The Soul of Man Under Automation

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Oscar Wilde was, among other things, a big fan of automation. In “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” he predicted that machines would eliminate the need for human workers to sweep roads, stoke engines or do other monotonous manual labor. Instead of living lives of pointless drudgery, people would be free to improve their minds, create works of art or simply wander around smelling the roses.

“Just as trees grow while the country gentleman is asleep, so while Humanity will be amusing itself … machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work,” he forecast.

Things haven’t quite worked out that way so far. Sure, road-sweeping and engine-stoking have been automated, but the people who did those jobs weren’t freed up for lives of productive leisure; for the most part they were simply cast out to find other work if they could, and to starve if they couldn’t.

Now we’re on the cusp of a vast new wave of automation, thanks to robots, artificial intelligence and other high-tech marvels. But we’re no better prepared for the coming era of automation than the Victorians were — and that’s something about which we should all be deeply concerned.

A World Without Jobs?

In part the problem is one of basic economics: As we start automating more and more jobs, what happens to the people we’ve displaced? If robots take our jobs, how will we be able to buy the things they produce?

Some economists say automation actually boosts employment, or is at least self-regulating: Companies will automate only if it’s profitable to do so, they argue, so there will always be other jobs available for displaced workers.

But there are also those who fret about Moravec’s paradox — the idea that computers tend to be good at complex tasks, like playing chess, but far worse at apparently simple jobs, like putting away the chess set afterward.

Taken to an extreme, that could lead to a hollowing-out of the middle class, with AI systems displacing skilled workers while leaving sweaty, lower-paid grunt work to the humans. Reverting back to economics, we must remember that it’s the middle class that accounts for large portions of economic spending and growth.

Either way, we’re looking at a big shakeup that will radically change not just the way we work but also the broader economy. After all, work is the economy: It’s work that creates revenue, generates spending and drives our GDP.

That means that even if only 10 percent of jobs are automated away, it’s a safe bet that 100 percent of us are going to be affected by the robot revolution. And whether that will prove to be
a good thing or a bad thing is still very much an open question.

Time for New Ideas

The trouble is that as things stand we don’t have the economic or political tools we need to cope with a world in which virtually any task could be automated. A world that is increasingly interconnected, yet trending towards economic protectionism.

Even GDP — so often taken as the single most important economic indicator — isn’t a good metric considering the kinds of problems we’re facing as a society. It’s easy to inflate GDP in ways that make the economy less efficient, or that fail to account for the damage done by industries that put productivity before people, and profits before planet.

Consider a company that gets government incentives for building a factory but then installs robots that reduce its labor needs by 80 percent. Should the company still receive incentives for building its manufacturing plant? Do the benefits from the factory accrue to the community, the government, the global economy — or simply to the factory’s owners? And if we’re not happy with that situation, what do we need to try to change?

These aren’t easy questions to answer, but if we want to start to figure them out we’ll need to get our priorities straight — and that means being mindful about what we measure and thoughtful about the ways in which we incentivize corporations to invest and grow.

Bhutan’s efforts to promote “gross national happiness” as an alternative to GDP offer one high-level vision of what that could look like. More specific policies, like recognizing the value of unpaid work such as caring for children or introducing a universal living wage, might also help to ensure that people aren’t left behind by our evolving economy.

Other options might mean rethinking the role of corporations in our society. Sweden’s new plan to cap the profits of some taxpayer-funded companies suggests a way forward: If we embarked on a broader push to redistribute corporations’ excess earnings, we might be able to cushion the impact of automation and fund retraining programs that would let us develop a more flexible and resilient human workforce. Or to help finance universal salary programs to remove worry and stress from our global citizens.

Even a rethink of international tax policy, limiting corporations’ ability to minimize their tax payments by moving profits around, might encourage firms to spend and invest in their communities rather than simply hoarding their profits.

How to Change with the Times

All this might sound like pie-in-the-sky claptrap, and there are plenty of people who’d argue that ideas like these would serve as a disincentive for profit-making businesses.

But imagine for a moment that we could gather humanity’s top economists, makers of social policy, engineers, entrepreneurs and financiers to design the global economy from scratch, given the cultures and technologies and resources we now have, and expect to have in years to come. Would the result look like the world we inhabit today?

It’s a safe bet that our panel of interplanetary experts would want to make at least a few substantial changes, for the good of us all.

That’s really all I’m suggesting: Instead of being carried along by sheer inertia, we should try to look at our economy and our global society with fresh eyes.

We’re hurtling into the future at breakneck speed, and dealing with new technologies whose implications we barely understand — yet we’re trying to run our society using outmoded government systems, and social structures that might as well be from the age of the dinosaurs. And this model is not helped with short term thinking driven by four year election cycles.

We need to cultivate a higher tolerance for crazy-sounding ideas, and to be willing to entertain the notion that what’s needed is a major rethink of the way things are done.

From Here to Utopia

Oscar Wilde knew that the empowering, self-actualized socialism of which he dreamed was a longshot — but he also thought it was worthwhile to have that dream, and to try to imagine a better future. “Is this Utopian? A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at,” he wrote.

A century and a quarter later, it’s time for us, too, to start redrawing our own maps of what the world is, or could be. We might not make it to Utopia, but that shouldn’t stop us from thinking big, and from trying to imagine a better world.

After all, the future of work is barreling toward us, and things are going to radically change in coming years and decades. If we want a say in the kind of world we inhabit and leave behind for our kids, we need to get serious about managing those changes. Building a better world is one job that we can’t afford to leave to the machines.

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