Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A strange discussion: Part two

[Part one is here]

Have you ever said, "I wish I had a clone I could send to work while I stayed home with the family?" That's exactly what happened to the character played by Michael Keaton in the 1996 movie comedy Multiplicity. Well, not "exactly" what happened, as Mr. Keaton's character ended up making many copies of himself, and not "exact" copies, leading to the hilarious situations depicted.

If a robot could be trained to do my job, it would easily replace me 5 times over, even if it worked at my slow pace. It would work 24 hours a day, rather than 8 of a full-time job (I am actually only employed for less than 6 hours a day). In addition, I have weekends off, have a few holiday and vacation and sick days and mandated break periods. Oh, and lunch. An automaton would hit the ground running on Monday morning, wouldn't daydream and make weekend plans on Friday, gossip around the water cooler, take bathroom breaks, surf the web and answer personal emails, make doctor and car repair appointments, sulk about an argument with the boss or spouse, worry about the health of the children, or any of the hundreds of distractions that people go through at work every day. Did I say 5 times? If a robot could do my job, it could replace 10 of me!

Do you see that if my job is automated, a single robot doesn't replace just me, but many of me? Or put another way, a single robot could produce 10 times the output (goods, services, and profit) that I do. The total gross national product of today could be supplied by highly-efficient and profitable robots with only 10% of the equivalent human workforce of today.

In my previous article I recounted that my wife and I discussed changes to society by self-driving cars and who that might put out of work. Some have posited that if robots take over just 20% of all jobs the increase in goods produced would create a "post-scarcity economy." That is, there would no longer be a supply-and-demand economy created by a scarcity of some material (food, housing) for which we would work and pay money. The supply of life's necessities would be available to all at a cost so low that most people would not have to work. An "infinite" supply, like air and sunshine. But in order to keep businesses profitable and producing, the government would provide the non-working majority a basic living income so that they could still be productive consumers. This is called Universal Basic Income.

Of course, some people could work, if they had the temperament to hold down a job, and the aptitude to deserve government paid training for the few positions necessary.

Does this sound crazy enough for you? It could never happen, right? Well, it is already happening with experiments in universal basic income now underway in Finland, Kenya, and Oakland, California. There are plans in Canada to start an experiment there. A referendum to implement this nationwide in Switzerland was just rejected by voters, this time.

A cultural change to society

Obviously, anything like universal basic income would significantly alter our culture. Many people define themselves by their job. And many people put many more than 40 hours per week into it. What would you do if you didn't need to work for money?

I, for one, have no desire to be a "gentleman of leisure" such as existed in the Victorian era England. Pride and Prejudice, anyone? No thank you. I would still work, but do something I enjoyed more. Volunteer work, arts and crafts, travel. There are several jobs now I'd like to do, but don't pay enough to live, and are mostly performed by volunteer retired persons: campground host, volunteers at nature centers, natural history interpreters, tour guides. I could be a tinkerer and inventor. I'd learn more, teach more. This inspirational quote takes on more meaning: "What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?"

My Grandfather did, indeed live through a great period of change during the 20th century. Is it possible there's even a bigger technological and cultural change ahead?

Who says?

Information in this post is primarily from these sources:

"Elon Musk: Automation will force universal basic income," 5/29/2017 by Daniel Starkey, Geek.com.
This article introduces the "post-scarcity economy" whereby "in the not-too-distant future, money won't matter and all of our economies will totally collapse." Self-driving cars will take away 20% of all labor jobs from the transportation industry alone.

"More robots, fewer jobs," 5/8/2017 Mira Rojanasakul and Peter Coy, Bloomberg.com. Analyzes the impact of robots and automation on jobs, based on "Robots and Jobs: Evidence from US Labor Markets," March 2017 a white paper by Daron Acemoglu of MIT and Pascual Restropo of Boston University, National Bureau of Economic Research. Research confirms that robots and automation do replace workers, and increase production. Additionally, wages fall for workers who remain employed. Industries that don't automate lose jobs anyway due to higher costs, and customers go to lower-priced--and often automated--competitors.

"When Robots Take All the Work, What'll Be Left for Us to Do?" 8/8/2014 by Marcus Wohlsen, Wired.com. Although this article is a bit older than the current glut of Artificial Intelligence and self-driving car infatuation, it argues that humans may still be employed where empathy, creativity, judgement, and critical thinking are needed. Health care, education, and care of children and the elderly are likely to remain in human hands. More about post-scarcity here, where robots efficiently and profitably produce far more than can be consumed. Jobs are optional and money has no meaning, as in the Star Trek universe. A change to society and what it means to be human.