Slavery Without Slaves

November 29, 2015

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Massive automation of the economy through intelligent and versatile machines may lead to a variety of different social outcomes. However, as even more intelligent and capable machines represent an inexpensive, zero-wage form of labor owned as property, the economics of historical slavery may provide an insightful glimpse of how an automated economy may form and evolve.

Slavery is a sensitive topic to discuss, but if we consider machines, not people, to be our slaves, then being called a slave owner seems derisive, but just a technicality.  However, such ownership is not as guilt-free as it may appear, since we cannot ignore that in order to provide inexpensive machines for mass use, inexpensive human labor is necessary, often obtained in countries that do not abide by our same laws of fair employment. When an economy is sufficiently automated that human labor is not necessary to manufacture machines, these concerns may be suitably addressed.

For the vast majority of human history, and well into pre-history, humans have owned each other as slaves. Ancient Mesopotamian tablets dating back as early as 1750 BC reference distinctions between free men and slaves. Slaves played an important role in the economies of ancient and new world civilizations, especially as high real wages and low slave costs made slaves the most economical factor of production. However, slave-ownership had drastically different effects on the culture and society of historical civilizations. Will our future with slavery of intelligent machines more closely resemble ancient Sparta or ancient Athens?

In ancient Sparta, citizens were required to become soldiers, in part because it was considered the most honorable profession, but also because a sizable standing army was necessary to keep the large slave population of state-owned slaves, called Helots, from revolting. Populations shifted over time, but in some years Helots outnumbered Spartans seven to one, requiring Spartans to use brutal subjugation techniques such as mandatory beatings and random killings to pacify the Helot populace. The common science fiction theme of a robot revolt is consistent with this concern about maintaining power over the workers.

Athens also had a large slave population, but the relationship between personally owned slaves and masters in Athens was very different from Sparta’s. Like Sparta, Athens had as many as 80,000 slaves in the 5th and 6th centuries BC, averaging three to four slaves per household. According to Greek literature, even poor peasants could afford slaves. However, Athenians, without fear of revolt as in Sparta, were able to use their freedom from labor to pursue scientific, cultural, and political goals. Because slave-owning citizens no longer needed to work to provide for themselves, they spent their days creating beautiful works of art, debating political theory and devising new forms of governance (such as democracy) in the forum, and developing the basis of modern science and mathematics.

Will widespread adoption of intelligent and capable machines create a system closer to the slave economy of Athens or Sparta? Automated systems, so long as they do not pose the threat of overthrowing their masters, would not require an approach like Sparta. Most conditions for intelligent machines suggest an approach like Athens. Free economies around the world focus more on individual than state ownership of goods, similar to Athens. Automated systems may also grow to be very inexpensive, especially since power for a machine costs much less than supplying food and shelter for a human. Within a few years of introduction, prices for home robotic systems will likely be low enough to be affordable even for low-income households. Widespread freeing of human time will hopefully follow the Athenian model: where people use their new freedom from labor to explore humanities, mathematics, and the sciences. Otherwise, it would be unfortunate if it follows the Spartan model, involving military expansion and desire for foreign conquests.

Although new technologies virtually always raise the standard of living for all, adoption of automation technologies are likely to be highly capital intensive initially. Some economists believe that high capital costs may accelerate wealth inequality, and potentially cause social tensions and reforms, as discussed in an earlier post. Slave ownership in antiquity does provide some justification for this concern: In ancient Rome, large parcels of land known as Latifundium were powered by armies of slaves owned by the wealthy. Latifundium were in effect, the first form of industrialized agriculture, generally specializing in grain, olive oil, or wine, and were necessary to support Rome’s growing mega-cities. Economies of scale allowed these Latifundium to grow rapidly and consolidate smaller farms, and in turn, consolidate regional power and wealth to a small elite. Pliny the Elder noted that at one point, half of the province of Africa was controlled by a mere six land owners.

Intelligent machines and mass-automation may free humans from work, and may further free us from exploiting one another. Free time may create a new renaissance of art, philosophy, and science, fueled by greater numbers of ambitious people with no need to spend time focusing on sustenance. However, distribution of land, power, and wealth remains uncertain. Could we enjoy the economic benefits of slavery, but without the horrors of mistreatment, subjugation, torture, and hard labor--everyone a slave owner, and no person a slave? Will inexpensive intelligent machines create a world of luxury for everyone, or consolidate wealth and power among very few? How can we ensure that our future relationship with intelligent machines will be more like Athens and less like Sparta?