Seize The Means Of Automation

Another of the many delightful dystopian nightmares that may be looming in our near future is the automation crisis, which if left unaddressed will see rank-and-file humans increasingly beholden to the whims of an increasingly powerful plutocratic class who will have the ability to replace their labor with artificial intelligence and robotics. One way to address this problem which I haven’t noticed anyone discussing yet would be to turn automation and AI into publicly-owned resources.

I just read a new report which says that artificial intelligence software is already starting to replace local news writers around the world. A South Korean news agency has already replaced its soccer score reporters with an automated reporting system, and in a few years the west can expect to see tens of thousands of local news stories churned out by computer programs every month thanks to a large grant from Google.

It had honestly never even occurred to me to think of news writing as a job that could be replaced by AI in the near future, and I suspect that’s not unusual. It’s easy to imagine automation replacing simple, repetitive manual labor, but so many of the more mentally-oriented tasks that we just naturally assume people need to do will soon be done by software instead. ExtremeTech, for example, reports that AI programs are already vastly superior to even the best doctors and radiologists at diagnosing cancer on a medical exam. Harvard Business Review reports that AI may be close to replacing elite-level white collar consulting jobs.

The coming advancements in AI will not happen linearly — that is to say, advancements in software tend to be exponential, as in Moore’s law that the numbers of transistors we can fit onto a silicon chip doubles every two years. This means that it is not reasonable for us to expect that in ten years’ time AI developments will have advanced the same amount that they did in the last ten years; a much more reasonable expectation is that the evolution of AI will have covered many times more ground in the next ten years than in the last ten.

Because of these likely non-linear developments it is difficult to imagine what the job market will look like in the next decade, but some have speculated. Research firm PwC estimates that nearly forty percent of US jobs will have been lost to robotics alone in the next fifteen years. Kai-Fu Lee, a respected Chinese tech leader, says AI advancements will lead to fifty percent of all jobs being lost to automation in the next decade. An Oxford University study more or less agrees.

People disagree over what exact effects automation will have on the human jobs market, but anyone who thinks it won’t involve a large number of people losing the ability to get paid for their labor is fooling themselves. Free market capitalists like to appease themselves with the fairy tale that automation will open up new employment possibilities we never could’ve anticipated which will somehow magically fill the entire droid void, while socialists are so attached to the concept of labor that a lot of them resist the idea that people would ever tolerate a society where it’s done by machines instead. Meanwhile new money tech plutocrats Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are already consistently advocating for a universal basic income (UBI) as a solution to the problem that they both know is coming.

I used to think a UBI sounded like a great answer to automation, but now after spending some time elbows-deep in American political analysis I can hardly imagine anything more toxic. Think about what will happen if, in a system where money equals political power, the plutocrats who own the automation industry are able to exponentially increase their profits in exchange for paying a subsistence wage to the populace they’re rapidly phasing out of the work force. Power is relative; if everybody’s being paid the same low-level subsistence salary while the plutocrats grow ever richer, there’s literally nothing stopping those plutocrats from getting more and more powerful and consolidating their control over the world’s governments, and thereby all of civilization. A tax on the owners of automation to pay for a UBI would be an insignificant price to pay in order to have absolute rule over all humanity.

At that point we’d be in a world out of Orwell’s nightmares. There’d be no way of checking the power of the plutocrats, and they’d no longer have to play nice and remain hidden to maintain the illusion of freedom and democracy like they do now. We’d be at their mercy, and given the evils that the billionaire class is already inflicting upon the world there’s no reason to expect that to end well for us. There’d be absolutely nothing stopping the ruling class from doing whatever they like to us, and indeed nothing forcing them to keep us around at all.

Right now, though, there is a closing window of opportunity to nip this one in the bud. If people can successfully take their political power away from the plutocrats, they can create a society in which automation and artificial intelligence are democratically controlled public assets. Everyone becomes a part owner of these technologies, gets a share of the profits they generate, and gets a unit of control over where they’re headed.

Sound drastic? Any solution to the automation problem should. Artificial intelligence is on the cusp of permanently altering everything that we are as a species, and the changes it ushers in will dwarf everything that we have seen in our brief history here on this planet. Given the impact that these technologies will inevitably have upon society, and given the fact that they could easily get us all killed in all sorts of ways we can’t even predict right now, the people should have some control over where this tech is going.

My right-leaning followers always freak out whenever I go all leftist on them, and this will likely be one of those times. Following capitalism to its logical conclusion necessarily leads to an all-powerful class of those who own the new technologies regardless of whether you resolve the problem of corporatism or not. Shrinking the power of government leads to the tech billionaires becoming the government, growing it leads to the tech billionaires owning the government just like the old money plutocrats do now. A massive shift is coming, and the wealthy are going to snatch up and consolidate as much power as they can in the upheaval. Only an even distribution of wealth and power can prevent the massive and irreversible power imbalance that AI and automation will otherwise lock into place.

This is not an unreasonable thing to want. If we’re going to change humanity we should change it for the better, and we’ve already seen what handing more and more of our power to an elite class of plutocrats leads to. We’re looking at a fairly clear choice between possible utopia and horrific dystopia.

I remember back in the eighties my Mum telling me about how when I grew up, automation was going to take care of a lot of the work so it was important for the education of my generation to include hobbies. She was studying her masters in education and the theory went that in the future there would only be enough work for twenty hours a week so we had to be prepared to use all our new spare time.

Instead we’re seeing the workforce being phased out and kept poor while a sociopathic class of oligarchs get rapidly wealthier and more powerful, and people are creating more landfill and pollution with their interminable busyness in order to put food on the table. This does not need to be the case. We can create something better.

The depravity of the increasingly powerful plutocracy means that revolution is necessarily in our future. Whether it will be violent or not and whether it will be successful or not remains to be seen, but the longer we wait the less pleasant it’s going to be. Anyway, something to think about.

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I write about the end of illusions.

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