The automation road not taken

Original article can be found here (source): Artificial Intelligence on Medium

The automation road not taken

Automation is inevitable, but we can decide which direction we would want to go in. If the government and society do not decide which road to travel by, it may make all the difference for human civilization.

Machine future is likely to look like one of three possible outcomes:

The good

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

I like my dessert first so let’s take a look at the best possible outcome for our automated future. This is the kind of futurist dream where humans will be served by robot Butlers and automation will mean that human time is freed up for recreational and creative pursuits.

In these future businesses that run these machines will be heavily taxed or the machines will just be owned by the government on behalf of the people and a universal basic income will be distributed to everybody to make up for the salaries that they will no longer be able to make. People can still choose to run a business or seek employment in the few industries where people are not obsolete to make extra income and these kinds of people will probably make up the upper-middle class. Beyond this, they may even be allowed to live on less than their universal basic income allowance and invest the difference for the hope of returns in the future, but below that, almost everybody will still live lives with higher standards of living than our middle-class today thanks to the abundance caused by this new automated workforce. This all sounds great but let’s say that a family wanted to get themselves a bigger house or just generally increase their well being. Working jobs that are still left for humans may be an option but they are likely to be very hard to get into and possibly pretty unrewarding financially. Investing also works by saving a little bit of their basic income and investing it into the market they might hope to get returns and build up investment income that means they will have more income later on.

This is not too dissimilar to how most people build up wealth in today’s society but in a world, with a universal basic income, there is one other possibility.

The Baby Boom 2.0

There would be nothing really to stop family groups just having lots and lots of children who will also be eligible for this universal basic income boosting the overall income of the household. Sure you could introduce laws that circumvent this by taking away the rights of children to get it until they turn 18, but this kind of takes away from the universalness of this universal basic income deal. And as we have seen time and time again people are really good at finding loopholes when it comes to getting money at a government bureaucracy.

Even if we ignore this particular incentive to breed breeding will happen because if an entire society does not need to commit to employment then babies aren’t gonna be a strain on their career nobody will have to worry about the cost of childcare people won’t need to be concerned if they are spending enough time with their children and so birth rates will rise it is very common in developed countries for birth rates to shrink for all of the reasons above.

Fertility Rate Comparison (India, US, Japan)

But all of those reasons go away when jobs are no longer a thing. So we are likely to see an explosion of new babies.

So what? Well, humans are a drain on resources. This is fine for most humans today because able-bodied and/or able-minded adults tend to contribute more to society than they cost, meaning that they can afford to live off their wages and still contribute to businesses or their community at large, making the world a richer place. But in this post automation in the world, we don’t really need them to do stuff that will all be done by machines. What won’t change is that humans still need to be fed with food, housed in homes and transported with transport and all of this puts a drain on finite resources. The world can only support so many people with these resources that are available. There is still a hard cap on how much fresh water and food we can extract from our little blue rock. Thus we’re going to have to come to grips short-term though with humans really having a negative value to society.

The Bad

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

This gets us on to the bad outcome the outcome that is coincidentally most likely. A universal basic income structure is still in place but it is very very basic, just barely covering the essentials. The world is split into two very distinct classes:

  1. Those who own the companies that own the robots that build everything
  2. Everybody else

This peasant class will be forced to take on gig jobs to stay ahead in fields that they cannot fill with automation just yet. Having children will be highly discouraged and things like universal basic income might only be made available to people when they do turn 18 meaning that having children will be hugely financial crippling or just left to the domain of the rich.

The rich in this scenario are actually not much better off. Sure they will sit on top of vast fortunes and have robot servants and the like but they still have that in the first scenario as well. This will be a world filled with violence and contentment for these wealthy people.

Picture South Africa, a country with a very clear divide between rich and poor.

Fantastic opportunities here exist for wealthy business people to live extraordinarily luxurious lives in incredible safety. But the country has still seen a max exodus of these wealthy individuals because people don’t like living in fortresses.

In this scenario, South Africa will become everywhere. Sounds pretty bad right well it can still get a whole lot worse.

The Ugly

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

Post automation scenario is likely to become a reality in at least a few countries where the mentality is that people should just work for a living. In this scenario, universal basic income won’t really be there at all. A human that is unemployable has no economic value is a horrible thing to say and most people have a hard time accepting it but it is ultimately true. We live in a world today where most of us trade our time for money and then we trade that money for goods and services. It does not give money to people if their time is worthless.

In this scenario, we are likely to see a massive population decline. The less sinister cause of this is that people will just have fewer children because they won’t be able to support them and the second much darker cause is that people may very well just starve to death. It sounds very foreign to people who live in developed and emerging economies but these kinds of terrible outcomes are possible as the result of full-scale automation.

We have been blessed to live in a time where technology has made our work hugely productive and this huge productivity has meant that these workers get to benefit off the wealth they have helped to create, but it has to be asked what does a future look like where humans are no longer the creators of value.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.