Have you heard? Robots are coming and they are going to steal our jobs!
I expect you have heard rumors to that effect, because the tech news seems positively awash with reports of automation replacing shop assistants, cooks, and much more besides. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Of course not. I, for one, think it could potentially be the best thing ever. It could finally deliver the future that John Maynard Keynes promised automation would bring about: A huge reduction in the number of hours people would be required to devote to a job, and a massive increase in the amount of hours per day that can be devoted to a life of leisure. And, no, a life of leisure need not mean everybody is transformed into a couch potato, spending their days ‘doing nothing’. People may well do very little except vegetate in front of the TV when ‘leisure time’ is just a couple of week’s vacation from the usual necessity of having to devote 40 hours of almost every day to some mind¬numbing activity, but once people are properly liberated from both jobs and the monetary and cultural pressures imposed on the unemployed to persuade them to rejoin the ranks of the wage slaves, and properly adjusted to the novel idea of boundless leisure, I predict a vast increase in the adoption of meaningful activity.
It occurred to me that not many ‘robots are coming for your job’ articles paint this event in optimistic terms. Instead, they tend to use phrases like ‘robots will steal your job’ and ’employment is increasingly threatened by automation’. I devised a challenge that I posted on the Singularity Network Facebook page:
“I challenge you all to find ONE example of a news report about robots which does NOT feature a comment along the lines of ‘but there are concerns that these robots threaten jobs’ but DOES feature a comment along the lines of ‘there are hopes that the rising productivity enabled by these robots will free up more leisure time for people”.
I do not think this challenge would require too much work. It would not take much effort beyond googling ‘robots will free us’, ‘robots liberate us from jobs’ or some such phrase to see if somewhere out there on the Web there is indeed an essay that views the robot revolution in a positive light. But, so far, nobody has bothered taking up the challenge, instead using my post as an opportunity to make gloomy replies such as:
“The powerful would rather kill the masses than allow them to have leisure time”
“We have not benefited with “increased leisure time” or even “increased pay” from automation since the late 1970’s. Productivity has increased but salaries have remained flat. Most workers are being scammed, in a sense stolen from, but have no forum of redress”.
One comment even accused my challenge of “whitewashing the ugly truth; that technology is already taking more jobs than it creates, that it is creating more inequality, not less, and that our politics are unprepared to handle the inevitable increase of poverty resulting from it”.
I can remember a time when Singularitarians were a whole lot optimistic. The future was something to look forward to. It was not considered to be a dystopia with rising inequality transforming capitalist democracies into something resembling a neo¬feudalist rentier society like 18th¬century France, it was to be a glorious paradise on Earth with death conquered and SAI¬powered nanosystems and full¬immersion VR satisfying our every material desire.
So, what happened? Why do we not champion the idea that the future is going to be great anymore, instead preferring to issue stark warnings about how bad things are and how much worse they are going to get?
I would like to propose that ‘pre¬millennial Singularitarians’ have given way to ‘Post¬millennial Singularitarians’. Back when we were all super¬optimistic about the future, people like Max More were concerned that belief in inevitable better days ahead would lead to complacency:
“In the Western world, especially in millennarian Christianity, millions are attracted to the notion of sudden salvation and of a “rapture” in which the saved are taken away to a better place….I am concerned that the Singularity concept is especially prone to being hijacked by this memeset. This danger especially arises if the Singularity is thought of as occurring at a specific point in time, and even more if it is seen as an inevitable result of the work of others. I fear that many otherwise rational people will be tempted to see the Singularity as a form of salvation, making personal responsibility for the future unnecessary”.
As people like James Hughes have argued, this kind of passive sit back and wait for the inevitable techno¬rapture is comparable to pre¬millennial Christianity which held that Christians needed only to prepare themselves for salvation and paradise would be established for them. On the other hand, post-millennialists reckoned that Christians had to first turn back the tribulations and establish a kingdom of heaven on Earth. Only then would there be the Second Coming.
What no doubt greatly helped the post¬millennialists’ case is that the year 1001 came and Christ did not return. In fact, we are now well into the year 2015 and there is still no show from the big C.
Enough about that, though, what about the ‘rapture of the nerds?’. Obviously, my use of the word ‘millennial’ in ‘pre¬millennial Singularitarianism’ and ‘post¬millennial Singularitarianism’ has nothing to do with time spans of a thousand years and is instead a reference to passively waiting for paradise on Earth to be established, versus considering it necessary to actively prepare the way for such a transformation. However, I would like to propose that there is a date which perhaps has convinced many that the bright future we looked forward to was not quite as inevitable as we once thought. That year, is 2009.
What is so significant about that year? Well, it is the first year for which Ray Kurzweil offered predictions concerning technological change in his book ‘The Age Of Spiritual Machines’. The book was published in 1999 and, ten years later, we finally had the opportunity to test Kurzweil’s predictions against that ultimate judge, the reality of the year 2009. Some who did just that judged Kurzweil’s success rate to be pretty poor. For example, Alex Knap of Forbes wrote:
“Out of 12 key predictions that Kurzweil highlighted for the year 2009, only one has come completely true. Four were partially true (score them a half¬point each) and eight failed to come true by the end of 2011. That’s a score of 3 / 12 – or 25% accurate”.
Over on his ‘Accelerating Future’ blog, Michael Anisimov seemed just as critical, saying “So far, I haven’t seen Kurzweil straight¬up admit that he was wrong”.
I should point out that Anisimov certainly was not saying that Kurzweil got it all wrong, only that he had some misses as well as hits. Ascertaining exactly how many ‘hits’ versus ‘misses’ he got is actually kind of difficult because, as Ieet Spectrum put it, “Most of his predictions come with so many loopholes that they border on the unfalsifiable”.
Ray Kurzweil also pointed out that his predictions for 2009 were not actually for the year 2009 but rather the decade between 2009 and 2019, so we still have a few years left before we can really say how accurate a prophet of technological development Kurzweil really is (if, indeed, we can ever really say how accurate he is. That IEET Spectrum article argues that doing so will prove difficult).
But can people really be blamed for mistaking predictions for a decade for predictions of a specific year when the opening sentence of that chapter was “It is now 2009”? I could not find any caveat in that chapter along the lines of ‘do bare in mind that these predictions are for the decade of 2009¬2019 not just 2009’.
Whatever. The point I am trying to make is that, prior to 2009 Kurzweil was the infallible prophet who had shown us how the future was going to be and had the charts to back up his prophecies. Those exponential curves showed the pathway to technorapture was a smooth one with no obstacles in the way. After 2009 we began to wonder if whether the future Kurzweil promised was quite as inevitable as we had believed. Perhaps there were obstacles in the way of progress, after all?
Take ethical concerns over such things as genetic engineering. Kurzweil assured us that ethical opposition to such things was completely incapable of getting in the way of progress:
“These ethical debates are like stones in a stream. The water runs around them. You haven’t seen any of these biological technologies held up for one week by any of these debates”.
But in his book ‘Rational Optimist’, Mark Ridley painted a rather different picture:
“African governments, after intense lobbying by Western campaigners, have been persuaded to tie genetically modified food in red tape, which prevents them from being grown commercially in all but three countries”.
It would seem, then, that opponents to GM are not so powerless after all. If our opponents and others with a vested interest in preventing the establishment of the future we desire have the ability to delay or even prevent it, we cannot just passively sit back and wait for its inevitable emergence. We must instead keep our eyes peeled for possible impediments to progress and actively work to promote the establishment of the future we desire for ourselves and future generations. In that case, the pessimism which greeted my challenge is no bad thing. It shows that people are thinking about what could go wrong, not just taking the laid back attitude that a utopia is inevitable and all we have to do is wait for it to be established for us.
But, equally, too much pessimism could lead to a ‘we’re doomed so why bother?’ attitude. It is important to remember that, while the future may not be wonderful, it certainly could be. Oh, and as for my challenge, there are indeed some articles that look positively on the robot revolution. For example, a Wired article said:
“Assuming a post¬scarcity system of distribution evolves to peacefully and fairly share the fruits of robot-driven post¬scarcity production, jobs as we know them might not just become unnecessary—they might stop making sense altogether…By eliminating the need for people to work, robots would free us up to focus on what really makes us human”.
Perhaps Max More would be pleased to note that passive pre¬millennial Singularitarians are being replaced with a more skeptical breed of transhumanists who accept that there is much to be done before we can rest assured that such a future is inevitable?
* hero image used from irobot