Did Karl Marx Predict Artificial Intelligence 170 Years Ago?

An almost-unknown piece of his writing offers insight on robotics and AI in today’s world.

I spend a lot of time talking about artificial intelligence — my company does work in machine learning, and clients often ask me for my opinion on how AI will impact their business and the world around it. I’ll speak broadly on Kasparov and his chess board, Polanyi and his paradox, and Bezos and his Echo (I’m not talking about the Washington Post).

However, there’s one name I never thought I would utter while standing in the hallowed halls of the Fortune 500:

Karl Marx. Legend has it, if you say his name three times in a corporate bathroom, unmaximized shareholder value appears in the mirror.

It’s scary, I know.

And yet, I’ve recently discovered the most remarkable document thanks to my good friend, Harvard PhD candidate Colin Conwell. It’s a fragment of writing aptly named “The Fragment on Machines”. It’s buried in the Grundrisse, a series of Marx’s notebooks that weren’t published in English until 1973; a full 125 years after they were written.

Marx’s economic theory was based on the labour theory of value: that the value of a good is, at it’s simplest form, the necessary labour time to make it. In “The Fragment on Machines”, Marx tackles a question that is more relevant today than ever: how do we define value when the human labour required to create goods rapidly approaches zero? Or, put more apocalyptically: when AI have taken all the jobs, who is left to buy goods?

Marx acknowledges that automation has the potential to rapidly change the relation of capital, labor, and the means of labour/production (you may have heard the phrase “seize the means of production”). But more significantly, he seems to imply that the very act of automation transforms the framework he has established in previous texts:

“Once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labour passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the… automatic system of machinery… set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages.”

Woah. There’s a lot to unpack there. Did we just read Marx saying that the culmination of his economic framework is… robotics?

The word “metamorphoses” is also important here. In the previous paragraph, Marx describes other changes in technology as mere “formal modification” to the means of labour. But automation is something else entirely — not a formal modification, but a metamorphosis. A deep, visceral change in form and function.

Caterpillar to butterfly. Acorn to tree. Man to machine.

When the greatest Go player can be defeated by artificial intelligence, we don’t dub the computer champion. The human, however badly defeated, keeps the crown. In the same way, if Marx’s world belongs to the workers, what happens when they aren’t human?

“Rather, it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it; and it consumes coal or oil just as the worker consumes food to keep up its perpetual motion.”

It makes sense that Marx, a man who defined humans through their relation to labour, would associate a robot’s mechanical skill and strength with soul. 170 years before Saudi Arabia granted citizenship to a robot.

This concept brings to mind philosophical questions, but also practical ones — when a self-driving car flies into the pavement and kills 8 people, who goes to jail? When an AI model replicates the racist tendencies of the data it’s trained on, who should be sent to sensitivity training — the model or the people it’s based on? How does a Saudi Arabian robot have more rights than women in the same country?

I think the most surprising thing about “The Fragment on Machines” is that you’d expect some sort of “John Henry vs the Steam Drill” type dichotomy, with Marx taking the side of John Henry: muscle, sinew and sweat building society one swing at time. After all, which two symbols most closely symbolize Marxist theory? The hammer and sickle — manual tools that couldn’t be more antithetical to automation.

However, in the great battle of Man vs. Machine, Marx shockingly sides with… the machine.

He makes a profound prediction on the future of automation, and one that it would be useful for us to ponder:

Labour no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather, the human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process itself… As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure.
Capitalism thus works towards its own dissolution as the form dominating production.

Marx is positing automation as a sort of “end of history” wherein goods have become so inexpensive to manufacture, and require so little labor, that the current model of capitalism falls apart.

Then, what occurs is:

the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them. Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.

Marx expounds an essentially utopian view of automation here. However, it’s not entirely far-fetched. In the greedy 90’s, could you possibly have imagined the phrase “universal basic income” being taken seriously in intellectual circles? That the New York Times, a mainstream media outlet, would publish an article titled “Capitalism Has a Problem. Is Free Money the Answer?” That Finland would give universal basic income to an entire town?

To many, universal basic income is the solution to automation and artificial intelligence making millions of jobs obsolete. This would be the Marxist dream — people have all their necessities paid for due to the overabundance of mechanized production, and are then able to spend their time on art, science, and self-actualization.

But the reality is not quite so clean cut.

The “moving contradiction” of capitalism is apparent in the current state of American manufacturing. According to a report by McKinsey, American manufacturing is rebounding; it’s just not bringing any jobs back.

McKinsey Global Institute Director James Manyika says “Find a factory anywhere in the world built in the last 5 years — not many people work there.”

The loss of factory jobs has historically been offset by new jobs; labor of the mind rather than the hands. But as artificial intelligence increases the rate of job loss to a fever pitch, displacing even white collar professions such as lawyers and accountants, one wonders how new jobs can possibly be created at the same speed.

What does a developed economy look like with growing GDP but 70% unemployment? How does that affect the economy, politics, culture? It’s a scenario with no precedence, because never before has it been possible.

The stark reality is that replacing humans with algorithms fundamentally places money and power into the hands of business owners. Or, in the words of Thomas Hodgskin,

The road-builder may share profits with the road-user, but the road itself cannot do so.

That’s the fundamental problem with Marx’s thesis; when a country is 90% of the way towards robo-utopia, it’s a hellish oligarchy. Automation is a huge driver behind the increasing wealth divide of the last 20 years, and it doesn’t show signs of stopping anytime soon.

Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your jobs.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this at all, please follow me below or leave a response.