The day is approaching when no human beings will have to work to supply the needs of life. We can liberate ourselves from lives of toil. But will we use the robot surplus wisely?
[Previous: AI is getting scarily good]
“Labor shortage” is the buzzword of the moment. With the Great Resignation in full swing and millions of people dead or disabled from COVID, businesses of all kinds are struggling to hire the workers they need. Those who are able to work have more power, which is why unions are organizing and salaries are rising faster than at any time in recent history.
However, labor shortages won’t be the defining trend of the future. As the world economy becomes more automated, human labor will be less necessary. If we look to the horizon, we can already see this day approaching.
“Cursed is the ground”
To ten thousand years of our ancestors, the concept of a world not dependent on human labor would have been incomprehensible. Life was labor. Every stone quarried, cut and mortared to make a wall; every sheaf of grain that was reaped, threshed, winnowed, and ground into flour; every fiber spun into thread, every thread woven into fabric, every piece of fabric sewn into a tunic or a dress; every tree that was chopped down, split, cut into boards, and used to build houses—it all had to be done by hand.
The world ran on human muscle power, with some help from draft animals. The toil was brutal, backbreaking, and filled almost every waking instant. It’s safe to say that ancient people didn’t enjoy it; they just didn’t have any alternative. The Book of Genesis expresses this mindset when it describes a life of perpetual labor as the punishment for sin: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life” (3:17).
However, just as anesthetic canceled the biblical “curse” of painful childbirth, mechanization is improving the human condition. The whole of recorded history has been a quest to find better power sources and to build better machines, to take the burden off our shoulders. But it’s only in our era that this Promethean defiance of the gods has reached escape velocity.
Wind and water
The first societies to tap a power source beyond muscles were classical China, Greece and Rome. Those clever ancient engineers realized that flowing water could turn a wheel, which could be harnessed to make millstones grind grain or drive trip hammers to crush ore.
Around 10 CE, the Greek poet Antipater of Thessalonica praised the waterwheel for lifting the burden of human labor:
“Hold back your hand from the mill, you grinding girls; even if the cockcrow heralds the dawn, sleep on. For Demeter has imposed the labours of your hands on the nymphs [i.e., river spirits], who, leaping down upon the topmost part of the wheel, rotate its axle; with encircling cogs, it turns the hollow weight of the Nisyrian millstones. If we learn to feast toil-free on the fruits of the earth, we taste again the golden age.”
The Barbegal mill complex of Roman France, described as “the greatest known concentration of mechanical power in the ancient world,” had sixteen aqueduct-powered waterwheels that could grind four tons of flour per day, enough for 12,000 people.
Over the centuries, we kept on hacking the laws of nature for our benefit. Successive generations of inventors came up with better and better technology: windmills, power looms, internal-combustion engines, combine harvesters, washing machines. Agriculture was the first sector to be transformed. It once demanded a majority of the population working in the fields, but now it’s a tiny percentage of the workforce in industrialized nations. Next to go is manufacturing, which is following the same curve. Manufacturing peaked at 38% of all jobs in America, but today it’s just 8%, even though total output has risen.
So far, these labor-saving technologies have been force multipliers: humans working in tandem with machines, so one person can do work that once took many. However, a bigger and more disruptive shift is arriving soon. The next era will be the autonomous economy: robots that do the work by themselves.
The autonomous economy
Although I enjoy a dancing robot as much as anyone, it’s unlikely that the robots of the future will be Asimovian humanoids. We won’t have robo-butlers fetching our drinks and vacuuming our floors. Instead, robots will be specialized for the jobs they do, mostly those that are too dirty, arduous or dangerous for humans.
Mining is a good example. When we think of coal or ore mining, we still picture gangs of dust-blackened workers laboring underground with picks and shovels. But mining is becoming the domain of robots: self-driving ore-haulers, automated drill rigs that break up rock more quickly and efficiently than humans operating heavy equipment. Next-generation mining robots may be able to work by themselves in flooded, pitch-black, or airless tunnels.
Here’s a more surprising example. The second largest agricultural exporter in the world by value is… the Netherlands, surpassing nations far bigger and more populous. How?
It’s because the Dutch have embraced technology, with robots that milk cows, monitor soil chemistry, harvest crops, and apply targeted jets of pesticide to kill weeds. This so-called precision farming, much of it in high-tech greenhouses, produces ten times the yield of fields in other countries while using less water and chemicals.
Last but not least, the war in Ukraine is a morbid demonstration of the power of robotics. Russia has a huge advantage in conventional arms and manpower. But Ukraine is fighting back, and even winning, with NATO technology: Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones that fire tank-killing missiles, American Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost drones that kamikaze-bomb their targets, fire-and-forget Javelin missiles that home in on tanks and destroy them from above, and HIMARS launchers with GPS-guided missiles that allow point-and-click destruction of enemy targets. Ukraine has even repurposed civilian drones as unmanned aerial bombers that drop grenades with deadly accuracy.
These innovations and others dovetail nicely with the fact of population decline in most industrialized countries. If we want to maintain our standard of living, we’ll need to do more with less people. Robots and AI are emerging at exactly the right time for that.
Who’s getting left behind?
Although hard labor has been a curse on humanity since the invention of agriculture, some people pine for its return. The manly professions of blue-collar work—digging coal, pouring steel, laying bricks, cutting down trees—still occupy an almost mythical status in our culture and serve as political touchstones.
But that world is disappearing. It’s going away and won’t be brought back, short of a global Luddite orgy of technology destruction. Humans still do some of this work, but fewer are needed each year.
The coming world is based on technology, which means on education. Workers who have the skills to prosper—i.e., the people who build, improve, and fix the robots and write the AI programs that run them—will be in more demand than ever. They’ll command high salaries and be able to take their pick of jobs.
However, people without these skills will be increasingly left behind. Anyone used to doing manual labor for a living simply won’t be able to compete with the robots. Human craftsmanship might still exist, in the form of niche industries where old-school charm is the point, but it won’t be gainful employment for the masses.
We have to decide how, as a society, we’ll respond to this. We’ve left past transitions up to the markets or the whim of chance, but this is a turning point where we can’t avoid a collective decision.
If we allow the capitalist investor class and a few white-collar engineers to claim all the benefits of this advanced economy, we’ll be consigning the rest of humanity—millions of people in the Western world, billions of people worldwide—to a new dark age of poverty and squalor. Civil unrest, demagoguery and perhaps war lie down this path.
On the other hand, it’s not far-fetched to imagine a future where no humans at all are needed to supply a minimal living standard for everyone—where work is optional, done only for self-realization or for pleasure, rather than for survival. The robot surplus can permanently liberate us from the toil that’s defined our existence for millennia. It can catapult us into a utopian future.