Beyond Labels

A 360° Discussion of Foreign, National and Local Policy Issues

Topic Nov 2: The rise of intelligent machines

Proposition: This time it’s going to be different.

Technology has replaced human labor throughout recorded history. Every time that human labor is replaced by technology fewer humans (or less skilled humans) can produce the same goods, (and often better ones) and jobs are destroyed.

And through history as jobs have been destroyed, new jobs have been created. The Luddites who protested the labor economizing technologies have made predictions that have been shown wrong repeatedly, leading to what is now called the “Luddite Fallacy

That technological change can cause short-term job losses is widely accepted. The view that it can lead to lasting increases in unemployment has long been controversial. Participants in the technological unemployment debates can be broadly divided into optimists and pessimists. Optimists agree that innovation may be disruptive to jobs in the short term, yet hold that various compensation effects ensure there is never a long term negative impact on jobs. Whereas pessimists contend that at least in some circumstances, new technologies can lead to a lasting decline in the total number of workers in employment.

This page has a link to a video that contains an argument for  believing that this time it’s different. It’s also got the script for the video, so you can go back and re-read. I encourage watching the video, not just reading.

Here are the questions that I think need considering:

  • Will there will be a lasting decline in the total number of workers in employment?  If no, then no problem, in the long run.
  • If there is a lasting decline then:
    • Is it a good thing because it will mean that a relatively small number of people (people who make smart machines, and people who are smarter than the smart machines and who supervise them) can use the smart machines to produce (almost) everything that everyone needs–and most people will no longer need to work to enjoy abundance. So no problem.
    • Is it a bad thing because people who no longer need to work, will have to find some different way to make their lives meaningful?
    • Is it a bad thing because people–who would be willing to work but can’t because machines can do everything that they can less expensively–will be given just enough to keep them from rising up in revolt.
    • Is it really bad because when you give people to keep them from rising up depends on how strongly you can suppress them–and smart machines can suppress people less expensively than armies and police.

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