Posted: Sun, November 25, 2012 | By: David Eubanks
Recently the giant (1e6+ employees) manufacturer Foxconn based in China announced that it was purchasing thousands of robots to replace humans on the assembly line. Quoting from the Financial Times :
[T]he chief executive said the group would have up to 300,000 robots [in 2012] and 1m by 2013.
Leaving aside the irony of Western companies outsourcing cheap labor ultimately to high tech machinery, the rapidly accelerating capabilities of automation may be seen as blessing or curse. On the one hand, it’s a hopeful sign that one day the most mundane types of labor will no longer have to be done by humans, who can then presumably spend their time working on physics or poetry instead.
But on the other hand, market economies are not designed to allow this transition. Others have explored this issue of what happens as production is increasingly automated. For a detailed analysis of the problem and some proposed solutions, see Martin Ford’s book 2009 book The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future . From the introduction:
It turns out that while technologists are actively thinking about, and writing books about, intelligent machines, the idea that technology will ever truly replace a large fraction of the human workforce and lead to permanent, structural unemployment is, for the majority of economists, almost unthinkable. For mainstream economists, at least in the long run, technological advancement always leads to more prosperity and more jobs. […]
The reality is that the free market economy, as we understand it today, simply cannot work without a viable labor market. Jobs are the primary mechanism through which income—and, therefore, purchasing power—is distributed to the people who consume everything the economy produces. If at some point, machines are likely to permanently take over a great deal of the work now performed by human beings, then that will be a threat to the very foundation of our economic system. This is not something that will just work itself out. This is something that we need to begin thinking about.
The 20th century gave birth to electronic ‘thinking’ machines that for the first time began to show signs of competing with their makers. At the center of this new control technology named cybernetics was Norbert Wiener, who wrote a book with that title. It’s fascinating to read from the introduction of that work what he thought of his creation :[W]e are already in a position to construct artificial machines of almost any degree of elaborateness of performance. Long before Nagasaki and the public awareness of the atomic bomb, it had occurred to me that we were here in the presence of another social potentiality of unheard-of importance for good and evil. The automatic factory and the assembly line without human agents are only so far ahead of us as is limited by our willingness to put such a degree of effort into their engineering as was spent, for example in the development of the technique of radar in the Second World War. […]
I have said that this new development has unbounded possibilities for good and for evil. For one thing, it makes the metaphorical dominance of the machine, as imagined by Samuel Butler, a most immediate and non-metaphorical problem. […]
There is no rate of pay at which a United states pick and shovel laborer can live which is low enough to compete with the work of a steam shovel as an excavator. The modern industrial revolution is similarly bound to devalue the human brain, at least in its simpler and more routine decisions. […]
[T]aking the second revolution as accomplished, the average human being of mediocre attainments or less has nothing to sell that is worth anyone’s money to buy. The answer, of course, is to have a society based on human values other than buying or selling.
Those of us who have contributed to the new science of cybernetics thus stand in moral position which is, to say the least, not very comfortable. As we have seen, there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power (which is always concentrated by its very conditions of existence, in the hands of the most unscrupulous). I write this is in 1947, and I am compelled to say that is a very slight hope.
This was written 65 years ago, and it seems prescient now. One might argue that enhancements to humans themselves will allow them to stay ahead of the machines by producing intellectual activity instead of moving matter around in standardized ways. However, even in the unlikely event that all humans can produce enough informational product of value to make a living, it’s not clear how such a virtualized economy would work, including ownership of the intellectual property comprising original work. Maybe, at the end of the day, all we have left to sell is the last bits of our privacy, including our thoughts and emotions. Given the trajectory of technological evolution, it seems like a good idea to entertain Wiener’s idea of a “society based on values other than buying or selling.”
 Kathrin, Hille. “Foxconn Looks to a Robotic Future.“Financial Times. 1 2011: < http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/e5d9866e-bc25-11e0-80e0-00144feabdc0.html
 Ford, Martin. The Lights In The Tunnel, Automation, Accelerating Technology And The Economy Of The Future. Acculant Publishing, 2010. 3-4. Print
 Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics or control and communication in the animal and the machine. 2nd. Edition Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1961. 27-29. Print.