On being replaced by technology
By way of celebrating fifty years of IEEE Spectrum, the June 2014 issue investigates some technological trends that it hopes will bring us "the future we deserve". Tekla S. Perry (pp. 40-45) describes a part of this future in which computer-generated humans become indistinguishable from actors captured on film. Explaining why we need to create fake humans when we already have seven thousand million real ones — and plenty of them out-of-work actors to boot — takes some doing. Perry makes some interesting points in this direction, but I nonetheless winced on behalf of all of those already-underemployed actors who might be wondering if Tesla's future leaves them with anything to do.
Fears that we'll all be put out of work by automation go back a long way. Contemptuous dismissals of such fears, and attendant references to Luddism, probably go back nearly as far. The really interesting thing about replacing the work of actors (if it were to happen) is that we'd be replacing something that people actually enjoy doing, not just some tedious chore that they do for the money. As much as an anti-Luddite might assure me, for example, that the growing economy will find me a new job if university teaching were to be replaced by technology, would I find the new job as inspiring as the old one?
One solution for those who enjoy now-automated tasks is to simply continue to do them as a hobby, just as I and other mediaevalists hand-make costumes, beer, embroidery, and other things even though machines can make the same with much less effort. But that does seem to doom us to spending the best eight hours of every day in uninspiring work done just for the money, fitting our passions into our spare time.
By coincidence, The Drum had Alan Kohler take on automation and unemployment in the same week that I read Spectrum. According to Kohler, "automation is suppressing employment, wages and inflation and will do so for a decade or more to come", giving headaches to central bankers attempting to set policies that increase employment while controlling inflation. This is all great for the owners of said machinery, though, who can obtain all of the revenue from their output without having to pay any workers.
Kohler's argument is too sketchy, and my knowledge of economics too weak, for me to say much about his claim. But the potential for automation to create inequality is also a recurring theme in Spectrum's examination of the possible downsides of its futures: those who control technology can use that power to create even more technology and gain even more power, while the rest languish in technological powerlessness.
The threat in Kohler's and Spectrum's dystopias isn't that automation will one day throw masses of people out of work, as the archetypal Luddites might have feared. It's that automation will slowly transfer dignity and power from the broad mass of people to an elite few who control the system. I doubt that many people miss the drudgery faced by mediaeval peasants, who have now been largely replaced by machinery in developed nations. But will we be so glad to give up the passion, autonomy and self-respect that inspires artistic and professional lifestyles?