My CQ Researcher OpEd

Congressional Quarterly Researcher has a new issue focused on artificial intelligence. They invited me to write short a op-ed on the question “Will artificial intelligence lead to massive unemployment?” Alas they didn’t tell me the idea was for me to say “No” opposite Martin Ford saying “Yes” – we both said “Yes.” They’d have done better to have Ford and I dispute something we disagreed on, such as how best to deal with such unemployment.  Anyway, here’s mine oped:

Artificial intelligence could indeed lead to high unemployment if, in contrast to today’s situation, most world income was paid not for human wages, but instead for income from land and capital, including machines. After all, why work if working full time doesn’t increase your income much? And this could happen if the value of human labor fell greatly, relative to machines.

Is this possible? In the near term, it is unlikely. Right now, computers and other forms of machine intelligence aren’t nearly sophisticated enough to emulate the human brain or replace human labor on a global scale. But in the long term — say, a century or two in the future, as artificial intelligence becomes far more sophisticated than it is today — the picture could be far different. For now, it would be insufficient to merely have more powerful machines, if they continued to mainly complement human labor, as machines have for centuries. When machines complement humans, better machines lead to more, not less, demand for humans.

Even if machines have so far tended to complement humans, might machines someday become actual substitutes for human workers? The key thing to understand here is that while a machine might substitute for a human on any particular task, when the division of tasks between humans and machines is stable, then cheaper and better machines raise the demand for humans.

But if machines could effectively replace humans for most tasks now performed by humans, that would be a very different story. Full-time human wages would then become small compared to humans’ income from owning machines that do the work. This isn’t the current trend, so don’t worry about it happening soon. But not only is this possible, it is likely, within a century or two, through the use of “whole brain emulations.”

Imagine that we could 1) scan some real human brains in enough detail, 2) model all standard brain cell types with enough accuracy and 3) have cheap enough computers to emulate entire human brains, using these cell models and the scan details. Such emulations would then talk and act much like the scanned humans they emulate, and so could replace humans on most tasks.

An unregulated market in cheap brain emulations would lead to a vast explosion of wealth and emulations, and to human wages falling to match machine rental costs, soon well below human subsistence levels. Humans would then have to own enough other forms of capital, or starve. Emulations, in contrast, would be fully employed.

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  • Evan

    An unregulated market in cheap brain emulations would lead to a vast explosion of wealth and emulations, and to human wages falling to match machine rental costs, soon well below human subsistence levels.

    It seems to me that the regulation of the em market would depend a lot on whether we come to regard machines as the ems’ “bodies” or the ems’ “houses.” With a house paradigm we’d probably get a situation similar to some of the nastier ones you describe, where ems are deleted because they can’t pay rent. With a body paradigm owning the computer an em runs on would be illegal under the 13th Amendment. I don’t know how they’d deal with multiple ems on one computer, maybe similar to however they deal with unseperable conjoined twins right now. I imagine the first ems created would lobby rather heavily for a body paradigm.

    Also, is it accurate to say that the invention of ems would lead to machines replacing humans? Ems are humans. I think if you’d emphasized that you could have successfully argued against Ford the way CQR wanted you to. I make that argument fairly frequently myself to people, telling them that machines can never replace humans because any machine smart enough to would likely also be smart enough to have rights and count as human.

    • Evan

      (not the same Evan)

      i think it would be difficult to argue an em is the same as a human. they may be able to replace much of human decision making if they have a ‘brain’ similar to whomever was scanned. however, they would not receive signals from other organs (ie pain, sexual hormones, hunger, etc).

      this raises the question of wether ems would even be motivated to have the same rights as humans. if they are not motivated to seek pleasure/avoid pain the same way we are, im not sure they’d mind

  • Khoth

    Humans would then have to own enough other forms of capital, or starve.

    How likely do you see each of these outcomes? At the moment, the vast majority of people don’t have enough capital to live off. Is that going to change? Is there anything that can/should be done to make the arrival of ems less of a disaster for most of the world’s population?

  • J Storrs Hall

    The ratio of takers to makers in the US economic/political system has grown inexorably through the 20th century and shows no sign of stopping. It’s at least 1 now. For the next few decades, increasing capability in AI/robotics will only reinforce the trend, i.e. make the fewer and fewer remaining productive humans capable of supporting the rest.

    The genius of our system is not so much that it has it been able to accommodate so many free riders, but that the vast majority of them have been led to believe that they are doing worthwhile and productive work, and have the respect of society in general. Examples that have been discussed here include the educational and medical establishments. There are plenty of others and more will be invented as time goes on.

    There will probably be attempts to replace make-workers with machines, but I have confidence that more made-up positions, desperately necessary in the popular mind, will be invented as fast as the old ones are superseded. This is what current American culture does, the way it invented and built real machines in the age of Edison.

    • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

      Agree with Ford and Hanson. Automation of retail, agriculture, distribution, mining, etc is likely to outstrip the human capacity for making unnecessary work for themselves.

  • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

    “Labor” has “value” only because an “owner” of “property” is “willing” to “exchange” some of that “labor” for some of that “property”.

    Of course if a particular unit of labor doesn’t benefit a particular owner of property, to that owner of property that labor is useless “make-work”. What is “productive” and what is “make-work” is purely dependent on the whim of property owners to decide to pay for it or not.

    If property owners whims are insufficient to provide sufficient funds in exchange for labor to allow those laborers to survive, then those starving laborers will find the need to change the arbitrary definitions of “labor”, “value”, “owner” and “property” until the property owners whims either do change, or until the property owners are changed to those with different whims.

    As they say,

    The Constitution is not a suicide pact

    . Neither is the arbitrary human convention of property ownership or any other contractual agreement. If property owners wish to continue to own property, they need to appreciate that ownership of property is only an arbitrary human convention that humans can change when they need to.

    Maybe AI could be created that would be so tame, and would put so little value on their continued existence that they would turn themselves off if they could not pay their electric bill. No doubt the owner of the electricity they would be using and not paying for would agree.

    It is wishful thinking bordering on the delusional on the part of property owners to think that humans would do so.

    • lemmy caution

      I agree. There is no moral reason that property owners deserve their property. It just makes society better when we respect property rights. When this stops happening, it will be time to stop respecting property rights.

  • Evan

    I just reread David Brin’s story “The River of Time,” and realized that it has some bearing on the em scenarios. In that story humans, for no apparent reason, suddenly start living at accelarated or decelerated speeds. Some suddenly start moving so slowly they appear as statues, while others live so fast they’re nearly invisible. This is very similar to ems, who do everything humans do, only faster. In Brin’s story they are able to find productive work for the slowed-down humans to do. I’m assuming Robin would be less optimistic in that regard.

    I am also reminded of a Larry Niven story (The Slow Ones) involving aliens with nervous systems so slow that they take months to move place to place and hours to type a single e-mail. Does Robin think that if humans emigrated to the alien’s world that they’d immediately take all the jobs from the slow-moving aliens, and only alien property owners who rented things to humans would make any money at all?

    My intuition is that the slowed down humans in Brin’s story and the slow aliens in Niven’s story would still have comparitive advantage in something. But Robin knows far more about econ than I do, and he doesn’t think that normal humans will have any comparitive advantage with em humans, so I’m probably wrong. They’re very similar scenarios, after all.

    • James Oswald

      I think you are right. I think there are some things that people would prefer to have a normal person do, rather than an em. It is really hard not to have a comparative advantage in something.

  • James Oswald

    Prices will be dramatically different post-ems. People will not be able to make large incomes simply by owning ems, because the wages going to ems will drop just as much as those going to real humans, and probably more, since humans come with a physical body. You need a Malthusian trap to get the mass poverty.

  • Flynn

    I’m not sure I understand the economic incentive to create full ems. Working in neuroscience, I can see the use of replicating various parts of the brain for specific tasks. For example, functionally replicating the visual cortex (which, with a full theory of neuroscience, probably would not require a cell by cell simulation of it) would be tremendously useful for autonomous robots, whether they be manufacturers or self driving cars. Simulated frontal lobes would be useful for research in large data sets. But if you had capital enough to buy the hardware to do this simulation, why waste buying more processors than you need for the task, especially when an employer doesn’t really want them to have drives other than processing information? It would seem to be an odd future that we can fully simulate the brain, but not take out all the parts that don’t serve the owners purpose.

    It may not make too much of a difference in your proposed outcome. It would still drive wealth primarily into the hands of people who had enough wealth to buy the semi-intelligent machines, and replace humans. However, I doubt they would make money themselves, only for their owner. Full brain ems strike me as being like video chatting – something that seemed really cool in the future, but turned out not to be nearly as ubiquitous as people thought it would be. It has its place, but people realized that it doesn’t do what they thought it would.

  • Evan

    I’m not sure I understand the economic incentive to create full ems.

    It seems to me like full ems would be a consumer good, not a production good. Converting yourself into an em would be a form of immortality.

    Business-wise, I could see some uses. For instance a mildly paranoid CEO might want an em to make really fast business decisions, but only trust one that was identical to him/her. Similarly, a full em would be good at any job requiring a lot of people skills. I do question Robin’s theory that we’ll make trillions of ems. Wouldn’t modifying a few ems to be much better at multitasking be better than mass duplication, there’d be less redundancy?

    Prices will be dramatically different post-ems. People will not be able to make large incomes simply by owning ems, because the wages going to ems will drop just as much as those going to real humans, and probably more, since humans come with a physical body.

    I think it will be hard for real humans to make money owning ems because ems are real humans. Owning them would be slavery. Even ignoring ethics, if they decided to liberate themselves we’d be no match for a reasonably large number of them, since they’d think as much in a second as we do in a year. The best bet would be to make a bunch of ems who are identical to you who work for your benefit because they love you as a sibling.

  • Jennifer

    It’s not enough to answer “yes” we must also add “and that is a very good thing.” Consider how many hours a day you work compared to your ancestors, and the kind of goods you can afford. The invention of true AI – superhuman AI – would mean humans would need to work far less to afford the abundant automatically manufactured goods.

    As for ems, suggestions that they should be cut up into useful chunks misses the point that THESE ARE PEOPLE. Nobody can own them, anymore than when they wore biological bodies. That is something that needs to be established long before ems actually exist.

  • KPres

    You’re wrong. Before this massive unemployment happens, you will begin to see a fall in the population level. Why? Because in an unregulated economy, when the wage rate starts to bump up against the cost of subsistence, people stop having children, because they aren’t be able to afford them.

    • KPres

      In other words, the workers will not be “unemployed”, they will be “unborn” in the first place.

    • Sister Y

      Doesn’t the birth rate do the opposite in real life?

      • Joel

        No, the primary driver of high birth rates is infant mortality. In many areas additional children also provide wealth as social security for old age or directly through government benefits. In any case in the future the birth rates will be what those in power want them to be through the administration of appropriate incentives.

  • http://www.mwilliams.info Michael Williams

    I wrote similarly here and made up some nifty charts. I also think that this technology-labor displacement effect can explain why the ongoing labor recession is hitting men harder than women.