So I watched the "Humans Need Not Apply" video
One of the most interesting topics in modern times is the “robots eat all the jobs” thesis. It boils down to this: Computers can increasingly substitute for human labor, thus displacing jobs and creating unemployment. Your job, and every job, goes to a machine.
This sort of thinking is textbook Luddism, relying on a “lump-of-labor” fallacy – the idea that there is a fixed amount of work to be done. The counterargument to a finite supply of work comes from economist Milton Friedman — Human wants and needs are infinite, which means there is always more to do. I would argue that 200 years of recent history confirms Friedman’s point of view.
Marc's article offers a perfect counterpoint to the video. A couple points from the video seem to contradict Marc's take though. Marc states that "just as most of us today have jobs that weren’t even invented 100 years ago, the same will be true 100 years from now."
Here is one final point to consider. The US census in 1776 tracked only a few kinds of jobs. Now there are hundreds of kinds of jobs, but the new ones are not a significant part of the labor force. [...]
Going down the list all this work existed in some form a hundred years ago and almost all of them are targets for automation. Only when we get to number 33 on the list is there finally something new. [...]
This list above is 45% of the workforce. Just what we've talked about today, the stuff that already works, can push us over that number pretty soon. And given that even our modern technological wonderland new kinds of work are not a significant portion of the economy, this is a big problem.
Both of them identify the same outcome:
This video isn't about how automation is bad -- rather that automation is inevitable. It's a tool to produce abundance for little effort. We need to start thinking now about what to do when large sections of the population are unemployable -- through no fault of their own. What to do in a future where, for most jobs, humans need not apply.
But do not reach the same conclusions:
Thought experiment: Imagine a world in which all material needs are provided for free, by robots and material synthesizers.
Housing, energy, health care, food, and transportation – they’re all delivered to everyone for free by machines. Zero jobs in those fields remain.
Stick with me here. What would be the key characteristics of that world, and what would it be like to live in it? For starters, it’s a consumer utopia. Everyone enjoys a standard of living that kings and popes could have only dreamed of.
Since our basic needs are taken care of, all human time, labor, energy, ambition, and goals reorient to the intangibles: the big questions, the deep needs. Human nature expresses itself fully, for the first time in history. Without physical need constraints, we will be whoever we want to be.
The main fields of human endeavor will be culture, arts, sciences, creativity, philosophy, experimentation, exploration, and adventure.
Reading this actually reminded me of the descriptions of Athenian Democracy.
A society of peers discussing the fate of their cities, sustained by the work of slaves. The description of a society where all of the grunt work is done by robots, leaving humans to pursue their higher aspirations (arts, culture, politics...) looks pretty close to that ideal.
Labor is one of the three fundamental forms of activity that form the vita activa. It is repetitive, never-ending and only includes the activities that are necessary to the sustenance of life, such as the production of food and shelter as well as physical reproduction, with nothing beyond that. [...] The products of Labor is thus consumed as soon as it is produced without leaving any lasting trace behind. [...]
The third activity, that of great deeds and great words, is specifically political and properly construed can only take place in the public realm potentially leading to the only form of immortality properly accepted in ancient Greece, that of creating something lasting within the world. [...]
Other actions exist of course, such as bartering goods in a market, that do not require such a unique declaration. These however are products of the subject's necessity (ex. obtain food to survive) and not some unique individuality which is properly his. In this sense, worker's equality is almost a tautology, since it equates people through the basic human condition of need, while citizen's equality is by definition equality of unequals that are trying to create a common world.
As pointed out by Marc, human aspirations would not disappear nor significantly change:
I’m talking about democratic capitalism to the nth degree. Nor am I postulating the end of money or competition or status seeking or will to power, rather the full extrapolation of each of those.
Thanks to robots, humans would be free to truly live their lives as political animals. The repartition of wealth and income would probably remain a tough and disputed question. New ways to split the fruits of economic growth might need to be invented. A basic income system
could be instituted. I'll leave the closing words to Marc:
Imagine 6 billion or 10 billion people doing nothing but arts and sciences, culture and exploring and learning. What a world that would be. The problem seems unlikely to be that we’ll get there too fast. The problem seems likely to be that we’ll get there too slow.