that the unemployment rate doesn’t continually soar is that the economy also creates roughly that number each year. Further, in recessions the job destruction numbers don’t rise particularly: it’s the job creation numbers that fall leading to rising unemployment. So, if near 50% of the population face job destruction over the next 20 years then among a 130 million workforce that’s, well, actually, that’s significantly less than the job destruction rate we expect anyway.

As to what else these people do in their new jobs it doesn’t actually matter. Anything, in this scenario, will be an addition to the communal wealth that we get to share as a society. Think of the example given of WalMart: it opens in a town, puts the Mom and Pop stores out of business and this is regarded as terrible. They’re killing jobs! Actually, this is fabulous, it’s making us all richer.

Before WalMart there were, imagine, 100 retail jobs in the town. After WalMart there’s 50. And people still get all the retail services they desire. That last must be true for if there were still a shortage of retail services then everyone else would not have gone out of business. So, we’ve got the services we desire from only 50 people now and we also get the production of those other 50 doing whatever it is that they go off and do. And it doesn’t matter whether they go off and find the cure for cancer, wait tables at Denny’s or stay home and change the baby’s diapers. As a society we are richer by having not only the original retail services but also that cancer cure, bad pancakes and dry and smiling babies (and anyone who has had children will know that that last is an addition to human wealth).

This is where Jaron Lanier’s whine about Kodak and Instagram becomes so obviously stupid. It’s not correct to say, as he does, that the output of the 150,000 people at Kodak has been replaced by the 11 at Instagram. But let us take his argument as he makes it and assume that it is. Excellent, so, we all get to develop our selfies with the aid of the labour of only 11 of our fellow humans. We also get to enjoy the production of those other 149,989 people who used to provide us with photographic services but now do something else.

Again, it doesn’t actually matter what those other people are doing. They are indeed producing something, somewhere, even if it’s only human contentment by having a beer out on the stoop. The species as a whole is richer by this destruction of jobs. So when Lanier asks, as he is wont, where has all the wealth gone, the answer is that it has flowed to us consumers. By economising on the use of human labour in producing one thing we’ve freed up that labour to be used to produce something else, additional to the original production. We must, by definition, all in aggregate be richer as a result.

Another story that caught my eye was this from Noah Smith. I was surprised for Smith is normally much better than this:

We can carry this dystopian thought exercise through to its ultimate conclusion. Imagine a world where gated communities have become self-contained cantonments, inside of which live the beautiful, rich, Robot Lords, served by cheap robot employees, guarded by cheap robot armies. Outside the gates, a teeming, ragged mass of lumpen humanity teeters on the edge of starvation. They can’t farm the land or mine for minerals, because the invincible robot swarms guard all the farms and mines. Their only hope is to catch the attention of the Robot Lords inside the cantonments, either by having enough rare talent to be admitted as a Robot Lord, or by becoming a novelty slave for a little while.

His set up is that cheap drones armed with guns would be useful for those Robot Lords to oppress the rest of humanity. That doesn’t quite ring true for a $50 drone that can take out some revolting prole is also a $50 drone that can take out the Robot Lord as he tends his dahlias. But there’s a much more fundamental error here. When the robots are doing everything then what damn shortage of anything is there?

As above with WalMart or Instagram, when we reduce the amount of human labour we need to do any one thing then we free up that labour to do other things. That is, greater automation leads to greater production. And if we’re going to free the entirety of the species from the burden of work in producing food, minerals or anything else, then how can we then end up with a shortage of these things? It simply doesn’t make sense that there can be scarcity in such a society.

Which brings us to Karl Marx. And a very important point which is all too little appreciated these days. Sure, we all know that communism is that mythical post scarcity economy. But Marx pointed out that abundance was a precondition for that communism, not that communism would provide the abundance. As he put it:

development of productive forces…is an absolutely necessary practical premise [for communism] because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced.

Or as one of the better interpreters of his work put it:

Marx thought that material abundance was not only a sufficient but also a necessary condition of equality…It was because he was so uncompromisingly pessimistic about the social consequences of anything less than limitless abundance that Marx needed to be so optimistic about the possibility of that abundance (GA Cohen, Self-ownership, Freedom and Equality)

(I am indebted to the thinking man’s Marxist, Chris Dillow, for those two quotes)

Socialism was the scientifically planned economy that would produce that abundance and it’s true that that didn’t work out as many hoped it would. But if we do indeed get to a post-scarcity society then that dream of true communism now becomes possible: possibly without starving 8 million Ukrainians this time. And that robotic economy would indeed be a post-scarcity one. Sure, somethings won’t be in infinite supply, beach houses in Malibu, willing sexual partners and so on, but the goods and services which are indeed currently scarce simply will not be. For, once we no longer need human labour to produce them then there is no other limitation upon our ability to produce any quantity of them.

So, the robots are about to make communism possible. Or, of course, that robot economy just isn’t going to arrive at all and then we’ll still be stumbling along as we are then. And what on earth is wrong with either of those outcomes?

[Photo credit: Jonathan McIntosh]