Sunday, 1 May 2016

Terminate the Machines?

Add ever more complex programming to automated design and production processes for a constantly widening range of machines that are sustained by renewable energy, and we will soon arrive at a fork road for humanity.

One path leads to the utopian world in which machines will take care of us by doing virtually all the work that needs doing (including their own repair and maintenance), leaving us to pursue whatever will bring us true fulfilment. The other route takes us to a dystopian cliff edge over which the machines will exclusively serve just the few who created them, leaving everyone else with no paid work, no resources, and little hope of a passable life.

So what should we do? The neoliberal option would be to let a tiny elite of human beings control and benefit from the machines, accept that most others will consequently have no paid work to obtain, and will starve to death, become stigmatised as permanent welfare claimants, or be given a small crowded area where they can blame and attack each other interminably.

The Luddite strategy would be to stop these machines from being developed, and insist that a sufficiently large number of paid jobs are reserved for humans irrespective of how much cheaper, quicker, or more reliable they can be carried out by the next generation of machines.

Or we can explore with the inventors and makers of these complex machines if they are willing to follow the example of those who brought humankind advances such as the penicillin or the world wide web – in other words, bequeath the legacy of their genius to humanity, so anyone can add to the functionality of these machines, but the work done by them will benefit everyone.

It won’t be easy to reach agreement about the arrangements to be devised under the third option, but it is the only one that can embrace invention without opening the door to unprecedented polarisation. So long as those with technological creativity are not consumed by insatiable greed and the vast majority of people are not strangled by the fear of extinction, a collaborative future can evolve. There is no reason why the inventors – and anyone who adds to the machines’ performance and functionality – should not have more rewards than others, provided the differentials can be set with the input of everyone reflecting what would be a sustainable consensus for all.

Ultimately, anyone who thinks that the few winners blessed with technological know-how should take it all, must recognise that the vast numbers who would thus be reduced to comprehensive losers would not be content with being shut out in the wilderness. If we don’t want to halt the advancement of technology that can potentially benefit us all, we’d better terminate any attempt to hand absolute power to the elite corporations that seek to take command of all vital machines.


Woodman59 said...

Exceptionally important debate to be had, the outcome of which is tied to wider debate about reward for innovation and entrepreneurship. There have been times (for example, within the Protestant work ethic) when with vast wealth came the obligation to kelp provide resources for the community at large. People knew what was expected of them should they find themselves in that position. Schools, libraries and museums came into being this way.

With the demise of Western religious sensibility, much of that has collapsed. Isn't it somehow going to be essential to recover an equivalent secular moral environment? What is needed now is massive support for community and leisure centres based around holistic promotion of better physical and emotional health through the arts as well as more specialist provision for individuals with conditions such as autism who would find accessing such centres more challenging.

Anonymous said...

Or hope that the future will be like the Culture?
See "Artificial intelligences and political organization: an exploration based on the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks", Technology in Society, Volume 34, Issue 1, 2012, available at: