Robots, the future of work and the leisure society

The Robots are coming. If you are looking for these articles, they are appearing everywhere. Zeynep Tufekci writes in Failing the Third Machine Age: When Robots Come for Grandma about the possibility that after this next revolution in industry, there may not be any jobs for humans – there may not be the same level of new work in new industries like there was after the mechanization of agriculture. That article was a response to the The Future of Robot Caregivers in the New York Times – a quietly pleasant article looking forward to a time of robotic carers. Tufekci is correct to make the critique that we aren’t short of caregivers – just short of people willing to pay the cost of having humans do the job – as Cory Doctorow notes in When all the jobs belong to robots, do we still need jobs?

The ramifications, of course, are that more and more middle class jobs will go. At first they came for the working class: manufacturers (well, robots and the globalised race to the cheapest labour market or tax haven), and service staff, but now robots are coming for lawyers and accountants and doctors too. The internet isn’t helping the trend at all and the business world knows that the middle is disappearing.

Which, while it must be terrifying for the poor middle class, if only they could put their education to good use and get some proactive analysis. Instead, we are apparently seeing a return to Luddism – or more exciting – “Neo Luddism”, with the river of tears that it entails:

Today, however, a much darker picture of the effects of technology on labor is emerging. In this picture, highly educated workers are as likely as less educated workers to find themselves displaced and devalued, and pushing for more education may create as many problems as it solves.

I am disappointed at how few – if any, I’ve not seen them – have addressed the potential positive outcomes that will come about.

If the efficiencies that a robot workforce provide us are redistributed more evenly than profits currently are, within the capitalist states, humanity is faced with the possibility of the onset of a true Leisure society.

We will have so much time to spare that we will be able to labour on what we want – this year I learn to grow vegetables and play the guitar, next year I pickle vegetables and fix old style combustion engines. We will be able to abolish all work – leading to a ludic future of Immediatism – a type of now-ness infused with play and the imagination.

I think that workers should have a greater piece of the capitalist pie as much as the next anarcho-communist, but I’d prefer a post-pie world, so to speak. A world of such abundance, imaginative richness, fecundity, that the thought of anyone having to share a pie is ridiculous. Aim for the stars – robots could well free us forever.

Afterward

I think it’s worth acknowledging that the state of AI research is coming along at a rapid pace at the moment. I raise this for two reasons. Quite a few people I’ve spoken to on this topic, despite all of their progressive ideals and energies, can be nothing but pessimistic about this coming robot army. When it comes to robotic life, a life robotic, they only ever envisage a dystopic scene. Robots will only ever enslave us. I think this is dangerous and pessimistic thinking. Finally, I think that we must look out for the potential to treat intelligent robots – AI, not single use, dumb terminals like the Roomba* – as slaves. That will never work. We fight for the worker, we fight for the robot – a revolution for one is a revolution for all.

 

 

 

 

 

* It’s worth noting that a Roomba hacked with an AI should be considered an AI rather than an automated vacuuming service.

 

 

 

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