Humans need not apply... or do they?

So I watched the "Humans Need Not Apply" video earlier today:



It brought to mind an article by Marc Andreessen I had read some time ago:

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."

CGP Grey's counterargument is that:
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.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt argues two points that directly mesh with this topic:
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.

2 responses
While it's fair to say that Andreessen and CGP Grey do not come to the same conclusion based solely on the Humans Need Not Apply video, Grey has pretty much stated that he thinks the long-term implications are good. (See his most recent podcast, http://www.hellointernet.fm/podcast/19). I don't know if he thinks that there's going to be an Athenian Democracy, or Enlightenment-inspired utopia on the horizon, but he's definitely not a neo-Luddite. His primary concern, though, is with the near-term. We'll have to go through some sort of transitory period in which the population as a whole will have to come to terms with the radical restructuring of society that will be necessary to support the ideal outcomes. If we haven't prepared ourselves for that transition, it could end badly. Ultimately, Grey's point is that this is something we need to start thinking about now. Not just policymakers and business leaders; everyone who has a stake in the system -- i.e., everyone. The real question is, how do we start that conversation?
Agreed. I think the main issue is going to be around the criteria used to allocate income and wealth. Right now, in capitalist societies, both of them are allocated according to a system that evolved throughout the ages. Very roughly, we have: * For wealth: property rights (created, acquired or inherited) * For income: income from work and income from capital On top of this, states have built various redistribution systems through taxes and social benefits. The overall objective being to encourage wealth creation as much as possible while avoiding to leave too many people on the side of the road. I'd say the main issue is that right now, (human) work is used the most defining criteria when it comes to income allocation. Theoretically, if you work provides a lot of marginal value, you get paid more. If all of a sudden most of human work starts holding very little or no marginal value, we have a (big) problem. That's when the debate on wealth and income allocation begins. I guess the objectives would be roughly the same (such as encouraging overall wealth creation: we would still need some people to be motivated to improve robots) but we'd need to handle a world where maybe 95% of the total population is unemployed - or at least not employed in our traditional sense. As for the conversation, I guess it's starting as we speak :-)