Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Free Lunch

Cory Doctorow once made an excellent anaolgy in an essay which I'm apparently too lazy to find at the moment. Imagine, if you will, that tomorrow some sort of device is created which will create - from thin air - any meal you could possibly want, for free. Furthermore, the device itself is cheap enough that it can be installed on every street corner, if we so choose. The restaurants and the rest of the food industry would fight it bitterly, of course. And maybe they would have a point. If we actually mass-produced such devices, it would put millions upon millions of people out of business, and shut down an entire industry. They would definitely lobby heavily to have the device mothballed, or at least heavily restricted, for the protection of the economy. And yet, on the other hand, we need to keep an eye on the bigger picture. Can you really weigh the downsides against free food for everyone?

This, in a nutshell, is the controversy that we'll see played out repeatedly over the next few decades, as production costs are driven to zero by rapid technological advances. The recording and movie industries were unlucky enough to be caught first - their product is easily digitized, and their costs are almost entirely fixed costs so they're forced to make up the difference by increasing the unit price to well over the marginal cost of a unit. As a result, you can get their products for free online, and it's costing them heavily (though, that's debatable, and they may survive yet if they're smart about it). But, they certainly won't be the last industry to be caught. Robotics is a pretty primitive field right now compared to what it could be; if it were to reach its potential I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that 80% of the people in the world could be put out of work. 

What do we do then? I suppose I mean that question in two senses. First, what do we do with society? Some kind of massive socialist state is probably what we'll end up with, but it's not at all obvious that that's the best solution. (What do you guys think?) Secondly, what will we do individually? High-tech jobs will obviously still be in demand, but there won't be all that many of those. Maybe we'll see an explosion of creativity, of art and literature and all that neat stuff, but that's really not for everybody. What will we have to offer the people who need a sense of purpose, the ones that would never be satisfied with a techno-utopia where nothing really needs to be done?

Some of you will say that I'm guessing way too high on my 80% figure, but don't be too sure. Unskilled manual labor will be the first to go, and indeed, that's already happening in some places - witness the mechanization of the auto industry, and how few workers they actually need in the factories these days. This will become the norm over time, and after a while automation will make inroads in more specialized areas as well. The wonderful/terrible thing about technology is that it only moves in one direction. Once an advance is made, that ground is never given up; the trends that accompany technology are stark and to some extent unstoppable. The genie's out of the bottle, and we need to stop trying to push it back in, and start making wishes, already.

4 comments:

Kiriska said...

You don't need a comma before that last "already." :3

I think if this happened, my major would be less useless. 8D Hurray for me! Centuries ahead of my time!

I really don't know what would happen to society in that scenario though. If there's no need to work, people would be in perpetual retirement -- there are a lot of things that people pursue in retirement, so it isn't as if they wouldn't have things to do. People could choose not to make use of certain technologies and continue to do things themselves. I kind of also imagine that there would still be a demand for humans in the military because if technology really did get that far, then our driven-in fear of self-aware AI might grow with it. I guess there's no point in saying that's too "sci-fi" an idea though, eh?

Æther said...

Well, there will still have to be researchers in most fields that there's research in now. I don't see cancer being cured anytime soon, after all (or at all, if you take my viewpoint to the end, but I'll leave that rant out here).

Also, medicine has always been two parts science, one part art. Many of the treatments we use are guesswork based on the best available data at the time. I'm not comfortable with a machine taking on the role of the health care system due to the art aspect that we will probably never completely conquer.

Yes, there is a great deal that can be mechanized such that most people that we have now will be out of work. If they can't find a home in anything obvious, I suppose there's always alcohol to numb away the pain. So I hear, anyway. Usually, though, the next generation after tech has come out starts out adjusted and can't conceptualize a world without the thing, so it would only really be an issue for maybe 50 years, unless we somehow make people live forever. Of course, then you'd have to move to the living in the seas to fit everyone idea.

Frank Church said...

I guess my first reaction to enthusiastic talks of technological advances is - so where's the money to fund them going to come from? (I had a rant about the coming agricultural crisis here, but deleted it. It suffices to say that I am troubled.)

I've been in the interesting state of having nothing to do for the last few days. What have I done? I've been reading books, listening to music and using IMSLP, doing stuff of no interest to you (or anyone else) but which is interesting to me.

Also, I think it's too late in the day for me to offer any good solutions to your two questions. I guess I'm not really sure what would satisfy most people if they didn't have any work. I would like to suggest piano as a fine hobby for them. Also, bassoon.

I guess this topic would be a little more timely if I didn't think we were in really deep doo-doo. And thoughts of that are suppressing any dreams of things that could be.

P. Static said...

Kiriska: I just like commas okay :(

Æther: Wait, guesswork? You mean it's exactly as depicted on House? :3

And actually, that's another good point - what will the generation that doesn't have to do anything look like? I am imagining something like the people from WALL-E, and frankly, it's not a pretty picture.

Frank Church: The money is going to come from robots being cheaper than people, obviously. They can work 24 hours a day and they don't take sick days. :o