What is the plan if a computer or robotic workforce cause catastrophic unemployment?

Answer by Yishan Wong:

There is going to be a huge and consistent pro-human bias in any set of answers written solely by humans, especially when confronting the possibility of total and complete obsolescence.  I find that a lot of answers to this question really try to stretch for ways that humans will remain uniquely valuable and irreplaceable due to some intrinsic quality, and grasp tenuously at the possibility that in the face of overwhelmingly superior autonomous robotic competition that we would retain a safe haven and, in some cases, even an honored position, without undue effort.

I think this is totally wrongheaded and we need to seriously consider the possibility that without drastic action, the likely outcome is total and utter annihilation.  Our own history does not suggest otherwise.

For example:

  • Even amongst humans, and amongst our own countrymen, we will mercilessly outsource jobs to lower-cost countries and lay off domestic workers while simultaneously cutting welfare benefits.
  • Populations of settlers are willing to displace indigenous populations entirely on the basis of being able to make better use of land and other resources, working both inside and outside the legal framework to institutionalize this displacement.
  • Whenever a new technological advance is found that makes a human job obsolete, entrepreneurs rapidly exploit it in order to drive lower-cost solutions, and they are typically adopted quite readily by business owners, and their low-cost products adopted readily by consumers.
  • Wherever possible, humans have exploited other lower life forms for their own purposes, either breeding them into optimally compliant forms, maintaining them in lowest-possible-cost factory conditions, or wiping them out where inconvenient.  The small minority of people who object to these practices tend to be marginalized and considered kooks.

None of these behaviors indicate that human beings, literally the most morally conscious entity on the planet will shirk from fatally displacing humans and other lifeforms from their livelihoods in the least.  It is therefore logical to expect that complex and sufficiently autonomous technology that we create will do the same.  There is no compelling reason to expect otherwise.

In fact, given current trends in AI and robotics, we should expect that if we create such technology anywhere "in our own image," it will probably wipe us out with expediency exceeding our own.  A Matrix-style enslavement is the most likely possibility.

History only offers one way to avoid this.  Indigenous peoples who successfully resisted imperialist colonizers (e.g. Thailand, Japan) adopted two strategies:

  1. Establish and maintain unassailable control over a unique resource base, and trade its products (but not ownership or control) to the more powerful force in return for technology and other tools needed to maintain operational parity and buy time.  Humans must maintain complete control over one or more resources vital to future autonomous robots, and never place it under the control of those robots, trading its products in return for robot labor or other valuable technologies developed by those robots.
  2. Adopt the methods and technologies of the superior colonizing rival, so as to compete viably as a distinct entity.  This requires giving up enough of one's traditional self-identity to become a modernized hybrid.  This likely means that humans will have to utilize the same autonomous (or semi-autonomous) AI technology to become cyborgs who are able to compete with fully-autonomous systems.  There is no guarantee that this will happen – for instance, cyborg augmentation may be outlawed by reactionary governments for reasons that are, at their core, a psychological reaction against a loss of self-identity – but it must be allowed to occur and only humans who do so will have any chance of competing with autonomous robots.

Both parts of the above strategies face major socioeconomic obstacles – the first is inertia and laziness, in that humans will gladly place control of major resources under the control of robots in the interests of short-term economic efficiency – Western colonizers could doubtlessly run mines or oil wells or other resource extraction pools originally under the control of indigenous peoples, but once ownership is shared or transferred, so is control.  And it is never handed back.  The second is reactionary sentiment due to fear of loss of self-identity.  In the historical example, Meiji Japan was willing to adulterate the Japanese sense of identity in order to adopt modern (Western) customs and technology while China was not, with vastly differing results[1].  Near-future governments who allow human self-modification using technology will face huge conservative condemnation but will be the only ones who can produce competitive populations.

The hard, bitter truth that we need to face is that humans aren't going to have a natural, unthreatened niche in the face of advancing technology.  We aren't going to be "creative" or "robot-builders" or honored predecessors in any way.  There is no reason to believe that robots will have some sort of extra-enlightened morality, especially when human beings don't – the fact that we perform gruesome medical experiments on primates for our own benefit is a more likely indicator of how human beings will be treated by robots.  History and nature teach that superior populations[2] simply wipe out or enslave inferior ones.  There is absolutely no reason to believe that superior high-precision autonomous technology won't do the same to us unless we (1) have something unique to offer them that they cannot simply take and (2) are willing to change our very nature to be more like them so that we can viable compete.

Welcome to the future, meatbags.

[1] Incidentally, modern China, very mindful of this history, has adopted economic policies very much in reaction to this, preventing outside companies from acquiring an controlling interest in their domestic industries while simultaneously giving their domestic companies the ability to steal/acquire advanced foreign intellectual property.
[2] I don't mean morally superior, I mean just being better at killing you.

What is the plan if a computer or robotic workforce cause catastrophic unemployment?

About akiramorikawa

superconnection . pattern-recognition . iDesign
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