Motivated by the book 'Rise of the Robots' by Martin Ford, José Carlos Fernandes wrote this gloomy, but nonetheless interesting article on unemployement due to a rise in automation. I specially like the irony of illustrating the article with photos from USA child labor at the turn of the last century. For an article discussing how automation might bring an widespread unemployment, the photos serve as remainder that not so long ago everybody had a job, whether they liked it or not.
I am not going to speculate if indeed automation, and software, will in the near future an end to jobs and work as we know it today. In part because I have not (yet) read the book. And in part because what I found curious were the comments to the article.
Many of the comments revolved around the topic of what will people do for money, in a future where pretty much all work is done by robots. The problem is that in such a future, money serves no purpose. In human societies, in all degrees of complexity, cooperation is done by trading services and goods, not necessarily with the help of money. Not so long ago, my great-grandfather payed the barber with a selamin of corn for a shave and an haircut. Myself, yesterday I payed 13 euros for an haircut at my local barber. Although the two haircuts separated by about one hundred years, we can agree that the cooperation process remains essentially the same. One human got its hair trimmed, the other got a physical token in return.
My point is that if all jobs are taken over by machines, there would be no need for this cooperation. What can I possibly give the machine in return for cutting my hair ? The question does not even make sense because humans and machines do not form a society in the way we tradiotionally conceive them. Why would you and me need money, or corn, for if we can satisfy our needs without given anything in return ?
Some of the commenters brought the idea of mininum guaranteed income. Since all jobs are taken over by robots, everybody gets a state allowance to cover for their needs. This is wrong because, as I have stated before, why should people pay the machines for their products or services ? I suspect that attention given to the problem of what will people do for money actually is a proxy for a more important problem.
A few of the commenters were enthusiastic about automation because it would all but eliminate the labour costs and therefore drive prices down and create a world of abundance. Apart from the wrong notion that money, or corn, would be needed in this utopian future, it also shows a grave misunderstanding about how prices are formed.
The cost of something is determined by many factors, marketing bullshit being the main one. Nonetheless, the minimum cost of a product or service cannot be zero because it still requires energy and materials to provide the service or manufacture the good. And we all know that energy and materials are scarce. In a future where all jobs are done by machines, it would still require energy and materials to build said machines and more energy and materials for them to deliver services and goods. Even if humans could get any service or product for free because all work is done by machines, it does not mean that there would not be shortage or rationing of some products. I suspect that without the basic price mechanisms to regulate access to services and goods, we would quickly enter a world of reckless resource usage.
At this point, some could bring back a modified form of guaranteed minimum income. First price the output the machines based on some metrics, then given people an allowance that would cover their needs. The world would become one big zero-sum game. The itsy bitsy problem with this is that well.... it won't work. It is called Comunism and has been tried before, and still is ongoing in some countries, and all it produced was poverty and loss of personal freedoms.