The future of work in an age of increasing automation is a topic that a lot of economic thinkers have considered. Frances Coppola ponders the question of how the future may look in a world in which automation is driving people out of the labour market:
Automation only happens when machines are cheaper to run than people, and it is probably fair to say that in the last few decades automation has not happened quite as fast as one might have anticipated because companies have discovered that labour in emerging markets is cheaper than the cost of investing in machinery. But as the standard of living rises in emerging markets, and the cost of technology falls, that will not remain the case. Hazlitt, writing in 1952, pointed out that it was automation of production that enabled families to survive without children’s labour, because the price of goods produced with the new machinery was so much lower than those produced in a more labour-intensive way. In the short term automation caused hardship, as people whose livelihoods depended on the old way of doing things lost their jobs: but in the longer term there was benefit to society in the reduced cost of goods that enabled many people to work less, and in the development of new industries to employ those people no longer needed in the old ones. The change we are seeing today is every bit as great, and the short-term consequences are the same – high unemployment, particularly among those with poor or irrelevant skills.
Automation should both require fewer people to work AND enable people to work less, since the whole point of automation is to reduce the cost of production, which in a competitive system would result in falling prices. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case: the owners of automated industry may use reduced production cost as an opportunity to take more profit, and they may use political influence to create barriers to entry and trade tariffs to prevent competition driving down prices. But assuming that governments don’t use subsidies and protections to keep inefficient companies alive and prices artificially high, where does that leave us in terms of employment and incomes in the future?
Where it leaves us is with increasing inequality, which of course is something that we have seen in recent years, alongside increased unemployment, which is another thing we have seen. And in a world where a minority, historically known as the capitalists own the physical means of production like factories, robots and patents this will result in greater inequality as labour becomes less and less important as an economic factor. The owners of capital will be able to produce to satisfy market demand with little labour input. This will result in more former labourers leaving that field and either becoming entrepreneurs themselves, or becoming dependent on welfare. I think this transformational phenomenon is already well under way in the West — and I only expect it to become more pronounced globally as automation becomes ubiquitous.
In theory, physical labour may become totally obsolete. If every house has a decentralised energy source like solar panels and reliable energy storage, as well as an advanced 3-D printer or molecular assembler that can produce almost physical object imaginable from a few basic recyclable chemicals then human poverty will essentially have been abolished. We can just spend the vast majority of our time doing things that we enjoy, while spending only a few minutes or at most hours a day programming our machines to fulfil our material desires.
That is the more optimistic vision. In a less optimistic vision, only a small minority of people will have access to such technologies as while the technology may exist, the costs of mass distribution remain too high (at least for a time). The vast masses, will be stuck in impoverished material conditions — dependent on welfare, and charity — without any real prospect being able to climb the ladder through selling their labour. Only a lucky few — who have an inimitably good idea, or a creative skill that cannot be replicated by a robot — will have a prospect of joining the capital-owning upper class. And for the others who are left out in the cold, political action may look attractive. Simply have the government take a larger chunk of the capital-owning class’s income or wealth, and redistribute it to the poor. Ideally, this would be done with the intent of abolishing poverty through making cheap electricity, internet access and molecular assemblers available to all. Less ideally, rather than giving the poor the means to fish (so to speak), it might instead take the shape of a giant welfare net, keeping the means of production in limited hands and simply confiscating and redistributing some wealth. These issues unresolved could create a lot of tension between the two classes. In a worst-case scenario, that could lead to social breakdown or even revolution.
Fortunately, I think that this can be avoided through voluntary charity. The billionaire class today is split between those on one hand determined to give it all away with the intent of improving the material conditions of the very poor — Bill Gates, Warren Buffett — and those on the other determined to create new futuristic technologies and systems — Elon Musk — that can improve the material conditions of the masses. As we proceed through the 21st Century and as the technologies of superabundance — solar energy, nuclear energy, wind energy, cybernetics, genomics, the internet, 3-D printing, molecular manufacturing, desalination, etc — create more and more wealth and more and more billionaires, this trend may accelerate. Simply, the wealthy may have so much wealth that eliminating material poverty through voluntary charity may in the long run be an obvious and inevitable move.
At first glance, I admit, a vision of a superabundant world where people who own only their labor eke out a meager existence seems frightening. But put your fears aside. In an ultra-productive world, a relatively tiny amount of non-labor resources would make your rich by current standards. Labor + zero non-labor assets = poverty; labor + token non-labor assets = riches. In any case, a slight charitable impulse in the better-off is all you need to ensure fabulous riches for every human on earth.
Once you’ve got a world this wonderful, the last thing you’d want to do is start down a potentially slippery slope with a high tech Russian Civil War at the bottom. Indeed, a more sensible reaction would be abolish the welfare state as obsolete. If half of us were billionaires, mopping up any residual human poverty with voluntary charity would be child’s play.
Ironically, this kind of world could be strangely like the decentralised and classless society that Marx originally envisaged. The route to which we appear to be travelling toward it on, though, is totally and completely different to the one Marx envisaged. Instead of violent revolution, the road to superabundance may be paved by technological progress made by the capital-owners.