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Ten Responses to the Technological Unemployment Problem
On the internet and in the media there has been growing discussion of technological unemployment. People are increasingly concerned that automation will displace more and more workers—that in fact there might be no turning back at this point. We may be reaching the end of work as we know it.
What happens if vast numbers of people can no longer make money by selling their labor? How should society respond? What follows is a list of possible responses to technological unemployment. This list may not be complete. If I have missed anything, or misrepresented anyone’s views please say so in the comments below. Also these responses are not meant to be mutually exclusive; many of them can overlap with each other quite nicely.
(1) THERE IS NO PROBLEM; TECHNOLOGICAL UNEMPLOYMENT IS A MYTH
There are many economists who still maintain that technological unemployment cannot happen, at least not on the large scale described above. The reasoning for this argument is called the luddite fallacy, which explains that although automation does displace workers, it simultaneously leads to lower prices. These lower prices in turn stimulate consumer demand and provide the basis for new industries, which in turn hire more workers. The luddite fallacy has more or less held true for two hundred years. The question is will it continue to hold true in the face of the computer revolution and accelerating technological progress? How can we be sure new jobs will arrive fast enough to offset the jobs lost?
(2) UNCONDITIONAL BASIC INCOME
This is a fairly straightforward solution. Since growing numbers of people won’t be able to earn money from their labor, it might make sense to just give everyone a guaranteed income whether or not they work. This would allow the market economy as we know it to continue, since putting money in people’s hands would prop up the cycle of consumer spending. Often this idea is characterized as socialist, and in some senses it is, but this characterization overlooks that the goal of a UBI is actually to save market capitalism. Moreover, with a guaranteed basic income many other socialist programs like social security, unemployment, and food stamps could be dismantled and replaced with this far more streamlined system. An obvious question is, where does the money come from? A variety of ideas have been suggested; Marshall Brain details several possibilities in his essay Robotic Freedom.
(3) OPT OUT OF CAPITALISM AND TAKE ADVANTAGE OF DECENTRALIZED TECHNOLOGIES
This is a more individual approach that does not rely on government intervention. By taking advantage of new decentralized technologies and living as cheaply as possible, people might be able to increasingly just opt out of capitalism and consumerism entirely. This approach is advocated by Federico Pistono in his book Robots Will Steal Your Job But That’s Okay and could be facilitated by forward thinking engineering projects such as Open Source Ecology, as well as upcoming advances in technologies like solar panels and 3D printers.
(4) RESOURCE BASED ECONOMY (OR AUTOMATION SOCIALISM?)
This is an alternate economic system advocated by The Venus Project “in which all goods and services are available without the use of money, credits, barter or any other system of debt or servitude. All resources become the common heritage of all of the inhabitants, not just a select few.” This arrangement is made possible by aggressive use of advanced technologies to create an abundance of resources and thereby negate the need for any sort of rationing. Although Jacques Fresco, the founder of the Venus Project, claims his system is distinct from socialism, it appears to me to be fairly consistent with an extreme version of what has been called “automation socialism.” I believe the socialist comparison is apt since RBE implies the end of both private property and wealth concentration. In any event, this system sounds idyllic in principle but naturally raises the question “How could we get from here to there?”
(5) WEALTH REDISTRIBUTION ACCORDING TO AN INCENTIVE SYSTEM
This approach is advocated by Martin Ford in his book The Lights in the Tunnel. His approach overlaps heavily with the unconditional basic income idea in that his goal is the same: put money directly in people’s hands so they can spend it and keep the market economy going. The main difference is that instead of making the income unconditional, Ford advocates doling out money according to an incentive scheme that encourages behavior society desires. Among the hypothetical examples Ford mentions is paying people to read books.
(6) WORK TOGETHER WITH THE MACHINES
In their book Race Against the Machine, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson suggest that we should try racing with machines. In addition, seminal futurist Ray Kurzweil has repeatedly expressed his view that we are destined to “merge with machines.” How might this resolve the technological unemployment problem? Well, technological unemployment ultimately stems from the fact that automation advances much faster than people can learn new skills. So if we can find a way to directly upgrade human minds—such as through the use of brain-computer interfaces—then workers would be able to keep pace with technological change and readily adapt to new jobs and industries as quickly as they crop up. Moreover, super intelligent humans might develop new desires which would in turn stimulate new industries. Alternately humans might become enlightened and decide they no longer need a market economy. Either way the problem would be solved.
(7) SMALL SCALE POLICY ADJUSTMENTS DESIGNED TO ENCOURAGE EDUCATION AND FOSTER INNOVATION
A lot of more traditional pundits admit there is a potential problem with technological unemployment (or at least technological inequality) but seem uninterested in any of the more drastic solutions mentioned above. Instead they push for a series of common sense policy fixes, such as fixing education to better prepare people for STEM fields or reforming the patent system to mitigate drags on innovation. These policy tweaks are designed to make the economy function incrementally better in this new technological era.
(8) GET THROUGH THIS TRANSITIONAL PERIOD AS FAST AS POSSIBLE
One line of reasoning argues that technological unemployment can only ever be a temporary problem, since the day is approaching when we will literally print out all of our food and other necessities. Thus the problem only arises in the awkward transitional period: after we’ve automated large numbers of jobs, but before technology has lowered the cost of living to near zero. Therefore we should try to accelerate technological progress by whatever means necessary so that we can make the painful transition as short as possible—much like tearing off a bandaid.
(9) OPTIMISTIC LIBERTARIAN
This position argues that as long as government stays out of the way the transition will be relatively smooth and painless. Yes, there will be less jobs available, and certainly people’s incomes will suffer, but technology will simultaneously bring down the cost of living at a fast enough rate that people will survive just fine without the need for government invention or economic restructuring.
(10) ISSUES LIKE TECHNOLOGICAL UNEMPLOYMENT ARE DWARFED BY EXISTENTIAL RISK
It’s possible a technological unemployment crisis would simply be a pitstop on the way to a much more dangerous crisis involving artificial general intelligence. Once AGI arrives we will have much bigger issues to contend with, such as will the human race survive being displaced as the most intelligent beings on planet Earth? So while technological unemployment might be worth worrying about at the margins, really the bulk of our energy ought to be devoted to this more substantial threat on the horizon. This position is advocated by the Machine Intelligence Research Institute and others.
(Thanks to the Google+ Technological Unemployment community and commenter Yosarian2 for contributing to the ideas in this article.)