Capital in the 22nd Century

Eventually someone may invent a robot that is better than humans at virtually any given job — cheaper to produce and maintain, faster, smarter and better at learning. Before then, we will probably invent similar kinds of robots that are better than a significant portion of the labour force at any given job that they could do.

If a significant portion of the workforce cannot produce anything more efficiently than a robot they will become permanently unemployed. The market cannot be relied upon to ‘work something out’: human labour is an input and markets are about outputs. There are lots of basically-useless inputs that the market does not use much, like toxic waste and whale oil. There will probably come a time when the labour of a large number of human beings is included in this category.

Even if consumers are willing to pay a premium to be served by a real human being, some people do not have the social skills for this. Service industry jobs require a particular skillset that not everybody has. Luddism has been wrong historically, in the sense that we have always thought of new things to do for human labour that has been displaced by automation. But, while this should make us less certain about whether this scenario will happen (there may be unknown unknowns that mean this is wrong), it does not disprove it altogether.

Overall, the above will be a good thing. It implies astonishing productivity increases that may resemble the Industrial Revolution in scale. Massive amounts of extra wealth will be created. But the distribution of this wealth may be very unequal. For the group of people who cannot find any job at all, it is hard to see how they would benefit from any of the above except through charity or government welfare.

Even assuming that charity or welfare provides for these people (we will presumably be so rich at this stage, as a society, that the cost of providing for their basic needs is trivial), a life permanently spent living on the charity of others may be a very difficult one for many people. Some people who would find work nourishing may lack the willpower to show up for a ‘fake’ job that they don’t really need to go to. Some people do not like the feeling of powerlessness that dependence on benefits or charity may engender.

This group of people may end up becoming a large underclass whose existence has bad side-effects for everyone else in society too. Boredom may lead to crime. Self-hatred may lead to social breakdown. If the underclass grows large enough, resentment by the have-nots may even lead to bloody revolution, perhaps of a truly Luddite kind that tries to undo technological progress.

There may be solutions to the problems in this scenario. Eligibility for charity or a basic income could be tied to make-work schemes (digging holes in the ground and filling them back up again) that are treated with the same amount of respect as a normal job is today. And, of course, this story may never come true. But if it does, it does not seem to be one we’re ready for.