The Automated Economy: Utopia or New Feudal System?

July 12, 2015


Robotics and artificial intelligences are a staple of science fiction, but their potential impact in our economy is rarely discussed. Prevailing wisdom states that robotics will only replace menial jobs, leaving higher-paying white collar jobs for humans. Indeed, many manufacturing jobs have replaced humans with automated systems, and even some service industry jobs are at risk of automation. However, machine intelligence is quickly advancing, and is finding early applications in business. Systems such as IBM's Watson can rapidly scan through and interpret large amounts of data. Watson is already used to aid in disease diagnosis and in some cases outperforms doctors. IBM is developing Boardroom Watson to transcribe meetings, answer questions and propose strategies based on its vast database of company records. Deep Knowledge Ventures appointed an algorithm to its board of directors to evaluate investment decisions. Google's DeepMind deep-learning software can teach itself and develop strategies based on trial and error, which opens it to a wide variety of potential applications. In a recent test, DeepMind taught itself to play Atari video games and outperformed human players at almost half of the games tested, generating its own previously-unseen gameplay strategies. DeepMind may likewise develop new, previously-unimagined strategies for a variety of professions. High-paying jobs are clearly not immune to automation-in fact, they may be more susceptible to it from advances in deep learning algorithms. Software replacing an executive will see returns much faster than a robot replacing a line worker, not only because of efficiency, but also because of savings on salary.

Mass automation of jobs may be approaching faster than most anticipate, yet few have postulated what comes next. What happens when there are no jobs? Although the conventional point of view postulates that replacement of human jobs by robots could cause disastrous economic consequences, such a transformation may actually improve human quality of life. Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun, takes place on the planet Solaria, where robots outnumber humans roughly ten thousand to one. In this world, large armies of robots perform every task required to maintain the estates, including bookkeeping, construction, food production, and even highly-personal tasks like childcare. Solarian citizens who own these robots are then free to pursue their intellectual whims in large, luxurious mansions built and maintained by the robots. Likewise, in the future depicted in Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, manufacturing is almost entirely automated and money is abolished, allowing citizens the freedom to pursue their passions. However, Roddenberry also displays the dangers of over-reliance on automation. In The Bough Breaks, the Enterprise encounters a society so reliant on computers that citizens forgot how to repair them, and the planet suffers greatly when systems begin to malfunction.

Automation and the replacement of jobs by robots and software may indeed substantially improve the quality of life for all, however, vast new sources of energy and other natural resources may be necessary to support the burden of maintaining vast teams of machines as well as a large, non-working populace. Novel energy generation technologies may be required to power this new economy, and new methods of exploration and resource extraction (perhaps extra-planetary mining) may become necessary. Resource gathering may see exponential growth as self-replicating harvesting robots explore further and further.

The distribution of wealth in an automated economy is uncertain. Followers of Thomas Piketty's thesis on capital gains and the distribution of wealth may argue that increased reliance on automation may have a cascading effect on existing wealth, exacerbating the income gap. This increase in income inequality to unsustainable levels may push social struggle to the point of potential revolution and, subsequently, massive wealth redistribution. After all, the Achilles’ heel of socialist utopias, the lack of incentive to work hard and innovate, is abated when robots need no incentive to work and humans no longer have to work at all. Analysts following a different philosophy may argue that automation improves quality of life for all, as everyone will have access to inexpensive goods and robotic labor. When people do not need to work and wealth and income can be measured as a function of one's robots, even modest households will appear more like feudal lords or aristocratic plantation owners than unemployed proletariat. Regardless of one's position, massive social changes may force political bodies to rethink their economic systems, and major worldwide changes may occur.

A shift towards an automated economy may have massive social implications as well. Many people who would normally chose to become doctors, lawyers, and engineers to better support their families may instead turn to art, philosophy, and mathematics. Alternatively, many people may use their increased wealth and freedom from work for hedonistic pleasures. Although many people will doubtless choose to continue to study science and engineering, the rate of technical and scientific innovation may greatly slow unless machines learn to think and innovate on their own (advanced forms of Google’s Deepmind may allow machines to improve and innovate their own designs). Automation may have longstanding effects on future politics as well. Regime change and political upheaval through history has primarily been catalyzed by a large discontented lower class. Robots, who replace that lower class, will never revolt or become discontented, potentially stagnating the already slow-moving field of politics. As dangerous and expensive resource extraction becomes automated by teams of robots, resources and energy may become less scarce, potentially reducing the number of wars worldwide. On the other hand, warlords with large armies of robots may vie for world domination.

In a world where nobody has to work, what will people do? Will countries still go to war? Will people live useful lives? What will be their aspirations? Will we still explore? How will ownership change? How will wealth be distributed? In following months I plan to discuss these topics in depth and explore how a fully automated economy may affect the future of humanity.