Let’s prepare now for the job apocalypse

Summary:  A new Industrial Revolution has begun while we fuss and frolick about much smaller issues. With our experience from the earlier ones, we can manage it to build a prosperous future. Unlike the previous ones, this time we can do it without massive suffering during the transition. This one of a series of posts about what might be the major economic event of the 21st century. It might make many of our current problems disappear – and introduce new ones.

Let’s seek a safe path to the future.

"Danger, Construction Ahead" by Kay Sage, 1940.
“Danger, Construction Ahead” by Kay Sage, 1940.

Prepare for the future by closing our eyes

On September 23 {William the Conqueror’s} fleet hove in sight, and all came safely to anchor in Pevensey Bay. There was no opposition to the landing. The local fyrd had been called out this year 4 times already to watch the coast, and having, in true English style, come to the conclusion that the danger was past because it had not yet arrived had gone back to their homes.

— From A History of the English-Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill.

The development of semi-intelligent machines (e.g., an IQ equivalent of 60) with simple sensory systems will destroy a large fraction of today’s jobs. Perhaps we will find new forms of employment for the unemployed. Perhaps we will develop new economic systems which require fewer people to work, sharing the new bounty with the unemployed. If delayed into the second half of the 21st century, the almost inevitable population crash (esp. following the invention of a contraceptive pill for men) will make automation a cure for the economy – not a curse.  Any solution will require innovation, wisdom, luck – and time. We must start soon.

But the need to adapt is not obvious to everybody. After all, the last one ran from roughly 1860 to 1945 – dimly remembered history to most Americans. In her 1989 book In The Age Of The Smart Machine: The Future Of Work And Power Shoshana Zuboff does not even use the word “unemployment” – or mention the potential for massive job losses.

This “robot revolution” is long-predicted and now arriving, but some interpret that it took long to arrive as evidence that it will not come. For example, in 2016 Elizabeth Garbee at Slate wrote “This Is Not the Fourth Industrial Revolution” – “The meaningless phrase got tossed around a lot at this year’s World Economic Forum.”

See my posts about the effects of the new industrial revolution on different kinds of jobs. It has already begun. Below are forecasts of the coming robot revolution. Let’s learn from their insights, and begin to prepare.

"Cities in Flight" by James Blish
Available at Amazon.

It was science fiction; now it’s our future

The effects of automation were visible to some people long ago. One of the first was James Blish, as in his A Life for the Stars (1962), the second of his Cities in Flight series. This passage describes what New York might look like in the late 21st century.

“The cab came floating down out of the sky at the intersection and maneuvered itself to rest at the curb next to them with a finicky precision.  There was, of course, nobody in it; like everything else in the world requiring an I.Q. of less than 150, it was computer-controlled.

“The world-wide dominance of such machines, Chris’s father had often said, had been one of the chief contributors to the present and apparently permanent depression:  the coming of semi-intelligent machines into business and technology had created a second Industrial Revolution, in which only the most highly creative human beings, and those most fitted at administration, found themselves with any skills to sell which were worth the world’s money to buy.”

Jeremy Rifkin warns us to prepare

End of Work
Available at Amazon.

Jeremy Rifkin is a Jeremiah of our time, always warning of dooms. But just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, he scores occasionally – as in The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era (1995). It was a prescient attempt to grapple with the problem. He says socialism is the solution. From the publisher.

“Jeremy Rifkin argues that we are entering a new phase in history – one characterized by the steady and inevitable decline of jobs. The world is fast polarizing into two potentially irreconcilable forces: on one side, an information elite that controls and manages the high-tech global economy; and on the other, the growing numbers of displaced workers, who have few prospects and little hope for meaningful employment in an increasingly automated world. The end of work could mean the demise of civilization as we have come to know it, or signal the beginning of a great social transformation and a rebirth of the human spirit.”

Rifkin was far ahead of the pack, as seen in this excerpt from the book.

“The Information Age has arrived. In the years ahead, new, more sophisticated software technologies are going to bring civilization ever closer to a near-workerless world. In the agricultural, manufacturing, and service sectors, machines are quickly replacing human labor and promise an economy of near automated production by the middecades of the twenty-first century.

“The wholesale substitution of machines for workers is going to force every nation to rethink the role of human beings in the social process. Redefining opportunities and responsibilities for millions of people in a society absent of mass formal employment is likely to be the single most pressing social issue of the coming century. …

“We are entering a new phase in world history-one in which fewer and fewer workers will be needed to produce the goods and services for the global population. The End of Work examines the technological innovations and market-directed forces that are moving us to the edge of a near workerless world. We will explore the promises and perils of the Third Industrial Revolution and begin to address the complex problems that will accompany the transition into a post-market era. …

“In the past, when new technologies have replaced workers in a given sector, new sectors have always emerged to absorb the displaced laborers. Today, all three of the traditional sectors of the economy agriculture, manufacturing, and service – are experiencing technological displacement, forcing millions onto the unemployment rolls.

“The only new sector emerging is the knowledge sector, made up of a small elite of entrepreneurs, scientists, technicians, computer programmers, professionals, educators, and consultants. While this sector is growing, it is not expected to absorb more than a fraction of the hundreds of millions who will be eliminated in the next several decades in the wake of revolutionary advances in the information and communication sciences. …

“The restructuring of production practices and the permanent replacement of machines for human laborers has begun to take a tragic toll on the lives of millions of workers.”

Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance
Available at Amazon.

Politics of an industrial revolution

For a grim look at our future, see Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance by David F. Noble (1995). See his Wikipedia bio. The opening chapters are from his 1983 series of articles in Democracy about “Present Tense Technology”. The series opens with this stark warning from “Technology’s Politics.”

“There is a war on, but only one side is armed: this is the essence of the technology question today. On the one side is private capital, scientized and subsidized, mobile and global, and now heavily armed with military spawned command, control, and communication technologies. Empowered by the second industrial revolution, capital is moving decisively now to enlarge and consolidate the social domination it secured in the first. …

“Thus, with the new technology as a weapon, they steadily advance upon all remaining vestiges of worker autonomy, skill, organization, and power in the quest for more potent vehicles of investment and exploitation. And, with the new technology as their symbol, they launch a multi-media cultural offensive designed to rekindle confidence in ‘progress.’

“On the other side, those under assault hastily abandon the field for lack of an agenda, an arsenal or an army. Their own comprehension and critical abilities confounded by the cultural barrage, they take refuge in alternating strategies of appeasement and accommodation, denial and delusion, and reel in desperate disarray before this seemingly inexorable onslaught – which is known in polite circles as “technological change.

“What is it that accounts for this apparent helplessness on the part of those whose very survival, it would seem, depends upon resisting this systematic degradation of humanity into mere disposable factors of production and accumulation?”

For a laser-like focus on the core political issue see “Who Will Own the Robots?” in MIT Technology Review, June 2015.

“We’re in the midst of a jobs crisis, and rapid advances in AI and other technologies may be one culprit. How can we get better at sharing the wealth that technology creates?”

Mike Konczal demolishes fantasies about a post-work world in his rebuttal to Derek Thompson’s article in The Atlantic: “The Hard Work of Taking Apart Post-Work Fantasy” at the Roosevelt Institute.

Visions of dark futures

Science fiction can break out our imaginations from the rut of the present, and so help us imagine what lies ahead if current trends continue. Cyberpunk novels as some of the most dramatic, as in these summaries by Diana Biller from “The Essential Cyberpunk Reading List” at io9 (genetic engineering novels are a newer wave). They describe a world in which the 1% continues winning. Conservatives cut taxes for the rich and cut benefits for the 99%. Combine that with steady pressure on wages as jobs disappear (a growing “reserve army of the unemployed“) and you get dark futures – a “nightmarish world of corporate control and extreme wealth disparities.”

Neuromancer
Available at Amazon.

Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984).

Despite having no IT background, Gibson invented cyberpunk, vividly describing a future that captured the imagination of a generation.

“Henry Dorsett Case used to be a hacker, before his employer caught him stealing and he was dosed with a drug that made him incapable of accessing the global computer network. Now a mysterious person needs his hacking skills, and promises him a cure in return.

“The book that defined the sub-genre, this 1984 novel is likely the most essential of the books on this list (it was also the first winner of the science fiction triple crown, taking the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Philip K. Dick Award).

“Gibson has written many influential cyberpunk novels, including the rest of the Sprawl Trilogy (of which Neuromancer is the first), the Bridge Trilogy, and the short story collection Burning Chrome.”

Frontera
Available at Amazon.

Frontera by Lewis Shiner (1984).

A book exploring themes since then used in scores of books and films.

“Also written in 1984, this debut novel from Lewis Shiner is set in a world controlled by corporations, one of which decides to send an expedition to a lost Martian colony to discover and gain ownership of a crucial secret. Corporate control, body augmentation, and other cyberpunk themes blend with golden age elements.”

A summary from the publisher.

“Ten years ago the world’s governments collapsed, and now the corporations are in control. Houston’s Pulsystems has sent an expedition to the lost Martian colony of Frontera to search for survivors. Reese, aging hero of the US space program, knows better. The colonists are not only alive, they have discovered a secret so devastating that the new rulers of Earth will stop at nothing to own it. Reese is equally desperate to use it for his own very personal agenda.

“But none of them have reckoned with Kane, tortured veteran of the corporate wars, whose hallucinatory voices are urging him to complete an ancient cycle of heroism and alter the destiny of the human race.”

Metrophage
Available at Amazon.

Metrophage by Richard Kadrey (1988).

“This dystopian novel by the author of the Sandman Slim series takes place in late 21st-century Los Angeles, where the rich live in unimaginable luxury and everybody else lives in a wasteland of misery. And a small-time drug dealer discovers a strange new plague, and gets drawn into the secret warfare between huge economic blocs.”

From the publisher.

“Welcome to our future: L.A. in the late twenty-first century – a segregated city of haves and have-nots, where morality is dead and technology rules. Here, a small wealthy group secludes themselves in gilded cages. Beyond their high-security compounds, far from their pretty comforts, lies a lawless wasteland where the angry masses battle hunger, rampant disease, and their own despair in order to survive. Jonny was born into this Hobbesian paradise.”

“This dystopian novel by the author of the Sandman Slim series takes place in late 21st-century Los Angeles, where the rich live in unimaginable luxury and everybody else lives in a wasteland of misery. And a small-time drug dealer discovers a strange new plague, and gets drawn into the secret warfare between huge economic blocs.”

Conclusions

“We’re all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. When it comes to your job, that’s different. And it always will be different.”
— Dr. McCoy, star date 4729.4, in the Star Trek episode “The Ultimate Computer.“

We have no excuse for being caught unaware and letting this new technology destabilize our society and cause widespread suffering. With modest planning we can enjoy its fantastic benefits without pain. Failure to plan for these obvious developments might mean some tough times ahead for America.

For More Information

Ideas! For some shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon. Also, see a story about our future: “Ultra Violence: Tales from Venus.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts describing how the 3rd industrial revolution has begun. Also see the posts about the evidence that we’ve entered a period of secular stagnation. And especially see these…

  1. The promise and peril of automation.
  2. At last economists see the robot revolution. Here’s why they worry.
  3. The robots are coming, bringing hope of a better future.
  4. A warning about the robot revolution from a great economist.
  5. How Robots & Algorithms Are Taking Over.
  6. Tech creates a social revolution with unthinkable impacts that we prefer not to see — About sexbots.
  7. Our future will be Jupiter Ascending, unless we make it Star Trek.
  8. AI will reshape the world. Films show how.

For deeper analysis see these books…

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
Available at Amazon.
Rise of the Robots
Available at Amazon.

21 thoughts on “Let’s prepare now for the job apocalypse”

  1. “The only new sector emerging is the knowledge sector, made up of a small elite of entrepreneurs, scientists, technicians, computer programmers, professionals, educators, and consultants.”

    IMO: I prefer the visions about creativity being one of the abilities to be sought, after the AI revolution. Not being stupid, I think the elite would understand that music, art, etc would help keep the peasants complacent. I think Andre Norton’s comment that we went on the wrong path about how humans work deserves some thought. Creativity does not necessarily mean one needs a high IQ. This is also an area that deserves some thought. As the pressure mounts from AI job intrusions, there will be opportunities for other ways to obtain money, power, and fame. There will be those who adapt.

    YMMV.

    1. John,

      “I prefer the visions about creativity being one of the abilities to be sought”

      We’re buried in music, books, TV, films, and art now. How much more can we consume? Imagine if we doubled the number of “creators”. I double we could absorb much of the added output, and don’t believe the effect on employment would be large.

      1. I prefer visions of reality where there is blood on the streets as a result of the social turmoil produced by automation. Talk of humans always being employed is just silly and is avoiding the real issue. I have been replaced by automation twice in my life and have had to reinvent myself four times. But options are going to be running out and not everyone is adaptable, so the drain on social resources will ramp up until…

        Please let us move the rhetoric past this point where humans are happily employed doing what humans are good at – that will not fill the void that automation is going to create. We need a real solution – taxing automation to pay for those who have been displaced is a good first step.

      2. David,

        “I prefer visions of reality where there is blood on the streets as a result of the social turmoil produced by automation”

        So you are a monster?

        “But options are going to be running out and not everyone is adaptable, so the drain on social resources will ramp up until…”

        That’s a pretty drastic misunderstanding of how automation works. It increases national productivity. But how that bounty is shared is a political, not economic, choice. Sharing that bounty is not “a drain.”

        “taxing automation to pay for those who have been displaced is a good first step.”

        That won’t work, any more than workers tossing their shoes into the textile machines did. It is a matter of sharing the bounty produced by the machines. Tax profits. Or change ownership of the means of production. Both are proven strategies. Like everything in life, all choices have advantages and disadvantages.

  2. OT: But goes to other posts, from NYT. It appears another branch of the forever war is bearing its deadly fruit.

    What is the U.S. military’s role in Africa?

    A brazen attack by Shabab fighters on a base in Kenya this month killed three Americans, the largest number of U.S. military-related fatalities in Africa in more than two years.

    The Jan. 5 assault was largely overshadowed by the crisis with Iran, but it’s now drawing scrutiny from Congress and the Pentagon and raising questions about the American military’s mission in Africa, where it stations more than 5,000 troops.

    Background: The Shabab, an East African terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda, have vowed to attack Americans wherever they can, although their campaign has largely been confined to Somalia.

    How we know: Our article is based on interviews with a dozen American military officials or other people briefed on the attack. Several spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a security failure that remains under investigation.

    1. John,

      “What is the U.S. military’s role in Africa?”

      Laying the foundation for future foreign wars for America. They don’t just happen. They require careful planning and preparation.

      We get involved with small numbers of troops. Some of them get killed. We must drastically expand the number of troops to deal with this problem. Failure to do so would be isolationist, just like in the 1930s! Hitler! WWII!

      QED.

  3. This is article has caused me to think very hard because my job is the leading edge of automation. I’m a computer guy who works with companies to become more efficient. Frankly I love my job, in large part because of the joy it brings other people. Larry has done a good job of talking about the process from the outside. Let me show you what happens from the inside.

    The primary issues I work on are changing how people work, not replacing them. Cost savings and income growth are natural outcomes of this effort, which deeply involves all levels of people in the company. When I go into a new company (like I will on Monday), the first part (usually the worst) is to document how people are currently working and why. The answer to the “why” part frequently requires a LOT of patient digging because nobody really knows why they do what they do, they just follow routines that were established before they arrived. Sometimes I uncover valid reasons why a particular task is done but a lot of the time it is a 15-20 year old unnecessary relic caused by friction between changing realities and unchanging procedures.

    The lowest levels of workers are usually my greatest allies after I’ve documented the “why” part because the third question I ask “what do you dislike most about your job?” Frequently the parts of their jobs that need to be removed are also the parts they hate.

    The fourth question I ask is “how could you do your job more efficiently?” By this time the workers have usually thought of a pretty good set of ideas as to how things could work better for them. I combine the best suggestions (giving the people who made them full credit) and my knowledge of what technology can do to map out new processes. This is done with the full knowledge and approval of the managers. The people who make the suggestions frequently receive bonuses, pay raises, or promotions. This leads to more good ideas as workers see others being rewarded. It can take a long time to arrive at the final process map and it is usually astonishingly simple compared to the original process map.

    There are usually people who don’t fit into the new structure for one reason or another, I ask them “what do you want to do next?” This is my favorite part of the job but is also frequently the most difficult. It usually takes a bit of prying around the edges to get these people (who are either shocked or resigned to their fate) to think creatively. Their answers frequently surprise everybody around them and sometimes it causes us to rethink our own lives.

    One office manager who had been the hard-driving force behind the success of the company for the last 20 years but was burned out decided she wanted to take early retirement with a twist. She moved to another city, and helped her divorced daughter take care of the grandchildren. Another decided to become an artist after several decades as an administrative assistant (she’d been drawing for years and getting praise from her coworkers).

    It is usually easy to persuade senior management to spend some money to help these people for a lot of reasons, the most common are listed below:
    1. The managers jobs have also changed and they can better empathize with the workers
    2. Ex-employees can either make or ruin a company’s reputation using the internet
    3. Happy ex-employees are more likely to buy the company’s goods and services. Giving the ex-employees a few resources to help them succeed is seed money for future corporate revenue

    Do I always succeed? Of course not, and those experiences haunt my nightmares but I’ve learned a lot of ways to help increase the odds of success over time. Do the companies succeed afterward? Usually, especially those that view their workers as assets, not expenses. You invest in assets, you cut expenses.

    Are there vicious hacks in my field who view all employees as expenses? I imagine so although I’ve never met one. Their clients probably do not flourish.

    1. Pluto,

      Unfortunately, your analysis is not very accurate. Wildly inaccurate. Here are a few examples.

      (1) “Are there vicious hacks in my field who view all employees as expenses?”

      Social changes with unfortunate net effects on individuals are seldom done by evil people, cackling with glee as they imagine all the people put out of work.

      (2) “Do the companies succeed afterward?”

      New tech is irresistible. It will happen no matter what the effects on people or the high-mindedness of the techies involved. Look at kiosks in fast food restaurants: cheaper, faster service, with increased customer satisfaction. Not implementing this is not a viable option.

      More broadly, new tech automation boosts not only the profits of the individual companies, but the overall efficiency of the national economy. The social (political) problem is sharing the bounty.

      (3) “It is usually easy to persuade senior management to spend some money to help these people for a lot of reasons”

      Bizarrely false. Such beneficence happens occasionally, but the usual response is firings with a few weeks severance.

    2. Larry, I was not writing an analysis. If I were, it would look a lot more like your analysis.

      I was writing from first-hand experience at roughly 10 different places. Did I get lucky when I did this work? Possibly, I could not tell you other than to observe that my coworkers in the field have had similar experiences.

      Responses to your points below:

      (1) Larry: “Social changes with unfortunate net effects on individuals are seldom done by evil people, cackling with glee as they imagine all the people put out of work.”

      Agreed, but there are also a great many people in this world who are more interested in somebody’s bottom line (usually their own) than in the welfare of others. They are not as effective in this line of work as you’d expect.

      (2) Larry: “New tech is irresistible.”

      That is a profoundly inaccurate statement. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and have cleaned up a lot of other people’s mistakes. New tech, by itself or incorrectly implemented, is a disaster for the corporation that implements it.

      I could tell a lot of stories but will forebear in the interest of brevity. The best I can do is give you a rough analogy: How well would a program designed to solely park a person’s car do if it was asked to answer call center questions without being modified?

      I’m sure you will object to the analogy, with justice, because you’ve not seen HOW STUPID some people can be when deciding to implement a new technology. New technology incorrectly implemented is the fastest way to destroy a company I’ve ever seen.

      Pluto: (3) “It is usually easy to persuade senior management to spend some money to help these people for a lot of reasons”

      Larry: “Bizarrely false. Such beneficence happens occasionally, but the usual response is firings with a few weeks severance.”

      We are both speaking from experience. I’ve also seen what you describe. Again, in my experience, such behavior doesn’t go well for the company.

      Demoralized frightened employees and embittered ex-employees with access to social media and a need to vent will ensure that the next few quarters are, at best, going to be very unpleasant for senior management.

      Part of my job is to prevent the installation process as being viewed in a negative way by the employees to ensure that we can work efficiently. Implementing new tech is NOT an overnight process and the consultants and IT employees need to build a virtuous cycle around the changes to be effective for the company.

      Failure to do so usually creates a vicious cycle (people hate change) and the company starts dying. Not surprisingly, senior management blames the consultants and IT employees as soon as it becomes apparent to them and then the process becomes destructive rather than helpful.

      Two jobs ago I was asked to clean up the wreckage left by no less than THREE different teams of consultants who were treated that way. It was not a good experience and unnecessarily cost the client tens of millions of dollars. Fortunately the outcome was better than the last three and better than I expected.

      Senior managers who listen (which apparently did not happen within your range of experience) do the math and discover that the gentle treatment is cheaper and vastly more effective that treating employees like the trash.

      And, as I mentioned before, sometimes we are all surprised beyond reason. For example, one ex-IT manager decided to start a new software company to meet a need that we discovered while working on the implementation. The original company got a permanent discount on the software because they also consented to be its first customer and assisted in testing the new software.

      At the time I thought the new software business was doomed but it is still going strong after 9 years. Sometimes miracles do occur.

      1. scipioafricanus114

        Doesn’t matter what the people involved think, in the long run. It’s an emergent property of the system. A company that produces the same output with half the labor input will drive all the nice, understanding companies out of business. And that in turn can be driven out of business by a firm that is even more ruthless in optimizing for profitability. That’s why new tech is irresistible. To a first-order approximation a market economy is a numerical optimization process that selects for profitability. Given sufficient efficiency, any term that does not impact the objective function will be discarded, and unfortunately many of those terms include things that human beings value greatly. Whether Pony Express riders were treated well or poorly by management mattered not at all, in the long run.

      2. Scipio,

        “Doesn’t matter what the people involved think, in the long run. It’s an emergent property of the system.”

        Wow. History is on line one. She disagrees with you.

        My guess is that you didn’t read the post – or didn’t do so closely. The tech is coming, and cannot be stopped. Its effect on us depends on politics. Most especially, how we distributed the gains from increased productivity – and manage the resulting social disruption. The dystopian stories about the future assume we do both of these things badly.

      3. Larry: “The tech is coming, and cannot be stopped. Its effect on us depends on politics. Most especially, how we distributed the gains from increased productivity – and manage the resulting social disruption. The dystopian stories about the future assume we do both of these things badly.”

        Great summary of your points, Larry! I particularly agree with the comment about doing these things badly, because that’s usually how it goes the first few times.

        Our discussion about my experiences in the transforming workplaces through tech has highlighted a few of the challenges to come. Something I wanted to add earlier is that back in the early 1990’s there was about a 10% success rate (as determined one year after the implementation was finished) and over 50% were considered total failures. According to the link below, as of last year, 29% are successes and only 19% are considered total failures.

        https://www.information-age.com/projects-continue-fail-alarming-rate-123470803/

        This is part of why people continually forecast the coming automation apocalypse but it doesn’t seem to come as quickly as predicted. However, something I’ve noted over the years is that automation specialists in recent years have been getting better at using partial successes to move the ball forward.

        That is what happened two jobs ago. The third implementation team managed a partial success before they were tossed off the job. My team cleaned up a lot of the failures and managed a significant partial success before we left and I hear the company is looking to hire yet another team to finally finish the project.

        The automation goal was reached a lot more slowly than originally expected and at much higher costs but the company learned a lot about how to do these types of projects and will do a better job of planning for their next iteration.

        I am uncomfortable with government attempting to be the sole answer to the large long-term problems caused by automation simply because government answers take a long time to craft and can cause a lot of side effects (AMT anybody?). But I suspect that government MUST be part of the long term answer.

        My experience tells me that automation won’t happen overnight but when we look back on the event it will seem like it happened overnight, especially if we aren’t prepared.

  4. “With modest planning we can enjoy its fantastic benefits without pain. Failure to plan for these obvious developments might mean some tough times ahead for America…”

    In the dystopian scenarios you describe, the concept of “America” will be no more useful to the powers of the future than the people kicked to the curb. There won’t be a “USA.”

    1. LT,

      A small correction to your tweet – there probably will still be a USA. It would be something very different from the America-that-once way. Much as there was a “Rome” in Italy from 753 BC to 476 AD – but not the same Rome.

  5. If it is true that there is no such thing as capital without capitalists then the issue of who owns the robots does become critical.

    Capital is largely a matter of power–of determining which assets get capitalized under what terms and for the benefit of whom. Using this type of conceptualization it is possible to argue that U.S. investment patterns have occurred under different types of investment regimes (U.S. slaveowners in the 1850s, U.S. industrial corporate managers in the 1970s and U.S. fund managers in the 2000s)–
    all capitalists of a particular time and place, invested in a particular form of capital, in a particular political economy and a particular social order.

    It should also be kept in mind that inherent in the process of capitalization–a type of expectation concerning the likely future pecuniary earning capacity of a legal asset–means we are talking about not only physical labor and machines but also finance and money and increasingly robots and platforms. This struggle over ownership, as it was in the past, is likely to become extremely intense.

    An excellent article of this topic, from which I have drawn, is Jonathan Levy “Capital as Process and the History of Capitalism,” Business History Review (2017).

    1. James,

      “U.S. slaveowners in the 1850s, U.S. industrial corporate managers in the 1970s and U.S. fund managers in the 2000s”

      You misunderstand capitalism. As a retired US fund manager, the last in that list is not remotely like the first two. Fund companies are just pass-throughs for money and power. They wield little themselves. Most outsource their voting to third party firms, to minimize both liability and political involvement.

      Ditto, to a slightly lesser extent, for corporate managers. Second-tier managers are servants. CEOs and Board Chairpersons have more discretionary power, but not a lot. If they go against the tide they can be removed in a heartbeat. The average tenure of a CEO is aprox 5 years – not enough to develop a power base.

      Capitalists are those who have capital. Ownership. That is the 0.1%. They have the truely discretionary power – and money to pursue their goals.

  6. When most goods and services are produced by AI driven machines most human beings will not ever become able to do those tasks themselves. A sudden system wide failure (think solar flare) would produce Armageddon.
    I am inclined to think that a species that set up such a reality would deserve the outcome.

    1. Rum,

      First, Armageddon is an exaggeration from a likely solar storm.

      Second, that’s the usual doomsayer “too bad the people running the world aren’t as smart as us doomsters.” In the real world there are many programs underway to harden systems, such as the power grid, against solar storms. Such as these:

      https://www.ncsl.org/Portals/1/Documents/energy/HardeningGrid_1_32298.pdf

      Plus, new electrical infrastructure has greater resilience to solar effects. The combination is reducing risks year by year.

  7. It has rather the same form as the traditional Marxist argument. That attributed certain social and economic changes to the inevitable consequence of technological progress. The basic argument was that the forces of competition would lead inexorably to pressure on wages and in effect automation, that is increased output per unit of labor. The result would be ever more concentrated ownership of ‘the means of production’, that is capital, and an ever larger class of impoverished wage-serfs.

    Here the argument seems to be that there is something about the introduction of AI which is different from technological innovations in production in the past two hundred years, and which will lead to… in a very familiar argument…. the concentration of ownership of the means of production (whether of goods or services) in the hands of capitalists. There will be an impoverished class of, in this argument, powerless and unemployed former workers. The middle class professionals will shrink in number and compensation. We will end up with capitalist owners and the rest.

    Its difficult to find this plausible or likely. Just as its difficult to see AI today being much different qualitiatively to the introduction of previous productivity improvement technologies, and we know they did not lead to the predicted outcome. The impact of technology on society is far more complicated than this and much harder to predict.

    “Locke fell into a swoon
    The Garden died
    God took the spinning jenny
    Out of his side”

    Yeats

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