The hard truth is that most modern work requires less knowledge and skill than was required in the past. A peasant four hundred years ago had to know about his soil, his plants and animals, the seasons, the weather, where natural water was and be able to do a hundred and one practical things such as ploughing, sowing, harvesting, making and repairing of fences and ditches, using tools and turning out cheese and cream and dried meat and vegetables How many jobs today require a tenth of that volume of knowledge? Nor did more demanding work stop at peasants. A 17th century craftsman would have served a long apprenticeship. Jobs which did not require an apprenticeship would have probably required some manual skill. Those who aspired to intellectual employment had to laboriously write and amend their works rather than enjoying the immense convenience of a word processor. That and the cost of writing materials forced them to become precise in a way that virtually no one is today. Perhaps most importantly, modern division of labour with one person doing a repetitive job was not king. A person making something four centuries ago would probably make the entire item and quite often a variety of items, for example, a 17th century blacksmith would not merely shoe horses but make a wide range of iron goods.
General purpose robots (GPRs) would arguably have much more immediate difficulty in displacing human labour in a sophisticated pre-industrial society such as England in 1600 than they would today, because of the more complex demands made by 17th century employments. The large majority of English people in 1600 were employed on the land where subjective judgement rather than decisions made on objective facts were pre-eminent in the days before science and advanced technology entered farming. A very sophisticated GPR would be needed to make such judgements. (I am assuming that GPRs sent to England in 1600 would only have the knowledge available in 1600). Conversely, GPRs today could take over a great deal of employment in Western economies and much of the industrialised parts of the developing world, especially China, because there are so many simple jobs which would be within the capabilities of very basic GPRs.
But that is only half of the story. If most jobs are not demanding of much by way of learned skills and even less of intellect, they do need diligence. Human beings are generally more than a little reluctant to put themselves out for work which has no intrinsic interest for them or which is not very highly paid.3 Most people do not have a vocation, or at least not one at which they can make a living. Left with work which is seen as simply a livelihood, most just want to do enough to live what they think is a comfortable life. If the job they are doing is laborious and boring and pays not a lot more than is needed to feed and clothe and house them, then it’s a certainty that they will be more than a little resentful. (An old Soviet joke about low wages ran that the communist government pretended to pay the workers and they pretended to work). Resentfulness equals carelessness equals idleness equals dishonesty equals loss of custom equals loss of profit. So what will an employer do when he can employ a robot instead? He will go and gets himself some GPRs which will not get awkward, do what they are told, keep working all the time without being watched, does not make regular mistakes and requires no wages or social security taxes or holidays or sick leave. And it will not be able to sue you for being a bad employer.
The GPRs will have all the capabilities of computers. They will be able to compute and model and display and manipulate data to your heart’s content. They will absorb unlimited amounts of data in the blink of an eye. You need a GPR to speak French, the GPR will speak or translate French. If you want a GPR to explain quantum mechanics, the GPR will produce a lecture by an eminent physicist. You need to fix your car, the GPR will fix your car.
Now, how could any human being compete with that? At that level they could not, but in the beginning at least there will still be a sizeable chunk of jobs which GPRs will not be able to do. These will be the jobs which cannot be reduced to quantifiable tasks; jobs which cannot be done by following an algorithm; jobs which require judgement and jobs which require motivation to achieve a complex end which is not obvious from the units of means which are required to achieve it. But those type of jobs are only a minority of jobs, probably a small minority, perhaps 20% of the total. If the earliest GPRs could only undertake fifty per cent of the jobs which humans do that would be catastrophic. Human beings will not be able to kid themselves for long that everything is going to be all right.
There will be two further advantages enjoyed by GPRs over humans. In principle there are no limits to increases in the capabilities of GPRs; there is no such human potential in the present state of knowledge. It may be possible in the future to enhance human capabilities dramatically through genetic engineering or a marriage of human and machine to produce a cybernetic means of advancement, although in both cases the question would arise are such beings human? But for the foreseeable future there is nothing to suggest that human capacity can be raised dramatically through education and training, not least because attempts to raise IQ substantially and permanently through enhanced environments have a record of unadulterated failure over the past fifty years or more. Most tellingly, all the claims for raised IQs through enhanced environments involve people without well above average IQs. No one has claimed to have demonstrated that those with IQs of over 150 can have their IQs raised by environmental means. Nor do adult IQs increase as people experience more and learn more. That suggests humans have reached an intellectual plateau in terms of an ability to comprehend by the middle teens. With GPRs as many robots as required with a certain ability could be created.
The second advantage is that GPRs will come with a guarantee of performance. An employer gets what it says on the tin. Moreover, the performance will be consistent. Humans beings do not carry such a guarantee. The individual’s qualities only become apparent once on the job and are subject to variation according to the physical and mental wellbeing of the person. This makes them a gamble for anyone who employs them. A faulty or rogue GPR could be repaired or replaced without moral qualms; sacking a human being raises all sorts of ethical questions and matters of sentiment.
Part one of Robotics and the real crisis of capitalism, part 3 to follow.