Monday, April 10, 2017

Affirmative Automation

This week, I'm going to continue ignoring the repeal of Net Neutrality.  Instead I want to return to the concept of workplace automation.

Human Quotas

In particular, this article from The Guardian, US Edition, "Rise of robotics will upend laws and lead to human job quotas, study says."  The article in about a report from the International Bar Association on the rise of the robot workforce.  Despite the headline, the article spends little time talking about human quotas, instead documenting the rise of workplace automation.  Which is something anyone paying any kind of attention already knew about.

Despite the disparity between the headline and the content, the article does mention that the report does suggest that governments may attempt to regulate the job market, requiring that employers hire some number of humans.  In general, I think that this would be a colossal mistake.


(We're going to set aside the issues of building and maintaining automation for this article.  They are short term jobs that will also ultimately die to automation.  Eventually the robots will be building and maintaining themselves.)

The problem is that humans, as non-specialized tool users, will never be able to compete with task specific robots.  Those will always be able to do the task for which they are designed faster, more reliably and more cheaply than something like the jack-of-all-trades design that is the human body.

As that is the case, requiring humans to do similar work to the robots right next to them will reduce the competitive advantage of the company/country that enacts these quotas.  Other jurisdictions that allow their employers to go 'full auto' will have companies that can produce the same product cheaper and with higher quality, undercutting the quota companies and driving them out of business.  And then where will the humans work?

Why 'Work'

For me, the problem is the word 'Work'.  For the purposes of this rant, I'm going to define 'work' as the 'trade of free time for currency'.  Our current economy, at least in most developed economies, is based on the need for the population to work so that they can:

  1. earn money so that they can 
  2. spend money so that
  3. other people can work so that they can
  4. buy the things that the first people make/do.

We are all trading our free time so that we can buy things that other people make by trading their free time so that they can buy the things that we make.  This is the 'Business Cycle'.

(courtesy of the BBC)

But what if our "Needs & wants' were met without work because automation?  What would we do then?  That is the question that a fully automated work force starts to ask.

The Real Question

Work is supposed to reward effort with access to more and better resources through the middle many of currency.  We are supposed to be a meritocracy (a subject for debate).  But if there is no work to reward, then how do we know who is pulling their weight and who is just sitting around playing video games all day long?

This is the question that needs to be debated in the halls of power: how do we reward actions that our society deems meritorious?  It does not need to be money.  It could be Facebook 'Likes' (not to give the great and glorious Zuch any ideas to expand his already growing FB Economy).  It could be YouTube subscriptions or something like gaming achievements.  Maybe these could be used for access to higher tier goods and services... but that just swaps dollars and pounds for likes and achievements.

What Are You Going To Do With Your Life?

Maybe the real issue is not how we reward effort or creativity, but that we all feel that things like 'effort' and 'reward' need to exist.  I realize that competitiveness is baked into the human psyche after millions of years of evolution, but it may be time to start working those out of our minds.  Instead of doing things because there is an external reward, we should be doing things because the doing of those things is reward enough.  It is a nice thought.

In reality, maybe the first step is to actively start automating government.  When the lawmakers start to see their lives disrupted, something will happen.  Maybe quotas, maybe Universal Basic Income, maybe something else, but it will be a step towards a post-work human society.

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