Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Robots and the post-labor society

Robots are one of my favorite things, but, man, they're going to mess with our heads in social terms.

Some societies are addressing that issue. Fairly recently, a British commission wrote a report that said that artificial intelligences will probably rights as organic sentient life (that'd be humans). This would include full legal rights, including the right to health care and retirement. Very exciting times we live in.

In South Korea:

"The government plans to set ethical guidelines concerning the roles and functions of robots as robots are expected to develop strong intelligence in the near future," the ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy said.

The article goes on to praise South Korea's high tech society. Of particular interest to me is this:

A recent government report forecast that robots would routinely carry out surgery by 2018.

The Ministry of Information and Communication has also predicted that every South Korean household will have a robot by between 2015 and 2020.

Fuckin' A right. I have been saying that robots will be carrying out more and more human tasks - including increasingly skilled tasks - for years. Apparently I should have been born a Korean because the government, there, believes as I do.

What no one seems to be talking about, however, is the social and economic ramifications of this. Robots will be so cheap that in 8 to 13 years "every South Korean household" will have a robot. Meaning that every Japanese household will have a robot. And that a couple of years later every American household will have a robot. Translation: they'll be cheap enough for everyone to afford.

Which means that they'll definitely be cheap enough for huge corporations to afford. So I ask my readers - which at this time constitute about two people, alas - this: who'd you rather buy a hamburger from? A sullen and surly youth or a shiny clean robot that's always efficient and polite? For me, this is a no-brainer. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto. What will happen to the the workforce when . . . I mean, not when surgeons are replaced by robots but when fast-food workers and construction workers are replaced by robots? When, in 10 to 15 years and maybe sooner for service and light industrial jobs, literally tens of millions of people start to get fired because technology will have developed to the point where human labor is all but irrelevant?

I say this because we're nearing the cusp that this is a reality. Artificial intelligence will increasingly take over our intellectual labor and robots will very soon make our physical labor downright irrelevant. Our entire economy is based on the concept that people must work for their bread and prosperity - but increasingly that won't be possible.

While I think it's significant that people are starting to think about rights for AIs and rules for human-robot interactions, I think the bigger shift is going to be economic and social when humans are made irrelevant for virtually all economic and social tasks.

For me, this suggests that we are nearing the point of having a post-labor society. Aristotle said that people will labor until the looms work themselves. They're fixing to go totally automated. Soon, very soon, they will work themselves, and fix themselves. But there are going to be so many shocks! How many people define themselves by their labor? They will resist the robots doing everything. And, of course, initially the capitalists will own the robot factories and they'll be trying to make a profit on a shrinking wealth base because robots won't be buying anything (tho' AIs might, of course) but the people that do buy things will be having a harder and harder time getting a job to afford things. People will feel replaced by machines far more than ever before.

I can't say with certainty what the reaction to this will be. I think that once the shock wears off, though, we'll be glad to be able to pursue our own interests without having to worry about having to do anything, because everything that we have to do will be done for us by robots. Which might mean that in the future humans will define themselves by their capacity to be happy, which would thrill me no end.

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