Imagine the year 2075. All of the hard labor jobs are taken by robots. Humanity has a choice. Reward fewer people concentrated at the top percentile with increased (and ultimately devalued) monetary rewards for controlling production of goods no longer in demand. The second option is that we take advantage of the bounty that the productivity of machines allows humanity, thereby providing a higher standard of living for all. Either way, we will have to adapt to new economic realities.
The Apocalyptic Wasteland Scenario
The typical doom and gloom prediction looks like this: Humanity is displaced. The few remaining rich live in luxury and excess, controlling production and ignoring the suffering masses outside their restricted communities. The lower 85% of humanity is left to struggle in sub human conditions while they eke out a living among the rubble and ruin of society. Humanity lives in dilapidated housing, has no healthcare, eating vermin off the streets. The middle class is extinct, democracy is utterly destroyed, and the oligarchy is strictly maintained by a police state. Think Judge Dredd, Blade Runner, or any post-apocalyptic science fiction movie and you get the point. This dreadful scene is all too familiar.
Are We Doomed?
No. The problem with this scenario is that it is rooted in fear. The unknown future of technology can be scary, but so was the invention of the automobile in its day. This prediction relies on the old paradigms requiring work for money, consumer driven economies and artificial demand manufactured my industry and marketing. It assumes and perpetuates a reliance on forms of capitalism that are becoming increasingly irrelevant. With humans out of the workforce, who is there to sell to? Demand does increase as production costs lower this theory ignores one important paradox. When there is not a significant workforce, there is no demand, even if there is an abundance of product. New cars are abundant but if we’re broke, we cannot buy any of them. The robots themselves won’t be consumers. After all, why does a washing machine need an iPhone?
The remaining 15% of the population cannot possibly replace the demand of billions. Can one billionaire with a devalued currency buy enough widgets to run the economy? The answer is no, especially when they are his widgets. When their money stagnates, and they are unable to generate real profit, capitalism dies. Besides, the rest of society could simply move into rural areas and return to more ergonomic lifestyle, aided by robots made dirt cheap by availability and low cost. This leaves the wealthy to play a glorified version of monopoly that is irrelevant to mainstream society. Of course, we as a society must act to prevent an oppressive regime from outlawing farming and irrigation, which is a whole different article waiting to happen, but we could do it if we chose to do so.
The Prosperity Scenario
The big question is that when the workforce is largely automated, what will it look like for humans? It’s predicted that by 2045, 47% of the workforce will be automated. Truck drivers, librarians, farmers, rescues workers, miners, construction workers, all of this can be automated. Heck, they are working on self-replicating machines that can fix themselves and robots that can fix machines so what are we to do? In a word: Nothing. With the ease of production, scarcity will disappear. We will all have the resources to acquire what we need, much like we are seeing with 3D printers that produce everything from tools to full scale housing.
Picture fully automated skyscrapers dedicated solely to produce, maintained by machines and a skeleton crew of humanity who rotate duties to maintain society, much like doing chores at home keeps the household running smoothly. The hours per week would be minimal. Once the robots know what to do, humans would simply pop in from time to time to insure things are running smoothly. Programming will be so easy that it would become a basic skill like reading and writing. By programming efficiency and resource management into the system, the automated process determines who has need and fulfills that need, insuring resources are not depleted. After these machines are programmed, we won’t need foremen telling large crews what to do. There robots will not need to be paid, simply maintained and they will largely do that by themselves.
We can replace the consumer driven economy with a resource based economy, moving resources to where they are most needed at zero cost. We know what human need to survive and thrive and once these needs are met, there will be plenty of excess to go around. Plus, if we program our systems to monitor our finite resources, and spread the technology worldwide, we can more effectively manage our environment and provide for all. We would be independently resource rich and free to pursue our passions, our creativity or play sports, raise our families, and care for our elders without job constraints.
Challenging The Status Quo
Attaining this new society is no easy task. Humans have been conditioned to believe that we must justify our own existence through what it is we produce. Long has the idiom been that one must work to eat. One must struggle to survive and our value is measured by the quantity of money and possessions we have accumulated. Our self-worth is no longer valued simply because we live, breath, and suffer with the rest of humanity. This is not an easy mindset to transform. For one, there will be a fierce resistance to this by people who either through hard work or trust funds have the bounty now and they will not easily give that up. Jobless benefits’, welfare and social security are considered by many in high society to be a free ride to the underserving and lazy. We would need to transform that entire school of thought in order to ensure that technology will provide a bounty for all mankind, not just a select few.
Laying The Groundwork For Change
Already we are seeing projects like community gardens take root. In Washington, several state parks have begun to let residents plant in community gardens. There is even a Food Forrest initiative growing across the country based off the Beacon Food Forrest in Seattle, Washington. The idea is that foragers can walk through and pick what they want. This is called Permaculture, where sustainable food crops are grown and tended by the community and comes as concerns for tainted food arise day after day. Earth homes are also increasing in popularity. More and more environmentalists, survivalists and people looking to live off the grid are building their own homes from recycled material away from the big cities. In Detroit, where large swaths of abandoned homes are going to waste, community leaders are finding ways to repurpose old houses, or keep them from foreclosing due to irreconcilable financial hardships. Whole communities are buying residences and using them to benefit the society around them. Low income families are taking up residence and building new lives, and planting food seeds in the yards, transforming entire communities into lush, green, sustainable live in gardens.
Loveland Technologies is a company using crowdsourcing to bring every home in Detroit and other blighted can up to technological standards and fill them with people who would otherwise be unable to afford them. All of this is pointing to a society grown weary of the selfishness and greed of the corporatocracy. People are relying less and less on jobs and more on each other. They are working smarter, not harder, and working together. This is good news as less people want the drudgery of 9-5 jobs and are looking for the freedom to have meaningful lives within their community. Enter the tireless robot line workers like Baxter who can do all of these jobs without pay, relieving humanity of the drudgery and creating new roles in which humanity’s main task is caring for one another, as new studies have found
Blowing Against The Wind
It is inevitable. The age of robotics is here and it’s only going to grow and resistance is futile. Instead of fear mongering and panicking, we can choose how we adapt to this emerging reality. Up until now, it has been true that humans have had to work and struggle to survive, but when we have robotic workers, they will essentially be appliances that do not have the same requirements that humans do. No need for love or emotional reward. No need for comfort, rest, food. They will do nearly all of the work. What could humanity do under these circumstances? When humans are free from labor, from money, from class based prejudice, what will we do? Will we make art? Will we continue to invent or will we stagnate? Will we follow our innate creative desires or will we simply wither through lack of ambition? Will we volunteer to assist with maintenance of our new society with the reward of luxury not defined by monetary restrictions? Will we create a new caste system? Will we find new ways to put people in economic chains or will we learn to value all of humanity simply because we are all human? Only time will tell but it is up to us to decide what our path will be.