The word robot means slave. Robot comes from the Czech word robota, which means “forced labor” or “serf”.
After watching the above video, what do you think?
Are robots going to doom the segment of the population without access to capital to extinction and create a Wall-E utopia for plump rich folks to ride around in hover-chairs, or will they create a utopia for everyone?
I don’t know the answer. I’d like to think I do, but there’s an inherent problem to this debate. It’s not scientific.
This is why there are different schools of economic thought, like there are different religions, and also why I’ve put off a careful study of economics for such a long time. It’s not like pure math where you can just perform an algorithm on a bunch of numbers together and get and answer, or rely on a principle or process to always be true.
Economics involves predicting human behavior, which is nigh impossible, even with troves of historical data, because humans are not rational actors.
There are Keynesian economists, Austrian economists, Socialists, and Marxists, and though they agree on how to do Calculus, they don’t agree on the carrots and sticks that drive the human decision making process.
This reminds me of a funny story.
When the British colonized India, they thought there were too many cobras, so the British authorized a program that offered the Indians money for every dead cobra they could bring to a British official. So at first the Indians would catch and kill cobras, bring them to the British and get paid.
Eventually, some enterprising Indians began to breed the cobras in “cobra farms,” kill them, and bring those dead cobras to the British. When the British found out what was happening, they cancelled the monetary reward. Because the cobra farmers no longer had use for the cobras, they released them all into the wild. So the British ended up with way more cobras than they started with, and wasted a ton of money.
So that is just to say that even a simple solution to a problem can have unintended consequences.
What is Money?
I’m a free thinker, so I like to figure things out myself and then peer-review my answer among the best and brightest to see if I’m headed in the right direction.
One day, not too long ago, I realized I didn’t really know what money is. Everyone knows how to use money, how to earn it, and how to spend it. But how many people really take the time to understand what it is, intrinsically.
The best I could come up with was, “Money is a claim on labor.”
That’s about as simple as you can make it without being straight up wrong. In general, money is a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and a store of value. Money is an agreed upon method of storing and exchanging labor, and it doesn’t hurt that a powerful warlord says, “You have to pay me taxes in money, or I bop you on the head!”
The fear of being bopped on the head is what usually gets people to agree on what type of money to use.
The Debate Begins
My commentary will be inside these annotations to the right ↗ 1
Skeptic: “The main issue with robots, is that they effectively replace human utility with a capital asset.”2
Skeptic: “Capitalism doesn’t work when labor is not scarce. Capitalism only works by imposing artificial scarcity on capital.”3
Skeptic: “Capitalism will work just fine with a robotic workforce – for the people who invested capital in the productive stuff. It just wouldn’t work out very well for the people offering to sell their labor at a higher price per value. And people with piles of capital don’t usually like supporting everyone else, so things will probably turn out badly for them.”45
Optimist: “The economy needs consumers to survive, if the industry eliminates the consumer’s ability to purchase it’s produce by replacing human workforce with robots, will there be enough buyers to sustain the economy?”
Skeptic: This is the question. If robots can make everything, but humans can afford nothing. The system stops.
Optimist: Capitalism stops. Alternatively, the robots can continue doing their work for no cost and all humanity can live in leisure.
The End of Capitalism?
Optimist: “Holy mother of God, Marx didn’t see this one coming.” (sarcasm)
Skeptic: “If we follow the logical idea, capitalism will literally destroy itself. In the ever occurring quest for better profits, they’ll destroy their source of profit and either adapt to an almost communist society or … well everybody is f@$ked, even rich people.”
Optimist: “Capitalism wasn’t meant to work forever. It hasn’t been around forever, and it will be antiquated eventually. We’ve gone through several forms of economics already. Mercantilism was popular in the 16th to 18th century. Neoclassical economics gave way to Keynesian economics. And if you read Marx, the communist manifesto isn’t just a celebration of the communist ideals. It actually describes how capitalism naturally develops into socialism, which naturally gives way to communism. The past communist countries didn’t fail because they practiced a failed system. They failed because society wasn’t ready for it.”
Optimist: “So the robot-driven, (mostly) post-scarcity economy won’t be a capitalist economy.”
Skeptic: “The problem is that the transition, or rather, attempt at transition, won’t be easy or peaceful.”
Skeptic: “It won’t be, because robots are capital, nobody will be handing free robots around.”
Not Everybody Will Have (or be able to afford) Robots
Optimist: “I’ve seen some people saying that the rich will inherit it all and own all the robots and we’ll live in abject poverty. But that doesn’t solve the inherent logical problem. If 95% of humanity is in poverty, how will the rich stay rich? They need us to continue buying their products.”
Skeptic: “Not once they own everything and it’s all automated. They need to only turn on the factories and farms to make what they need for themselves (and to sell to each other). What purpose would there be in making extra stuff to sell to people with no money? They would have nothing more to gain.”
Optimist: “The overall costs and sales to themselves and each other would lead to a steady decline in their wealth. Rich people already own virtually all means of production. But why do they sell to 95% of humanity? Because that’s why they’re rich. They’ve sold to hundreds of millions, and those hundreds of millions buy things from other companies. If they sustain the current model, but just them, it can’t work. If you owned a business, and you had 100 customers, would you want to stop selling your goods to 98 of those people and sell to only 2 people?6
Skeptic: ‘Why do they sell to 95% of humanity?’ Because that 95% still has wealth to trade for those goods, because their labor still has value and can be traded for that wealth. When labor ceases to have value, the majority cease to have anything to trade for wealth, and there is no longer any thing to gain by trying to sell things to them. At that point, the owners will already have all the wealth. Wealth and prices are higher in the US than in, say, the entire continent of Africa (or the nations of China or India if you prefer), despite the lower US population.
Optimist: “Although you own all the wealth in the town, you’re still selling 98% less goods.”
Skeptic: “But the rich are making the same (possibly more) profit, by raising prices to compensate for the fewer good sold.”
Optimist: “In our consumerist society of supply and demand, this drastic (98%) of a reduction in consumers means essentially you’re removing demand (steady decline in wealth).
Skeptic: “Ridiculous. The owner class is at least a few million in number globally. Are you now claiming that a few million people cannot constitute a successful and growing economy? Expecially when each of them individuallly represents a vast amount of automated production all by themselves? The vast majority of the history of mankind begs to differ.” 7
Optimist: “Yes, the rich could compensate by raising prices, but the wealth of those rich becomes lower as prices increase. Forcing the other wealthy to increase their prices, and so forth, until they inflate prices to a gross degree where wealth is absolutely meaningless.”
Skeptic: “Meaningless in this case is simply “middle class.” They will become the “middle class” in their own private little society, which is nevertheless fantastically wealthy compared to the destitute masses, as well as completely decoupled from them.8
Skeptic: “It won’t matter that the economy is shrinking massively, that the markets have shrunk to only tiny fractions of their previous sizes. The owner’s wealth won’t be dependent on that anymore at all. Their wealth will be a function of what automated production they own. That’s it.”9
Skeptic: “Our current consumer based economy is not the norm, it’s a weird, tiny blip in history. Wealthy elites, on the other hand, have always been around, and always will be.”10
Good Counterpoint by the Optimists about Scarcity and Government Intervention
Skeptic: “The music industry still exists.”11
Optimist: “Strictly speaking, when you download a movie from bittorent it’s not totally free. There are real supply constraints; bandwidth, electricity, physical server and networking hardware. But these constraints are so minimal that the upper limit of the number of copies of a movie we can make is effectively infinite. And importantly, the process is fully automated. Every customer who wants a copy of a movie requests it and gets it without human involvement; you don’t have to pay someone to make it in a factory or deliver it to your house. For all intents and purposes, digital media exists in a post scarcity economy today; the only reason it still exists in our economy at all is because governments try to create artificial scarcity with copyright.”12
The Cost of Goods
Optimist: “At least the product (whatever the robot workforce produces) shouldn’t cost nearly as much as when made by people.”
Skeptic: “That totally depends on what percentage of said good is labor cost. Some products prices are dominated by energy and materials costs.”
Optimist: “Both energy and material costs are nothing but obfuscated labor costs.”13
Optimist: Why wouldn’t an economy evolve among the [disenfranchised poor], entrepreneurs starting companies, and demanding labor?
Skeptic: Oh, there would probably be some local stuff. Of course, anytime anyone managed to accumulate any wealth of significance, they would dump that comparatively worthless labor, invest in automated systems, and leave the majority behind, taking that wealth with them to join the wealthy owner class in their exclusive, well defended enclaves of luxury. This would ensure there was a constant drain on what little wealth the majority might manage to scrounge up.14
Fear the Journey, not the Destination
Optimist: “Nobody needs to work? Well then I guess all the products would be free at that point.”
Skeptic: “Right, but the ‘getting there’ part is what you pro-robo-job proponents aren’t explaining or getting. So far your argument goes like this:
- Robots replace all workers
- Work and cost free utopia!
The trouble (by which I mean extreme poverty, social unrest, war, etc.) comes during the “????” time period.
Optimist: Replace “????” with zero all debts. Done.15
Skeptic: “Sure. We also should, instead of paying farmers to throw away crops, have those crops shared with people who don’t have enough food. But we don’t. Hence the reason I don’t buy into the ‘all-robot-workforce-utopia’ nonsense – it won’t work for the same reason communism won’t work, that is the fact that there’s always someone who will gleefully step on every throat they find to get an advantage over other people.”16
Skeptic: “If everything did literally grow on trees, you could bet your bottom dollar (indeed if you had one) that some bastard would build a wall round ‘his’ orchard.”17
Optimist: “No jobs equates to no buyers which equates to no profits and, ultimately, bankruptcy for big business.”
Listening to both sides of the argument, I lean towards the skeptic. I hope for the best, but being a student of human history and psychology, I expect the worst.
For me it comes down to whether this happens quickly or slowly. If it happens quickly, where 80-90% of the workforce is out of work in a very short amount of time. I see the Optimist winning, and humanity transitioning to a human-labor-free economy.
If it happens slowly, over decades, I see the haves looking down on the have-nots thinking they’re better than them, and saying things like, “Should have chosen a better career,” or “Should have been less lazy and learned programming.” Which of course wouldn’t be a fair assessment, but that’s human nature. If it happens slowly, I forsee a great deal of human suffering, and the Skeptic is correct.
So… are you a robo-skeptic, or a robo-optimist?
* * *
Update: The various Skeptic vs. Optimist commentary was compiled and curated from various comments on the internet regarding this topic, but unfortunately it’s been more than 6 months between when I wrote the draft for this commentary, and when I actually published this article, so I’m having trouble finding the sources again. I will post them if and when I do locate them again.
Source 1: Reddit Discussion
Hi, I’m commentary!↩
? … I follow the premise here. All healthy people have the potential to provide labor, which makes them valuable in the marketplace. A healthy person is born with the ability to labor, and mix his labor with raw materials to create wealth.
☝️… But most people are not born with robots.↩
? … You’d think as you read this debate that someone skeptical of capitalism would be advocating socialism or communism, but it’s not that simple. Some are skeptical of “crony capitalism,” and believe that things like patents and copyrights are governments creating “artificial scarcity.”↩
? … He’s referring to hurt-by-action versus hurt-by-inaction. All proponents of the Non-Agression-Principle (NAP) are against hurting people by direct action, but a frightening amount are completely ok with hurt-by-inaction, which basically means, if you see a kid literally starving to death and you don’t feed him, you’ve done nothing morally wrong. And if a government uses coercion (a violation of the NAP) to extract taxes from a community in order to provide for that starving child, then the government is morally wrong. This is one of the logical conclusions of anarcho-capitalists that makes my skin crawl. In their defense, their logic is sound, it’s just really hard to accept emotionally.
? … I believe in my heart that I do owe something to my fellow man, but it’s hard to quantify. If I see a starving child and I do nothing to help when I have the power to, I believe I have sinned. If I see a man smoking marijuana on his own property and I coerce him to stop, I believe I have also sinned. Some argue that charity should take care of the starving kid instead of government. The problem is that historically, governments started taking care of starving kids because charities weren’t.↩
☝️… Anarcho-capitalists derive a moral code of ethics from axioms of non-agression and self-ownership. If you own yourself, then you own your labor. If you own your labor, and you mix your labor with any scarce good (land, seeds, wood, etc.), you can then form a basis of ownership of said good, that good becomes “property.” Anyone that makes a coercive claim on the property that you have accumulated through your labor is effectively claiming ownership of your labor, which is a claim of ownership on your person, which makes you a slave.↩
? … Now this is going somewhere!
I’m thinking that in our current world, the rich might be forced to sell to those other 98% because the 98% have labor, which imbues them with power. But in the future, if their labor becomes worthless, they have no power and the rich wouldn’t sell to them because they can still be rich without selling to them. It’s the whole hurt-by-inaction, “I’m not denying you anything, I’m just within my rights to refuse to grant you anything.”
Which is going to really suck for poor people…↩
? … I side with the skeptic here. 80% of Nigerians live on less than $1 a day, 20% of Nigerians that are middle class or rich are still middle class or rich even though the poor can’t afford their goods.
But why couldn’t poor people just come together and create their own economy? Maybe steal a couple robots, and program them to build everybody free robots…Hmm maybe by definition, poor people are people who just wouldn’t do that. There tends to be overemphasis on the poor either being victims of their circumstances (unable to find work, physically unable to work), or perpetrators of their circumstances (lazy, don’t want to work). It can’t be binary. It’s likely a spectrum.
Still, I’m pretty sure someone like Bill Gates would just give poor people a few free robots with the stipulation that they must make free robots for everyone. Unless other rich people made it illegal for him to do that somehow…↩
Again, the cynic has me here. This is a microcosm of our global economy. Middle class in developed countries are fantastically wealthy compared to the poor in developing countries. People in developed countries have no idea how rich they are compared to the rest of the world. Seriously, type in how much you make a year into this calculator and find out.
BUT, if the rich become middle class by excluding the poor, then it makes more sense to just let robots make everybody free shit, because then *everybody* just becomes middle class (super wealthy comparable to your ancestors, but roughly equal with your contemporaries) anyways, i.e. the Star Trek universe.↩
? … Boom.↩
? … When some people talk about the wealthy, they don’t always mean “wealthy.” Sometimes they mean “more intelligent,” or “more resourceful,” and they aren’t wrong. So when he says wealthy elites will always be around, he’s likely saying that there have always been and will always be people who are more resourceful than other people. Which isn’t an inaccurate statement.
I’m reminded of when Jesus said, “The poor you will have with you always.”↩
? … The skeptic is making the point that “Pirated music/movies are not scarce, but the music industry is still able to make money off of music. Therefore, in a post scarcity society, goods produced by an all-robot-workforce would not be free, but rather would still cost money and exclude segments of the population whose labor is now useless to the robot owners.”↩
? … I’ve read that without copyrights, people would still make money with music, but it would be from things that you couldn’t replicate. Like a live concert experience, or a signed photograph with the artist.
Some entire industries like Nigeria’s Nollywood compensate for piracy by creating new low budget films en-masse, so that they have a window of DVD sales profitability before the pirates can disseminate it across Africa. By the time that window expires (2 weeks or so) the studio has already released a new film. At the same time, the pirates also create demand for new content because they expand the audience across borders and via distribution networks that the studios don’t have access to, which popularize the films and create social buzz.↩
? … Ooh, the Optimist drops the mic.↩
?? … This happens already in many African countries. Rich people put their money in Europe and invest in developed economies, rather than improving their own country. Or people that “make it,” straight up leave (i.e. much of my family).
“I’m comin’ back Murph, I’m comin’ back! I love you forever!”↩
? … The optimist does have a good point here. In a post scarcity society where human labor has no value, there is no point in debt collection. I said earlier that “Money is a claim on labor”. If I’m correct, and if labor has no value, then money has no value, then you technically owe zero debt.
But it doesn’t really answer the problem of poverty and unrest leading up to a debt-free society.↩
? … Ooh, and the skeptic comes in with the overhand right! Good point.↩
? … Heh. ? ↩