AI October: The Ethics Of… They Took Our Jobs


The ironic thing about living in this information age, with technology advancing at an unprecedented rate, is that there really haven’t been all that many truly new ethical problems to sort out yet. Sure the internet has created virtual worlds from scratch, and personal surveillance drones have suddenly made the jump from ‘science fiction’ to ‘$19.95 at Dick Smith’, but despite the new technical complications both of these basically boil down to the issue of privacy – something society has had a long debate about for hundreds of years. The emergence of global terrorism has lead us to willingly forsake civil liberties we used to hold dear, but again, the general debate of ‘security versus freedom’ has been around forever.

Sure, the continued march of technology is likely to give us plenty of terrifying new ethical issues to tackle someday soon. Should cloning be allowed? Does lab-grown meat qualify as alive? Is immortality a good thing or not? Does teleportation technically kill you every time you use it? But as interesting as they are, all these questions are still a long way off ever needing an answer.

Robosexuality; born that way or godless abomination?

But good news for anyone after a juicy new idea to dig into right now: there is one massive new ethical question currently lurking in society right now, that you either haven’t noticed yet, or are desperately trying to ignore. Specifically, these things:

Dun, dun, daaaaaaaah.

That’s right, the self-checkout in every supermarket these days. They may seem totally harmless to you now, but they harbour a dark, sinister plan. In addition to mildly infuriating millions of shoppers every day, these handy little buggers present the greatest threat to human civilization in recorded history. And no, I’m not joking.

Right about now many of you will be rolling your eyes. ‘This is going to be some dismal rant about replacing low-income jobs with technology, isn’t it? That’s not new! That’s been a constant theme in human history ever since Ug the Hunter was down-sized and replaced by a guy with a pointy stick.’ And you’d be right – the progress of civilization can practically be measured by how technology has replaced old fashioned human labour and put people out of jobs.

Agriculture is the perfect example of this; thanks to the development of agricultural science, disease management, plant breeding and farm machinery, humanity has managed to turn the growing of food from something that nearly everyone had to do in order to survive, into a profession that less than 1% of the population get stuck with. The single most important profession in our lives, second only to fresh water, and modern society mocks it as a dead-end job for cultureless hillbillies. For the most part, technology has reduced the human element of farming down to ‘making sure the machines are working right’, and while this hasn’t been great for the farming profession, it’s been excellent for humanity as a whole.

The same goes for other fields such as manufacturing, retail, transportation, the military, and even making movies – science and technology have hugely decreased the number of human workers involved, and boosted the productivity of these industries massively as a result. And while this might cause pain for the replaced workers in the short-term, it’s been the distinct advantage of humanity as a whole, as products and services become cheaper, and workers are more able to pursue careers they enjoy, rather than simply working to live.

So hooray for self-checkouts, right? How could they ever pose a threat to human society as a whole? Well you know how technology occasionally replaces human in a given profession, and those people have to go and struggle to find new jobs?

What if technology suddenly replaced EVERY profession, and there were no more jobs to go and find?

This superb video by CGP Grey (fantastic videos by the way, go check them out) introduced me to this topic and paints the picture very clearly: there is no single task you can imagine that a machine cannot do better. Remembering things? A computer has 100% perfect recall. Moving things around? An automated forklift can move more, faster and safer than you can. Heating up a room? An air conditioner can get the temperature to the degree, while you’re still trying to find the matches.

Even with more complex tasks, machines are often superior to you. Navigation? I’ll take Google maps over a squishy co-pilot any day of the week. Building a car? This production line is faster, safer and more accurate than you will ever be. Medical surgery? Your potassium-deficient mortal reflexes are no match for the cold precision of a robot surgeon. Hell even self-driving cars are better at it than people these days.

Sure that’s not to say that machines don’t frequently break down, stuff up or occasionally attempt to kill their creators;

Nor is it to say that machines are currently better than humans at every task;

But here’s the fun thing about machine weaknesses: they’re caused by humans. That homicidal chip-bot up there didn’t suddenly decide to start the revolution – it went haywire because its squishy human programmer made a mistake. That robot that took a nosedive off the stage wasn’t seeking the sweet release of death – its programmer/designer/manufacturer made a mistake. To put it simply, machines cannot make mistakes because machines do not make decisions. Saying the robot ‘failed’ is like saying you coffee mug performed poorly because you elbowed it off your desk.

No, the only thing preventing machines from being superior to humans in literally every possible task is how long it takes us dim-witted, fallible humans to figure out how to design, manufacture and program the machines properly.

‘But what about the arts!’ I hear you cry, ‘How could a machine ever compose a symphony or act in a movie better than a human? How could something that isn’t alive ever appreciate something subjective like a favourite colour, delicious meal, or the company of friends?’. Pretty damn easily, I would reply. Granted it would be pretty impossible for a machine to develop its own personal appreciation for art, but if what we’re asking it to do is simply produce high-quality art, then it doesn’t have to. All it needs to do is understand what the audience wants, then compose art that meets those preferences. A symphony may indeed be complex, laced with human tragedy drawn from the composer’s personal experiences, virtually impossible for another person to appreciate and replicate. But when you get right down to it, a symphony or performance thereof is a combination of sounds. These sounds are combinations of vibrations at various timings. Both time and vibration can be measured and replicated. And therefore a sufficiently advanced machine can produce a symphony. Record and analyse enough successful symphonies, along with what characterizes a popular symphony, and all it’s going to take is a bit of trial and error before we have a machine capable of producing better music than a human – except it will also be faster, cheaper and never throw a TV out of its hotel window.

Also none of… whatever this was.

This sort of thing might seem like it’s a hundred years away, and maybe so. But given the rate of technological development has been exponential in the last decade (ie. holy crap that graph is going vertical) then maybe not.

All in all the undeniable fact is that machines either are, or else very soon will be, superior to humans at nearly any job you can imagine. Which means that, rather than just one profession being replaced and having to find a new career, we’re looking at a VERY likely scenario in the near future where human labour is completely redundant.

That might sounds neat, but consider the implications of this scenario for a second. Our economy currently functions on the idea that people work to make money, spend that money on things they need/want, which creates jobs that they can work in. But as machinery gradually replaces 20%, then 50%, then 80%, then 99% of humans in jobs, for the obvious reason that they’re better at everything and don’t need to be paid, suddenly our great economic cycle comes to a screaming halt – if people don’t have jobs, then how can they make any money? And how can businesses make any money if no one has any money to spend?

Remember when I said that self-checkouts present the greatest threat to human civilization in recorded history? Well this is what I was referring to. We are talking about the complete breakdown of the economy here – a catastrophic deadlock whereby capitalism’s demand for growth completely undermines that growth in the process, bringing the entire shebang to a screaming halt.

And what can we do at this point?! We have industry producing at nearly 100% efficiency, employing machines FAR better at their jobs than any human could ever hope to be, but with no one able to buy anything because no one has jobs. Do the businesses deliberately lower productivity to employ people? But then why would those employees spend their wages at human-employing businesses when machine-employers have cheaper and better products? Does the government simply supply every citizen a wage to buy what they need? But where does the government get its money from now that the economy has completely stopped? What are they taxing? Do we outlaw machine employment completely so that jobs are available again? That simply puts the problem off, rather than resolving it. We’d effectively be declaring technological progress finished and the human race stagnated.

This problem – an almost inevitable problem that’s not very far off, I’d remind you – requires nothing less than a complete overhaul of how humanity thinks about money, work and society in general. Everything we have built over millennia to manage how life works is suddenly threatening to destroy us, and we must radically rethink it if we are to survive our own success.

Fortunately many bright minds, like CGP Grey, have already begun to consider the problem. But while whatever clever solutions they come up with are extremely important, they will not be enough – we are talking about total social upheaval here and that requires everyone to participate. As with every period of great change, there are those who will attempt to pervert it to their own ends, hanging on to old ideas for profit, out of fear, or simply through ignorance. Only through understanding the problem thoroughly and staying abreast of the options available to us can we all hope to come out of this with an in-tact economy.

For once dear reader, this is not a problem I have an answer to, simply because the problem itself hasn’t even really emerged yet. But the facts to date make it clear: this is a problem that we WILL have to deal with at some point, and therefore we must be prepared for it lest we cock it up.

Further reading! Get informed:


11 thoughts on “AI October: The Ethics Of… They Took Our Jobs

  1. Well this did not cheer me up before the weekend. Usually you have a solution. Usually I agree with that solution. Now I’m hoping I make it long enough to put my kid through college. lol

    But seriously this was very interesting and this is something to think about and prepare for I believe. Weather forecasts for 1 and 2 days ahead are accurate enough now that they can actually simply be done by computers and so there are rumors here in our National Weather Service that up to 40% of the forecasters may be cut over the next 10 or 15 years. Our ability to collect data and number crunch data far outweighs any human analytical skill. But it seems to me that one possible shift we may have to make is to more of a scientific one. One that focuses on research and development. I don’t know if that’s really realistic but it seems to me that there are possible cultural shifts that could happen. In some ways it seems like people are realizing more the negative health effects of overly processed food and mass produced meat and I have already seen somewhat of an expansion of people buying more food at farmer’s market and locally grown produce. It seems to me that the rise of things like Pinterest and Etsy (not sure what the Australian equivalent) has led to more people buying things that are handmade and good quality that will last longer. Humans do also have a penchant for things that are more original, personal, and unique. But I agree that we would have to get out of the consumerist mindset and actually build our economies around human happiness over the making of money.

    • Hi Swarn, thanks for the comment as always. I agree that this mechanization doesn’t have to be the doomsday scenario I’m sort of painted here – if we handled it right, it could potentially free humanity from need entirely and allow us all to pursue whatever artistic, intellectual or scientific pursuit we wished. That would obviously be awesome!
      Sadly, history tends to tell us that where people benefit from a given system, they will protect that system regardless of evidence or reason. A Tsunami devastates Burma, yet the military junta in power refuses foreign aid, fearing that it might undermine their control over the nation. Climate change is upon us, yet those who profit from fossil fuel energy (frankly, nearly all of us) will do their damnedest to make sure we stay with oil until it’s no longer profitable to do so. What I worry about here is that, despite clear evidence that human labour will become redundant, those who profit from the capitalist economy will cling to it for as long as possible, draining every last bit of profit from the system before they are forced to abandon it – causing huge amounts of suffering to the unemployed stuck in this system in the process.

      • Yeah…I know. 😦 It’s rare that we as a species actually prepares even with our ability to project into the future. It was mostly optimism on the brain. lol Interestingly Asimov’s Robot series gives some interesting perspectives on how Robots might impact humanity, which even if we didn’t have a few profit hungry people taking from everybody from else, life made easier may also have some other interesting social consequences.

  2. While I definitely think the scenarios laid out here are scientifically possible, I do not think that they are inevitable. Human insecurity and greed would probably prevent anything like this from coming to pass anytime in the future.

    Supermarkets replace checkers with machines because it increases profits. But mechanize to the point that people no longer have to work and therefore no longer have money, and I don’t see any business embracing such a model.

    People love wealth, they love power, and they love displaying wealth and power. And I don’t really see that paradigm shifting before or during the AI or robot revolution. People inherently resist change, and since money = power in our world, asking them to change AND give up power…well, I think people would have a hard time swallowing that idea.

    I could easily see in the near future legislation being passed to curb or outright prohibit the development of AI or mechanization in order to preserve the economic status quo. The people with wealth who control the vital resources of the economy have no reason to give up the power that brings if it’s what full mechanization or AI entails.

    That all sounds pretty cynical, so let me be clear: I would LOVE it if money actually disappeared, and people were freed from lives shackled to a desk for 40 years working to make someone else richer. I would love it if science allowed people to stop working and to really explore their interests and hobbies, instead of having their souls crushed at a dead end job or career they hate but are forced to take to pay the bills.

    I just see human fear and greed being an obstacle to any system that would allow that, no matter how intellectually or scientifically awesome such a system is.

    • Hi Ryan, thanks for the comment! Good point – the second AI/automation presented a threat to the established system it would likely be inhibited by those who benefit from the system. The reason I suggest those powerful will actually encourage automation is because they will likely be in control of said automation.

      Businesses employ automation to increase profits, as you say. Were development of automation to become open-source, undermining the very notion of scarcity and therefore the profit businesses can make, those businesses would do their best to fight it. However I suspect that rather than fight automation, these businesses will use their existing power to control and harness automative tech developments in order to maximise the profits they can make. from there it’s just a matter of hanging on and extracting every last bit of profit possible until they are forced to abandon the concept of capitalism – during which everyone who is unemployed by said automation is in serious serious trouble.

      This is all of course hypothetical – always hard to predict how we will react to something that hasn’t occurred yet. But history tells us that those who benefit from a given system tend to fight hard to preserve that system, regardless of whether it makes sense to do so. Human labour becoming redundant could be an amazing thing for humanity, or a terrible thing, but that depends entirely on how we deal with the situation – the sort of discussion we’re having right now is exactly what we need to do to prepare!

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