The social and economic effects of GPRs  (General Purpose Robots)

When the first GPRs appear those in political authority will probably try to say everything will be all right when they are first presented with the problem. It might be thought that it would be pretty obvious that a GPR which could do everything the average human could do and then some would spell trouble for the human race, but it never does to underestimate the power of custom, ideology and the sheer unwillingness of human beings to face troubles which are not immediately upon them. The tired old and worthless comparison with technological change in the past will doubtless be made, namely, that new jobs for humans will be generated by the GPRs. But that will not last long because the reality of the situation will very rapidly force elites to accept the entirely new circumstances.

There would be a dilemma for the makers and distributors of goods and services. At first it might seem attractive to use GPRs, but as humans lose their employment and purchasing power the question for private business would be: who exactly are we producing for? Very few, would be the answer. For politicians the question would be: how can we finance government including public services when our tax base has collapsed? The answer is we cannot as things stand.

As GPRs threaten to destroy the world’s economy, politicians will be faced with an excruciating dilemma. If GPRs are allowed free rein by governments the consequence will be a catastrophic collapse in demand as humans lose their employment en masse and an inability of the state as it is presently constituted to provide welfare to those put out of work, or even to maintain the essential services of the minimalist state such as the police and army.

The situation will be pressing no matter how supposedly rich a country is because the majority of people even in the developed world are actually poor. They are only a few pay packets away from destitution (http://www.retirementsolutions.co.uk/many-britons-have-little-or-no-savings). Even those who own their own home will not be able to sell it because who will there be to buy?

To begin with attempts will probably be made to control the crisis bureaucratically by instigating rationing and price controls. But that will not go to the heart of the problem, which is how to sustain an economy in which most people are not working. In the end, politicians will be faced with two choices: ban, or at least seriously curb, the use of GPRs or adopt a largely non-market economy. Banning GPRs completely would create a particular problem because some countries would continue to use them and this could lead not merely to cheaper goods and services but technological leaps which exceeded anything humans could do. For example, suppose that a country produced GPRs to do their fighting. A country which relied only on humans would be at a hopeless disadvantage.  

The widespread banning of the use of GPRs in national territories would severely shrink international trade, because as sure as eggs are eggs not all countries would stop using GPRs  to produce items for export. Any country using GPRs could undercut any country which banned GPRs. Protectionist barriers against countries using GPRs freely would have to be erected, although human nature being what it is, this would doubtless result in GPR products being supplied through a third country which had ostensibly banned GPR produced goods and services. The likely outcome of such a situation would be for protectionism to grow beyond the banning of GPR products to the banning of products simply because they were suspected to be GPR produced. This would also be a convenient excuse for simply banning imports.

As free trade (or more accurately freer trade) and internationalism generally has been the Holy Grail of politicians in the developed world for a generation or more, the re-embracing of protectionism and state control might seem to be a tremendous psychological blow for western political elites to accommodate.  In practice it is unlikely to give them any great emotional difficulty because elites only have one fixed principle, namely, to do what is necessary to preserve their position. Think how the British mainstream Left, most notably the Labour Party, happily embraced the idea of the market and globalism in the early 1990s after having been resolutely opposed to both only a few years before. Here is Blair in the late 1980s: “We will speak up for a country that knows the good sense of a public industry in public hands.” (The Blair Necessities p52 1988). Dearie me, who would have thought it?

The alternative to a protected economy in which GPRs are banned or severely restricted is a society in which the market is largely defunct. A perfectly rational and workable society could be created in which human beings stopped thinking they had to work to live and simply lived off the products and services the GPRs produced. The GPRs would do the large majority of the work and the goods and services they provide would be given free to everyone whether or not they had formal employment. No GPRs would be allowed in private hands. Such a situation would mean the market would not make the choice of which goods and services were provided. Rather, the choice would be made by the consumer through an expression of what was needed or wanted before products were developed or supplied. This could be done by anything from elected representatives to online voting by any member of a community for which goods and services should be supplied. For example, all available items could be voted from by the general population and those which were least popular dropped. The provision of proposed new lines or inventions could be similarly decided. As for allocating who could have what in such a world, money could be issued equally to everyone in lieu of wages (a form of the social wage). Alternatively, in a more controlled society, vouchers or rations cards could be issued equally to everyone for specific classes of goods. Greater flexibility could be built into the system by allowing the vouchers to be swapped between individuals, for example, a voucher for footwear swapped for food vouchers.

In such societies there would be scope for a limited use of private enterprise. People could be allowed to provide personal services, for example, entertainment, and produce goods just using human labour (human-made would gain the cachet that hand-made has now). There would also need to be some greater reward for those who occupied those jobs which still required a human to do them such as political representation, management and administration. The reward could either be material or public approbation. It would not be unreasonable to imagine that in a society where necessary work was at a premium quite a few would take on such positions for the kudos. There could also be some legal requirement to undertake work when required.   

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