Published On: Thu, Jul 26th, 2012

Automation providing a world of luxury, or mass poverty?

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For the past 50 years there has been an expectation that the next generation will have a higher quality of life than the previous generation. With increased computerisation, globalisation and automation this expectation may no longer be valid. History, Future. Now turns to science fiction and European history to get a glimpse of a possible future.

Isaac Asimov, a Russian born American immigrant, died in 1992. He was born in 1920 and was a prolific writer of science, history and science fiction books. He is most famous for his series of short stories about robots, which created the prototype of nearly all robots that have been written about in fiction ever since. If you have heard of the Three Laws of Robotics and a Positronic brain, then you will be hearing a reference to Asimov’s works: C3PO from Star Wars and Data from Star Trek both had Positronic brains. A few of his best books have been turned into terrible movies including I, Robot (Will Smith) and The Bicentennial Man (Robin Williams).

In addition to his most famous work, The Foundation series, he wrote a robot crime series set in the future revolving around a detective called Elijah Baley and his humaniform robotic partner R. Daneel Olivaw. Set thousands of years in the future, mankind has left Earth and has colonised other planets. There is a conflict between humanity left behind on an overcrowded Earth and the Spacers, humans who have colonised other planets, have a 200 year life expectancy, and live in sparsely populated estates managed by thousands of robots.

Asimov published his Robot series between 1953 and 1956 and so it is fascinating to observe both the similarities and the differences between his view of the world to come and our view, 60 years later. The humans who had colonised other planets, Spacers, had fully embraced both artificial intelligence and artificial labour: robots. The centre of Spacer civilisation was the planet Aurora, which had a population of 200 million people and 10 billion robots. They lived in a society that had explicit similarities with those of an ancient city state like Athens during the classical period of the 6th and 5th centuries BC: a rich landed class who had time for leisure and contemplation and a large population of robots /slaves who did all of their work. In contrast, those who remained on Earth had shorter life expectancies, lived in crowded, dangerous, underground caves of steel cities with very little to do.

One of the most concerning issues about a confluence of a large global population hitting increased automation and computerisation is that fewer people are needed to make goods and to provide services. This means that there will be a surplus of people who are able to work compared to those who are needed for work. With excess supply vs demand the value of labour will fall. As the value of labour falls it will have a corresponding drop in the value of people as a whole. This is a major concern as we have experienced this before historically.

Between 1348 and 1350 western Europe was struck by the Black Death, which is estimated to have reduced the population by 30 to 60 percent. It took Europe over 150 years for the population to recover. The Black Death was clearly a terrible event for people concerned, but it also helped the survivors as it transformed the relationship between the poor serfs and the rich aristocratic class, effectively ending feudalism. With fewer people available to work, the value of those who had skills and were able bodied increased. This allowed them to break their feudal ties to the land and to move into other areas.

The reverse took place during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century: there was both an increase in the absolute numbers of people who survived childhood and mechanisation took people off farms and into factories. This huge surplus of labour allowed the first factories to operate in terrible conditions as a hyper abundance of people drove down the value of labour.

In 1848, a series of revolutions convulsed the Italian states, France, the German states, Denmark, Schleswig, Hungary, Switzerland, the Ukraine, Poland, the Danubian principalities, Belgium and Ireland. The causes of the revolutions are complex and were not the same in each area. However, large population increases and a lack of decent jobs played an important role. Ultimately, most of these revolutions fizzled out and those previously in power managed to retain their positions. Emigration to America, Canada and Argentina helped to reduce some of the revolutionary pressure as people could chose a more productive approach to the problem: leave the problems of your homeland and seek opportunity in a vast new unpopulated land where the value of labour was extremely high.

Today, some people have a similar vision of increased automation by computers and mechanised labour resulting in more leisure time for people. But there is a major difference – the Spacers who lived on their planet Aurora were few in number. Our world is more similar to Asimov’s dystopian future of Earth and its billions of people crowded in Caves of Steel.

A world in which the value of labour is low is not an attractive one in which to live. Life becomes cheap and increasingly polarised between those that have jobs and those that do not. The have nots feel abused and the haves fret about joining the have nots.

Unlike mid 14th Century Europe we are unlikely to be hit by a pandemic. Unlike 19th Century Europe we do not have an open country hoping to persuade us to emigrate to. Unlike Asimov’s Spacer worlds we do not have a new planet to colonise.

This is going to be a problem.

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