Re: Humans Need Not Apply

In response to the video titled, Humans Need Not Apply, originally posted as a comment in an online conversation with a friend:

A few things come to mind whenever I hear these kind of points being made. Most of them are abstract day dreams with a lot of hand waving and unsubstantiated assumptions, but they’re fun to talk about none the less, so here it goes:

Economies deal with the systems for distributing and producing goods and services, right? We work to get money which we exchange for other things. Prior to currency we’d trade. And prior to trade we did things for ourselves.

I live in a cabin I built myself, wearing clothes I made, eating food I’ve hunted and grown, and when I get sick I deal with it.

But… it might be easier if i just did all the farming and had Jan do all the hunting, and Jim do all the sewing, and then we could trade.

But… holding all these apples while I wait for Joe is difficult, and Jim has got to eat in the meantime while he’s sewing my pants, so I’ll give Joe an IOU for apples in exchange for some meat and take an IOU for pants from Jim in exchange for some apples. Wait a minute. Why don’t I just give Jim the IOU for the meat. He likes meat anyway. That would be fair, right?

So turns out these IOUs are pretty easy to carry and exchange, so I might as well print a standard IOU, call it the dollar, and have everyone use them.

Oh, all these IOUs I’ve saved under my bed aren’t really doing anything now, and I already have enough pants and apples, so I’ll lend my IOUs to the well-digger, Jill, so she can buy uniforms and food for her well-digging crew, and then later give me some of her well-digging profits.

Oh wait, what if we started a business where we collected peoples extra cash and lent it to other people to do productive things? We could collect interest on the loans and provide interest on the deposits, take a cut and, as long as everyone doesn’t want their money back at the same time, make the world a better place by empowering projects.

…and so economies came to be. But the common thread throughout the entire evolution of it all has been scarcity. It was hard to hunt, hard to grow apples, hard to sew, hard to stay healthy, hard to dig wells, etc. And when things are hard to do, you do something hard too, so that you’ll have a few IOUs to play the game with. Supply and demand, 101.

Given all that, any sort of threat to your ability to do something hard or produce something scarce – i.e. anything that takes away jobs – is bad. Technology is going to do just that, and there will be tons of people who will lose their jobs, so it must be bad right? No. Because technology also makes the marginal cost of the things it affects go down to zero. It removes scarcity from the equation.

If I have a robot that can build a self driving car using cheap synthesized materials that it harvests itself and energy it collects itself from some super efficient energy source that lasts forever, and say further that there were enough of said robots to provide everyone in the world with a car, then the cost of a car is nothing. No one has to do any work to get any of the stuff needed to build or distribute them. And so all the jobs that this robot has displaced are offset by the fact that people no longer have to spend money on cars, ever. And all of those technologies are coming, so it’s not a matter of if but a matter of when.

What if we had these robots for farming, hunting, health-care, etc.? Would we need jobs? Obviously this is a generic argument with a lot of assumptions on the specifics of what up-and-coming technology has to offer, but most of what I’ve mentioned above has been prototyped.

For example, Google is getting increasingly better at having software drive cars; Tesla, at building energy efficient cars; Lockheed Martin, at making fission work at scale, and thus making energy negligibly cheap. IBM’s Watson is diagnosing diseases better than doctors. Etc.

The issue I see is in the transition not the technology. The problem is people investing in TECHNOLOGY X (e.g., robots that build cars) get to play the game by the pre-technology set of rules. They can manifest scarcity by claiming the technology they build proprietary – which makes sense in a world of scarce resources, because it inspires productivity, thus the copyright clause in the constitution. But in a hypothetical world where resources are cheap and innovation costs less than ever, these monopolies simply affords the people with capital the ability to manipulate supply and influence markets. And so in the short term you have a situation where Mark Zuckerberg and Ellon Musk are billionaires, and we still have 15% unemployment. 

Long story short, the issue is in our antiquated idea of ownership, as well as wealth distribution, in response to an unprecedented level of access and grow; and further, the leverage it allows for, not technology.

Digression: as far as I understand, the above is the premise behind the proposals for a living wage ( Give people enough money to get by (which is trivially easy if the stuff to get by starts approaching cost-zero), and let economics as we know them today, concern creative work.