Rob Henderson offers the final part of his Robotics series.
The greatest change resulting from such a social upheaval would be the removal of most of the advantage the’ haves’ now enjoy over the ‘have-nots’. Because the vast majority of things would be provided by the state one way or another, the advantages of wealth would be greatly diminished. Those with wealth at the time the GRPs (General Purpose Robots) forced a change on society might still have their money, but what would they spend it on? Not the goods and services provided by society because they would be sufficient for any individual? On the luxury goods and services offered by human-labour enterprises? Perhaps, but that would be a petty pleasure. What the rich would have lost is what they prize most, their power. They would not be able to hire other humans easily because why should anyone work as a servant when they already have the means to live? Instead they would have to live as “the little people do” (copyright Leona Helmsley). The historical experience of those with privilege relinquishing it peacefully is something of a desert, but in the circumstances of where no one has to work simply to live they would have little choice.
It would be difficult to build up a great fortune even where money remained the means of exchange, because all that would be permitted outside of socially controlled provision would be that which humans could produce without the aid of GPRs or perhaps without any form of robot, would be items which because of their means of production or provision would be expensive. This would make them luxury items. There would also be an incentive for most people not to buy them because the socially produced items would be much cheaper, in effect free because no work would have been done to earn the money to buy them. Money in such a society would have much of the quality of a voucher.
Perhaps some entertainers and artists might still command high incomes but fortunes made from business would be next to impossible. The vast fortunes made in banking and other financial service providers would not exist because financial services would become redundant in a society which has decided to provide the means of living without working for it. But like the rich generally, what would it really buy them?
Could an economic system akin to those which depended heavily on slaves not be created with GPRs taking the place of slaves which might be owned by anyone? The answer is negative. No slave society has ever relied overwhelmingly on slaves. In slave societies there is always a good deal of free labour, both because of the scarcity and cost of slaves and the inability of owners to trust slaves to do all work or work without the supervision of free men and women. The demand created by the free part of the population through work or accumulated wealth provide the basis for a market economy in a slave-owning society. In many slave societies, slaves have acquired rights to earn money, own property and have families, all of which bolsters the demand of the free part of the population. In the case of the GPRs, they would undertake so much of the work there would be insufficient realisable demand to sustain a market economy. There would be no point in private business using GPRs on a large scale because there would be no mass market to serve.
It might be thought that the people best placed to survive would have been those in the least industrially developed states because they would be less dependent on machines. But the trouble is that there is scarcely a part of the world which had not been tied into the global economy. If a country does not manufacture products on a large scale, it exports food and raw materials and accepts aid.
The fundamental trouble with aid is not that it breaks the initiative of the recipient or props up dictators or alters traditional trading patterns or drains countries of money through everlasting interest, although all those are important features. The killer fact is that it produces a level of population in the Third World which the Third World cannot naturally support. If the economies of the industrial nations collapse, the aid will stop and the market for their export of food and raw materials dry up. All of a sudden the Third World will find they cannot feed their populations and their elites will no longer have the means of maintaining order because they will not be able to finance forces to subdue and control the population. The chaos which will ensue will be aggravated by the fact that the old economic and social relationships have been fractured so that even maintaining a population appropriate to the traditional ways of living will be problematic.
Low-wage developing countries such as China is now will be struck particularly hard because when GPRs are available their labour cost benefits will disappear.
The rate at which robotics evolves will play a large part in how the story unfolds. The speed with which GPRs replace human beings could be truly bewildering. The example of digital technology to date suggests that the stretch from a primitive GPR doing simple work which can be broken down into physical actions to a GPR with some sort of consciousness or a facsimile of what humans think of as consciousness will not be massive. Such development could well be speeded up by GPRs assisting with development as they attain more and more sophisticated abilities. The faster the development of really sophisticated GPRs, the more chaos there is likely to be because there will be little time to plan and implement changes or for the human population to accommodate itself psychologically and sociologically to a radically different world
How sophisticated GPRs will become is unknowable, but the development of Artificial Intelligence programs which allow a process of learning is already well established. These have the potential not only to produce the wide-ranging intelligence which would allow value judgements but also for GPRs to develop in ways which humans cannot predict.
It is reasonable to assume technology will develop until GPRs are showing behaviour which suggests consciousness. They will make decisions such as what would be the best way of achieving ends which are loosely defined, for example, an instruction to design a city redevelopment in a way which would have the greatest utility for human beings. At that point the GPRs would be effectively making value judgements. Perhaps they already are doing that at some level.
This is a real danger with potentially catastrophic world-wide consequences. The problem is getting people in power to address the subject seriously. There needs to be discussion and planning now about how far GPRs, or indeed robots or any type, should be allowed to displace human beings in the functioning of human societies. Nor should we assume humans will happily tolerate GPRs for reasons other than the economic. Robots which are too like humans make humans uncomfortable, probably because it is difficult to view a machine which looks like a human and acts like a human simply as a machine.
Apart from the economic consequences, GPRs also offer dangers such as the possibility of the realisation of the tyrant’s dream; an army of unlimited and utterly loyal and obedient servants who will baulk at no command, and GPRs developing intelligence and human-like qualities so profound humans have difficulty in treating them as slaves. But those are subjects for another day…