A musing on a Sunday afternoon. I do this a lot when the weather is nice and I just want an excuse to sit under a tree and be alone with my thoughts. I usually take my coffee and a notepad out with me and just scribble what comes to mind. It is probably the first step in how I develop a story line and sometimes it produces results (but often it just sits and collects dust).
Today I spent some time thinking about a point in future history where a story premise might lurk. It is a time in the near future where I think dramatic forces may combine to create an opportunity for exploration. I don’t know if a plot line will come from it or not, but it’s something that was on my mind and this is what I got from it. It’s loose and unstructured but my brain tends to be that way when I am conceptualizing (I go from here to structured before an idea moves into a story so understand this is like broad brushstrokes and not a finished idea).
This some people this may, or may not, read like a political opinion, but it is meant as an abstract examination of a potential environment that needs to be chased around…
I’m sharing this here because I often get questions about how I kick my creative process into gear.
When Robots Pay Taxes, and the Bow-shock Event
Here we are, frozen in place like the proverbial deer in the headlights. As a society, we’re facing the moment where the future is barreling towards us, and all we can do is stare at it, as it aims to run us down.
The robots and AI are coming for us.
Not like in The Terminator (fortunately), but just as inevitably, regardless.
Unlike climate change, there is no room for debate about this reality. We cannot argue whether this apocalyptic possibility is man-made, or environmental. In this case, we’ve done it to ourselves, and no force of nature will deflect it… or even temper it.
The irony is that the same force that stops us from responding to climate change, is the very one that is driving the other one over us.
Where it is cheaper to do nothing about climate change (at least in the short term), as technology gets better and less expensive, it is also cheaper to automate. Because of that, it also becomes a stronger force of change. It compounds itself.
There’s been a lot of talk about the Singularity … that moment where AI becomes self-aware (in my books I call it Artificial Awareness rather than Artificial Intelligence). What I think is coming for us though, is not the distant point where artificial awareness emerges, rather, it is the time where we make ourselves obsolete.
I think that is much closer than when Skynet blows us to hell.
What concerns me is when the cost of human labor makes us physically pointless. Where an automated robot is cheaper to operate (and more importantly, to buy) than the old-fashioned tool, with a flesh and bone human operator.
That is when the bow-shock of technology will crush the life out of us. Unfortunately, it’s inevitable that it will arrive MUCH sooner than the Singularity.
In many ways, these first shock waves are already here.
But, we’ve been here before.
The story of John Henry and the Steam Drill is a metaphor we all understand because it represents something that has occurred, at least symbolically, in our past. It’s the embodiment of the “machine versus mankind problem,” and it defines everything that it brought with it.
The Industrial Revolution created a huge shift in the world as humanity redesigned itself. The economic models that drove society prior to that, changed in a few short years. Less people did more work, in less time. Production increased exponentially, and that pushed the relative cost of things down.
Although in the end, John Henry “just laid down and died,” prosperity eventually spread because of this revolution. But it wasn’t a painless process. There were DECADES of social upheaval that nearly tore the world apart as we moved away from human labor and into the early stages of industrialization.
Now, we’re approaching a time where we have automated industry that can produce virtually everything. And for the first time in history, machines can produce more of everything than we actually need.
That also brings us to where the other side of this industrialization equation becomes dominant.
We don’t NEED more, even if we can DO more (with less human effort).
So, what happens to all that reserve and unneeded human capacity? (And let’s agree we don’t want to end up like a John Henry either.)
With a real limit on the consumption side of the equation, and ever cheaper manufacturing through automation, there is no economic incentive to keep human labor working.
As a manufacturer – with a limited market depth – and a machine that can produce 100 times the output at one tenth the cost… What would you do?
If you’re like most of the manufacturers in the world, you’d lay off all but one or two of your employees, and only work them a couple days a month. Then you could spend a lot of time fishing… Or watching Netflix… Or whatever.
(Yeah, sign me up for that, baby! I am so there!)
And honestly, who would blame you?
Other than the 98 employees you didn’t keep … But that’s alright, because they can always find work somewhere else.
That is, until the next company down the street does the same thing. Then, there are 196 workers on the street looking for work.
And every day the cycle repeats …
For a while, people keep shuffling out of the way… Finding work.
And, the cycle repeats another time …
Which means more people shift.
And again, it repeats …
Eventually, some people start to move out of the way by going back to school, retraining so they can get further off the road. All of them are hoping to dodge the oncoming steamroller of automation.
But education takes time and money. And unfortunately, people have to eat while they’re learning.
That’s okay, they can get jobs somewhere. There’s always a Mc Job in fast food … NOPE, not anymore.
(I just read that McD’s, was testing a burger flipping robot. So even that’s not far enough out of the way.)
And that, right there, is TRULY the nature of the monster barreling down on us.
The Deer, or the Jackrabbit?
Everybody knows about the deer staring blindly into the glaring headlights, but usually a deer might be frozen in place for a second or two before it decides to move. Sure, that second of hesitation can be catastrophic if the oncoming car is traveling too fast, but contrary to the carnage seen along the highway,the deer USUALLY manages to dive back into cover before it gets obliterated.
Unfortunately, we’re not the deer.
We’re actually more like a jackrabbit (having driven the back roads a lot, I know there’s a substantial difference in their survival strategy … and breeding faster is not a viable alternative for humans).
Where a deer will make its decision and commit to it, a jackrabbit will take a couple steps out into the pavement, and see an oncoming car, but then it doesn’t stand still and consider how to move. Instead, it takes a couple extra steps because it was already crossing the road anyway, and then it slows down or stops to think about what it should do.
“Maybe I can’t make it across the street,” it says to itself.
So, it turns back and takes a step, or two, before it looks over its shoulder and remembers it really needs to be across the street. Then it turns around to take a couple more steps.
Approaching the yellow line by this time, it realizes the car is getting pretty close.
“Maybe I should go back, but since I’m halfway across the street … maybe not …”
And it pivots again, and takes a step. And then it spins around and takes another step.
By this point the driver of the car has zigged, and zagged … And maybe even slowed down some (unless there’s a truck behind that’s tailgating like Batman on crack). And if the driver is like me, he’s probably already started screaming, “Just make up your freaking mind!”
The problem is, the driver can’t stop, and the jackrabbit can’t make a decision, so it’s inevitable that there’s going to be a lot of bunny goo on the road.
(Yes, this part was a political commentary … sorry.)
How do we keep from being the jackrabbit?
We learn to make smart decisions and we slow the car down a little. We have to give the damn rabbit (working people in this case) time to get out of the way.
And, we do this by taxing robots! (Well, not really the robots, because we don’t want them rising up and kicking our ass after the Singularity comes to pass.)
Actually, we tax the businesses that replace workers with automation. We charge them for every worker replaced at a rate high enough to fund college/school/training programs, and to provide Universal Basic Income to everyone. The robot tax should provide revenue for education, and so that we would have ample to keep from having starving and homeless people.
It should also give people the money they need to buy all those cheaper goods made by the robots that took their jobs (which would keep the economy afloat as we transition to this new way of doing things).
However, it is at least as important that the tax would be high enough to slow down the rise of the robots by increasing the cost of implementing automation. It wouldn’t (AND SHOULDN’T) stop it from happening, but it needs to buy us all some time to adjust (thereby putting the brakes on the car, AND ALSO the truck behind it).
Doesn’t that put an unfair burden on business owners?
The tax rate to support UBI and education would be less than the cost of the labor/taxes/insurance/and overhead of the people it replaces on a “per unit produced” basis.
If nothing else, the liability savings would still make it cheaper to employ robots than humans. Plus, because robotic manufacturing is faster and more precise than human manufacturing, it would also reduce costs in overhead that the business owner currently eats. These factors alone would increase businesses’ profits, but the truth is, there would be a lot more savings to the owner and the tax rate would not be nearly as high as payroll was initially.
And finally, people wouldn’t be stuck in soul-draining, mindless jobs!
This is one thing that would be hard to quantify, but is undoubtedly true: Humans are, by their very nature, creative and adaptable. Those are traits that robots and AI still have a long way to go to get good at. (AI poetry and music still suck.)
Once we turn manufacturing over to robots, it frees us up … TO REACH UP.
Although right now, the bottom-line problem is still the same:
Society values people by the labor they can produce, and not for their creativity.
Until that changes …
We are the jackrabbit.
(And the back road we’ve all been standing in, has already become a freaking interstate!)
Taxing robots and AI to pay for UBI is a valid way to survive the manufacturing technology upheaval that we’re inevitably facing. It might be one of the few ways we can pay for the transition to a system of post scarcity economics.
If we don’t do it, the human cost alone would be the stuff of post-apocalyptic nightmare.
And therein lies the story.