Guest Author Michael Lorton is a San Francisco-based programmer and writer. He writes the daily blog Blue Apsara about culture, economics, travel, law, and the occasional giant, carnivorous lizard.
My estimate is that in the last 200 years, technology has destroyed 98% of all jobs.
In 1813, the population of the world was about a billion people, of whom probably more than 800 million worked: they hewed wood, or drew water, or plowed, or raised chicken. Unlike the lilies of the field, they toiled and they span: hard, grinding, endless labor.
Using today’s technology, it would take (by my very rough calculations) only 16 million people to produce everything — the food, the clothing, the buildings — that took the entire world to make back in the bad old days.
The population of the world has increased since then--about six-fold, so arithmetic seems to suggest that just 96 million workers could feed, clothe, and house that populartion, and therefore the ravages of technology should have caused 97% unemployment.
Well, if people were content to live as their ancestors did two centuries ago — inadequate food, filthy tattered clothing, freezing hovels — and if the 3% of the population that did have jobs were willing to share and share alike, then yes, 96 million would be slaving away, and the rest of us could pass the day, huddled in our shacks.
But people don’t want to live like that, and they certainly are reluctant to share with strangers when they’re near starvation themselves. In the modern world, instead of 800 million workers, we have something like 3 billion.
That’s why we can comfortable laugh at the Luddite Fallacy. Despite the fears of the fallacy’s many defenders, technology can never cause overall unemployment. (Neither, for the exact same reason, can immigration or outsourcing.)
One wistful Luddite did ask something that made me think, though: What if machines could do everything, absolutely everything, a person could do?
It’s tautologically true that the average person can consume in an average day only what the average person produces in a day. Some people may produce more, some may produce less, and certainly some product gets wasted, but since everything consumed by anyone has to be produced by someone, our ability to consume is absolutely limited by our ability to produce.
Technology can be thought of as a multiplier. A backhoe — a man operating a backhoe — can dig far more than the same man operating a garden shovel. Every machine bumps up the productivity of the people who build and operate it. More is produced, so more can be consumed.
Imagine if cars were built entirely by machine. Not just assembling them, but everything: designing them, mining the raw materials, smelting the steel, everything. And the machines to do all those things, they were designed and built by machines too.
Now, each person can consume without limit. Say you want a new Ferrari. You tell your robot butler to get it for you; your butler calls up the Ferrari-making machine. If the Ferrari-making machine is busy, the butler calls the Ferrari-making-machine-making machine and has one more of them made. If there’s a shortage of steel, some iron-mining robots spring into action to dig up more ore, and so on. It’s all free, for everyone, forever.
This is what Ray Kurzweil calls “The Singularity”, the break in history that occurs once computers can think like humans. Among other effects, it will be the end of material scarcity.
We think we are rich now because our minimal needs are met with just a few hours work a day. Hah! In the post-Singularity world, every human being can have every material whim indulged. Want a fleet of supersonic airliners to play demolition derby in the skies over your house? It costs the same as a new account on Gmail, nothing, for the same reason, because it’s all done automatically.
And not just crass consumption either. Every disease can have a thousand, a million robot-scientists working in parallel on a cure. Another million to make safe fusion-based power generators, build space-ships, revive extinct species of animals, end pollution.
Right now, NASA has a small team of scientists working on faster-than-light travel. Why a “small team”? Their budget is only so big. There are only so many physicists with the intellect and training to tackle the problem. Once we know how to program a computer to reason and to invent like a human, we can just put a few thousand CPUs on the problem and get an answer back by Wednesday.
What does this do to jobs? Who cares? No one wants a job. You want a salary! If you were offered a job with no salary or a salary with no job, which would you take?
And if you think about it, you don’t want a salary; you want the things a salary will buy. After The Singularity, once everything is free, a salary doesn’t do much good at all.
What would a world without labor look like? Haven’t a clue. That’s why it's called “The Singularity”; the change is so significant, it’s impossible to predict, even to imagine, what the world will look like.
I don’t know if The Singularity will ever happen. One scientist predicted it might occur as early as 2030. In 2030, I’ll be 65 years old. Just as I get old enough to collect Social Security, and money stops being meaningful.
Ah well, you win some, you lose some.