What will happen when robots take over?

The greatest danger is that we will not agree on a road to happiness but rather one that leads to division and despair.


There is a lot of discussion today about the impact on our global economy once robots have a dominating part in production.  “The rise of the robots will boost productivity and economic growth. And it will lead to the creation of new jobs in yet-to-exist industries. But existing business models in many sectors will be seriously disrupted and millions of existing jobs will be lost. We estimate up to 20 million manufacturing jobs are set to be lost to robots by 2030.” 

If something isn’t done to fix our greed-driven economic system, it is easy to imagine what may happen in such a world (assuming, of course, that we aren’t wiped out by global climate change in the meantime).  The top part of society will get greater and greater goods and services. The bottom part of the society will be cut off from jobs and – under the way we operate – the ability to earn the money needed to participate in those goods and services.  At some point, the production will be so great that it will overcome the ability of this “split” society to buy and consume, causing the greatest economic depression ever seen.

This isn’t because the wealthy part of the population couldn’t buy the production, any more than that they couldn’t today.  But their need or desire for the production will be outstripped by the amount produced, and the poorer half of the population will have no ability to buy the production.  Hence, an economic depression.

If you leave aside the financial side of our world, a constant rise of production could lead to the world of The Midas Plague, a science-fiction story by Frederick Pohl in 1954. “In a world of cheap energy, robots are overproducing the commodities enjoyed by mankind. The lower-class “poor” must spend their lives in frantic consumption, trying to keep up with the robots’ extravagant production, while the upper-class “rich” can live lives of simplicity.” The solution to end the need for overconsumption is either to slow production or (the one Pohl selected) have the robots take part in consumption.  The need to select such an ending is a satiric comment on our economy. For those who run it, lower production is a sign of failure, while increasing production is a sign of success – even if it isn’t needed.

Actually, the short-term outcome in our present world is an increase of production for the benefit of the rich part of the population, while the poor part gets less and less.  Production rises in a controlled way so there is no financial depression. The rich are able to consume all that is needed to make the system operate, while the poor get nothing.

Imagining these sorts of outcomes makes one realize how foolishly humanity operates, because the rise of robotics does not solve one of the great problems we face: the increase in human population, calling for greater and greater production, even though many of the resources needed for that greater production is running out.  In 2011, an article suggested that we are running out of water, oil, gas, coal, phosphorus, and rare earth elements.  Oil, gas, and coal are no longer a problem with the advent of alternative energy, principally solar power. But phosphorus is, because it is vital for plant life, as is water, which is critical for our lives.  Likewise, rare earth elements cannot be replaced.  The same with metals, although it is certainly possible that our technology will produce a replacement.  And one might argue that solar power will permit us to create consumable water from gases in the atmosphere or from the oceans.

Robotics would not cure the problems created by shortages of water, phosphorus, and rare earth elements.  Similarly, humans are killing off bees, which may lead to losses of plants dependent on bees for pollination. While robotics could conceivably lead to overproduction, other human activity could lead to loss of production and death on a large scale.

Once one begins to focus on these sorts of problems, one realizes the foolishness of our world political structure, impacted as it is by our economic structure.  If our world were truly dominated by a god, he would almost certainly call for a drastic diminution of our human population, which causes most of our problems. Trying to diminish that population, however, could lead to societies in which the old outnumbered the young and in which it was difficult for society to function.  The fortunate thing about robotics is that the increase in production by robots could permit humans to make a controlled effort to diminish their population. However, that cannot really happen in a humane way unless we find a method of sharing the coming production while at the same time controlling the consumption of resources which are difficult to replace.

There is another reason for sharing both production and what we call “jobs,” which are really activities that make our lives meaningful.  Take the idea of a universal basic income, suggested by Andrew Yang and others. UBI is a means of sharing production, but it does not share in activities that make life meaningful.  One can imagine a society in which the production by robots is shared, so at least everyone has the minimum amount needed to live. But those without jobs would doubtless turn in huge numbers to activities like drugs or alcohol consumption because they had nothing else to do.  If, on the other hand, humans were to take advantage of having sufficient resources, they could use those to educate, create health, reduce population, and allow creativity, eliminating our propensity to fight and increasing our ability to cooperate.

In the long run, robotics could lead to a utopian society – or to a dystopia. Human beings, by how they treat one another, will decide willy-nilly which one it will be.  The greatest danger is that we will not agree on a road to happiness but rather one that leads to division and despair.  

Think hard, humanity.  You have nothing to lose but your chains.


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