Ten Responses to the Technological Unemployment Problem

On the internet and in the media there has been growing discussion of technological unemployment. People are increasingly concerned that automation will displace more and more workers—that in fact there might be no turning back at this point. We may be reaching the end of work as we know it.

What happens if vast numbers of people can no longer make money by selling their labor? How should society respond? What follows is a list of possible responses to technological unemployment. This list may not be complete. If I have missed anything, or misrepresented anyone’s views please say so in the comments below. Also these responses are not meant to be mutually exclusive; many of them can overlap with each other quite nicely.

(1) THERE IS NO PROBLEM; TECHNOLOGICAL UNEMPLOYMENT IS A MYTH

There are many economists who still maintain that technological unemployment cannot happen, at least not on the large scale described above. The reasoning for this argument is called the luddite fallacy, which explains that although automation does displace workers, it simultaneously leads to lower prices. These lower prices in turn stimulate consumer demand and provide the basis for new industries, which in turn hire more workers. The luddite fallacy has more or less held true for two hundred years. The question is will it continue to hold true in the face of the computer revolution and accelerating technological progress? How can we be sure new jobs will arrive fast enough to offset the jobs lost?

(2) UNCONDITIONAL BASIC INCOME

This is a fairly straightforward solution. Since growing numbers of people won’t be able to earn money from their labor, it might make sense to just give everyone a guaranteed income whether or not they work. This would allow the market economy as we know it to continue, since putting money in people’s hands would prop up the cycle of consumer spending. Often this idea is characterized as socialist, and in some senses it is, but this characterization overlooks that the goal of a UBI is actually to save market capitalism. Moreover, with a guaranteed basic income many other socialist programs like social security, unemployment, and food stamps could be dismantled and replaced with this far more streamlined system. An obvious question is, where does the money come from? A variety of ideas have been suggested; Marshall Brain details several possibilities in his essay Robotic Freedom.

(3) OPT OUT OF CAPITALISM AND TAKE ADVANTAGE OF DECENTRALIZED TECHNOLOGIES

This is a more individual approach that does not rely on government intervention. By taking advantage of new decentralized technologies and living as cheaply as possible, people might be able to increasingly just opt out of capitalism and consumerism entirely. This approach is advocated by Federico Pistono in his book Robots Will Steal Your Job But That’s Okay and could be facilitated by forward thinking engineering projects such as Open Source Ecology, as well as upcoming advances in technologies like solar panels and 3D printers.

(4) RESOURCE BASED ECONOMY (OR AUTOMATION SOCIALISM?)

This is an alternate economic system advocated by The Venus Project “in which all goods and services are available without the use of money, credits, barter or any other system of debt or servitude. All resources become the common heritage of all of the inhabitants, not just a select few.” This arrangement is made possible by aggressive use of advanced technologies to create an abundance of resources and thereby negate the need for any sort of rationing. Although Jacques Fresco, the founder of the Venus Project, claims his system is distinct from socialism, it appears to me to be fairly consistent with an extreme version of what has been called “automation socialism.” I believe the socialist comparison is apt since RBE implies the end of both private property and wealth concentration. In any event, this system sounds idyllic in principle but naturally raises the question “How could we get from here to there?”

(5) WEALTH REDISTRIBUTION ACCORDING TO AN INCENTIVE SYSTEM

This approach is advocated by Martin Ford in his book The Lights in the Tunnel.  His approach overlaps heavily with the unconditional basic income idea in that his goal is the same: put money directly in people’s hands so they can spend it and keep the market economy going. The main difference is that instead of making the income unconditional, Ford advocates doling out money according to an incentive scheme that encourages behavior society desires. Among the hypothetical examples Ford mentions is paying people to read books.

(6) WORK TOGETHER WITH THE MACHINES
In their book Race Against the Machine, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson suggest that we should try racing with machines. In addition, seminal futurist Ray Kurzweil has repeatedly expressed his view that we are destined to “merge with machines.” How might this resolve the technological unemployment problem? Well, technological unemployment ultimately stems from the fact that automation advances much faster than people can learn new skills. So if we can find a way to directly upgrade human minds—such as through the use of brain-computer interfaces—then workers would be able to keep pace with technological change and readily adapt to new jobs and industries as quickly as they crop up. Moreover, super intelligent humans might develop new desires which would in turn stimulate new industries. Alternately humans might become enlightened and decide they no longer need a market economy. Either way the problem would be solved.

(7) SMALL SCALE POLICY ADJUSTMENTS DESIGNED TO ENCOURAGE EDUCATION AND FOSTER INNOVATION

A lot of more traditional pundits admit there is a potential problem with technological unemployment (or at least technological inequality) but seem uninterested in any of the more drastic solutions mentioned above. Instead they push for a series of common sense policy fixes, such as fixing education to better prepare people for STEM fields or reforming the patent system to mitigate drags on innovation. These policy tweaks are designed to make the economy function incrementally better in this new technological era.

(8) GET THROUGH THIS TRANSITIONAL PERIOD AS FAST AS POSSIBLE

One line of reasoning argues that technological unemployment can only ever be a temporary problem, since the day is approaching when we will literally print out all of our food and other necessities. Thus the problem only arises in the awkward transitional period: after we’ve automated large numbers of jobs, but before technology has lowered the cost of living to near zero. Therefore we should try to accelerate technological progress by whatever means necessary so that we can make the painful transition as short as possible—much like tearing off a bandaid.

(9) OPTIMISTIC LIBERTARIAN

This position argues that as long as government stays out of the way the transition will be relatively smooth and painless. Yes, there will be less jobs available, and certainly people’s incomes will suffer, but technology will simultaneously bring down the cost of living at a fast enough rate that people will survive just fine without the need for government invention or economic restructuring.

(10) ISSUES LIKE TECHNOLOGICAL UNEMPLOYMENT ARE DWARFED BY EXISTENTIAL RISK

It’s possible a technological unemployment crisis would simply be a pitstop on the way to a much more dangerous crisis involving artificial general intelligence.  Once AGI arrives we will have much bigger issues to contend with, such as will the human race survive being displaced as the most intelligent beings on planet Earth? So while technological unemployment might be worth worrying about at the margins, really the bulk of our energy ought to be devoted to this more substantial threat on the horizon. This position is advocated by the Machine Intelligence Research Institute and others.

(Thanks to the Google+ Technological Unemployment community and commenter Yosarian2 for contributing to the ideas in this article.)

17 thoughts on “Ten Responses to the Technological Unemployment Problem

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  2. Great list (and thanks for the mention ;) ) That was a good summery of my “let’s get through it as fast as possible” solution, which I think (in combination with some of the others) is going to be pretty key. I should be clear that I don’t think “getting through it as fast as possible” is going to do it on it’s own; some combination of the others (say, #2 and #3) will also be necessary to get through the transition, since even “as fast as possible” is likely to take a period of years.

    I would also mention that in the short run, I think our best bet to get to some of the better possible futures is to try to keep the structures of democracy strong and to try to reduce the influence of money in politics; the rich are likely to resist most of the solutions listed above, and while I don’t think they’re going to be able to stop some kind of guaranteed minimum income or something similar forever, they are likely to make getting there more difficult and painful then it needs to be if they have the power to do so.

    • I think the rich will be less of an obstacle than the middle class. A lot of people, the vast majority of whom are not rich, deeply believe that a person who produces nothing deserves nothing, or to put it another way, deeply resent what they view as free riders. If you look at the opposition to expansion of welfare programs, for example, it tends to include people from across the economic spectrum (perhaps with the exception of the poorest segments).

      The hard part is going to be convincing millions of ordinary people that the work ethic they’ve had drummed into them since childhood is obsolete. If you don’t crack that nut it’s a nonstarter. I think focusing on expected opposition from the rich will actually reduce the chances of success of some of these solutions.

      • If technological unemployment proceeds at a quick pace, the middle class opposition to finding a solution will quickly crumble as more and more of them either become unemployed or see themselves at risk of unemployment. In fact, many mid-level white collar jobs will probably start to vanish before certain lower-paid jobs. If jobs become increasingly scarce and the average standard of living falls, the declining middle class will almost certainly become the loudest and most effective voices demanding change, just like they were in the great depression.

        The rich, on the other hand, the people who actually own the increasingly automated factories, could be a much more significant roadblock. Unlike the middle class, they won’t see their own standard of living decline, and in fact may have less and less contact with people in other social classes as they employ less and less workers.

        • The rich(automation owners) will be the biggest obstacle by far. The middle class with it’s concerns about work ethic will be overshadowed by massive increases in unemployment. When a large segment of it finds it impossible to find work their concern will be survival and not castigating others or themselves for not working. A large part of the middle class is being played by the rich. The rich highlight people like “welfare queens”(lazy non-workers), socialism etc, as reasons why they should support the agenda of the rich(tax cuts, cuts in entitlements, etc). While it’s been effective thus far, I think that this game has just about run it’s course. It’s hard to buy into this when you can’t find a job that supports your family.

          The capital holders(automation owners) will fight to the bitter end to stay in control. All you have to do is look at the incredibly nasty fights they put up over modest tax increases for example. In the mean time, they will increasingly look to increase productivity and efficiency in a spiral of hyper-competitiveness over shrinking markets.

          Capitalism seems to be a dead end in a scenario where robots and AI are able to replace most human labor. The argument that the lower prices that will result from all of this doesn’t seem probable. It’s hard for people to buy cheap stuff when they have no income. This idea also relies on the idea that business will pass lower costs on the consumer. In recent history productivity gains seem to be converted into profits for the company before anything else, especially workers wages or lower prices. Productivity has skyrocketed and yet we still have inflation instead of deflation, lower wages that don’t keep up with higher prices. A lot of this recently is because of off-shoring, but if you replace Chinese workers with robots is the end result going to be any different?

          I believe that how society handles this situation will be the defining issue of this century. I don’t know what the solution is, but business as usual won’t last too much longer.

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  4. So a friend sent this to me because we have had many a discussion on this for years now. I work in manufacturing and I see issues with the technological advances that others might not. I am going to post here my email I sent him with my response. Some of my responses aren’t very detailed because they are part of an on going conversation we have and would be too long to try and explain here.
    So here it is:

    Nice Article.
    The first point they bring up is it is a myth because of the Luddite Fallacy, which explains that although automation does displace workers, it simultaneously leads to lower prices. These lower prices in turn stimulate consumer demand and provide the basis for new industries, which in turn hire more workers. Ok I can see that except that those “new” industries pay a fraction of what these people were making before. Also at the end of this first point they shoot the response full of holes with the last two questions which are:
    The question is will it continue to hold true in the face of the computer revolution and accelerating technological progress?
    and
    How can we be sure new jobs will arrive fast enough to offset the jobs lost?
    So the first response isn’t a very good response and does not support the basic Idea that the technological unemployment problem is a myth.

    Second point the Unconditional Basic Income will never happen. Unfortunately. So again a non starter for the argument against the Technological Unemployment problem.

    Third Point Opt out of Capitalism. Live off the land back to basics Yada yada yada. Not an option for a large majority of the Technologically unemployed. You try it. COme to think of it when was the last time you went camping for anything longer than a weekend?

    Fourth Point A resourced based economy. The corporations and the people who own them will never let this happen. There is too much money to be made for them to allow everyone to share in the resources.

    Fifth Point Wealth Redistribution According to an Incentive System. Again will never be allowed. These corporations and their owners will not pay people for using their services. At least they won’t pay people enough to live on.

    Sixth Point Work Together With The Machines. Won’t happen fast enough if it ever does happen. There will be huge amounts of unemployed people who won’t be able to afford the upgrades that will allow them to get the jobs and the income they need.

    Seventh Point Small Scale Policy Adjustment Designed To Encourage Education And Foster Innovation. Can’t happen fast enough. Then there are the people who just aren’t intelligent enough to keep up with the math and science required to make this work. This will create a new class of citizens who will become poor exponentially. Creating a larger class of people who live on the margins of Criminality. I know that is not a word. The idea though is if they can’t make money legally they will do it illegally.

    Eighth Point Get through the transitional period as fast as possible. This is a blatant Fallacy. The cost of living will never be near zero if it was how would the Corporations and their owners make money. Which is the point of the business world. Not to help people but to make money.

    Ninth point Optimistic Libertarian. If all regulations are removed from the so called “free Market” system it will only exacerbate the situation. Look at place like Bangladesh, India, or any African country the rich get richer the poor get poorer. The poor die from malnourishment and preventable diseases because they can’t afford the price the rich charge for food and medicine.

    Tenth Point Issues like Technological Unemployment Are Dwarfed By Existential Risk. This is a theory and a philosophical debate not a real solution to anything.

    This whole article is a Pie in the sky, Rosy Colored Glasses look at a real potential problem.

    If you read through the comments the last one left by watson says:
    Watson
    on April 30, 2013 at 6:48 pm said:
    The rich(automation owners) will be the biggest obstacle by far. The middle class with it’s concerns about work ethic will be overshadowed by massive increases in unemployment. When a large segment of it finds it impossible to find work their concern will be survival and not castigating others or themselves for not working. A large part of the middle class is being played by the rich. The rich highlight people like “welfare queens”(lazy non-workers), socialism etc, as reasons why they should support the agenda of the rich(tax cuts, cuts in entitlements, etc). While it’s been effective thus far, I think that this game has just about run it’s course. It’s hard to buy into this when you can’t find a job that supports your family.

    The capital holders(automation owners) will fight to the bitter end to stay in control. All you have to do is look at the incredibly nasty fights they put up over modest tax increases for example. In the mean time, they will increasingly look to increase productivity and efficiency in a spiral of hyper-competitiveness over shrinking markets.

    Capitalism seems to be a dead end in a scenario where robots and AI are able to replace most human labor. The argument that the lower prices that will result from all of this doesn’t seem probable. It’s hard for people to buy cheap stuff when they have no income. This idea also relies on the idea that business will pass lower costs on the consumer. In recent history productivity gains seem to be converted into profits for the company before anything else, especially workers wages or lower prices. Productivity has skyrocketed and yet we still have inflation instead of deflation, lower wages that don’t keep up with higher prices. A lot of this recently is because of off-shoring, but if you replace Chinese workers with robots is the end result going to be any different?

    I believe that how society handles this situation will be the defining issue of this century. I don’t know what the solution is, but business as usual won’t last too much longer.

    The third paragraph from watson sort of sums up what the article seems to ignore.

    • Hi Nemo, thanks for sharing your thoughts. The point of the article was simply to categorize all of the responses I’ve heard over the years—whether or not I agree with them. Many of the responses listed I quite vehemently disagree with. Others I find problematic to achieve from a practical standpoint. So I do share your skepticism.

      In all of your thinking about this, I wonder: have you conceived of an alternate response that might work better than those presented here? I’d love to continue adding to this list.

      • Ummm. No. I realize it is kind of a jerk thing to do pointing out everything that won’t work without offering something constructive in return. With our populations rising and less employment opportunities I think it will only get worse.
        The only solutions I could offer, and this is just a band-aid that would only put off the crisis not solve it, is to keep those people employed until the population has shrunk to a manageable size or space exploration has become a real option. Neither of which I see happening in the next 100 years which is where this is all going to come to a head.
        Maybe we should stop thinking that advancing technology just for the sake of advancing technology is a good thing. I mean Technology is a tool not and end in itself. When we have so many people worldwide that are in poverty do we really need a robotic assembly line that will put more people in that same position just so the owners of the factory can increase their bottom line?

  5. I’m all for #3 & #4 which are basically the same. With 3 just being on a larger scale and most likely the start of #4.

    However #8 is just the problem outlined in #4 “how do we get from here to there”. We’re currently in this critical phase.

    As I think of it #10 could lead to self-organization in chaos, which happens often in nature, business models (I forgot how the term for this) & society. A common threat unites and reorganizes.

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    • It’s an interesting idea; thanks for sharing! It will be interesting to see if users can monetize their loyalty (that’s the real scarce commodity here, not the data imo) and thereby force social networks and other data compilers to pay them to stick around. Of course that scenario implies that the data compilers are facing strong competition which implies they themselves might be suffering technological disruption to their model, a model which may merely be a fluke of today’s moment rather than something we can extrapolate into the future.

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  8. Today there i no such thing as “money”…The central banks create DEBT instruments out of thin air..which is why the entire world are now enslaved to their debt system..with no way out, short of violent revolution…which is also why the race is on for quantum computing A.I. robotics..to control the masse who no longer have job, homes, food, money, water, etc…Nestle CORP recently stated there is no basic human right to clean, potable water..that it should be privatized..pay or die…Until the Military-Industrial-Complex and Black Ops, Central Banks, are dealt with, it is mainly a pipedream of a utopian sustainable future,,,,