Towards an Effortless Economy
Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for the others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever.
Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness, 1935
Technology is the cog and labor is the lubricant. As cogs turn, labor enhances the cog to self lubrication in order to create other cogs for lubrication and so on. Eventually, all cogs will self lubricate. Or as Hans Moravec expressed it, "By mid-century no human task, physical or intellectual, should be beyond effective automation." In market based capitalism, the economy that arises from advanced automations are what is called a post-labor or effortless economy, a world devoid of labor and employment, where everyone is out of a job, or if preferred, in perpetual retirement.
The theoretical basis of effortless economy and the continuously evolving productive automation that will take us there is called zero-point competition, an emergent behavior of business competition and consumer demand whereby the firm most prefers zero cost to produce goods for a consumer who prefers not to pay for them. With this simple theoretical foundation in mind, let's start with a few developments likely to make such a zero-point scenario happen in the near future.
Some of the most ambitious work in artifical intelligence is that of Artifical General Intelligence (AGI). The term AGI is meant to distinguish itself from tradition AI or narrow AI, of the preprogrammed and rigid variety. Cruise control and chess playing software are examples of narrow AI. The goal of General AI is to create a thinking machine, one that can understand patterns in the world and in itself, learning and acting accordingly. Goertzel's et al. work in the company, Novamente, has shown progress towards this goal, teaching virtual pets in Second Life to play fetch using observation and other learning techniques. Goertzel has mentioned that his work is currently at the infantile stage, described as an autonomous agent that has simple associations between words and objects, actions and images, and the basic notions of time, space, and causality. Once AGI is at the intellectual level of a Da Vinci or Einstein and beyond it can then be taught and learn virtually anything a human can more effectively and accurately than a human ever could. To say that AGI, once developed, could teach others a thing or two, would be a significant understatement.
Productive nanosystems or desktop manufacturing has potential to revolutionize manufacturing, a novel field developed by Eric Drexler et al. in the nebulous realm of nanotechnology. In presenting the video, "Productive Nanosystems: From molecules to superproducts," Drexler describes the demonstration: "Starting at the human scale, the viewer zooms in through a scale factor of a billion to follow molecules as they are sorted, bound, transformed, and joined to form larger and larger parts of a billion-processor laptop computer." Drexler's et al. work in the company, Nanorex, show moderate advances toward the goal of desktop manufacturing, simulating nano-motors and cogs based on physical laws.
Granted that AGI comes before productive nanosystems, AGI could help to develop it. In the unlikely event that productive nanosystems emerge before AGI, sheer molecular computing power using a series of narrow AI applications could create an AGI. Once it's understood that one tool works in favor of designing another, it seems almost inevitable that both technologies will arise, one way or otherwise. Thus far, there is little demand for either of these tools as they both are in early development stages, yet further development is foreseeable as recent demand for robotics in health care and consumer electronics have increased due to an aging population and single parent families. Microprocessors continue to increase in affordability, decrease in size, and advance in effectiveness, offering an incentive for firms to create products that use them. Heightened demand for robotics are a likely stepping stone to further advance AGI and productive nanosystem development.
It may seem that such novel technologies like robotics have a long time before taking the jobs of us human folk, however, business strategy techniques using robots and other automation techniques have eliminated millions of jobs to compete in the marketplace, at labor's expense for corporate gain. Industrial work (farming and manufacturing) make up less than a dwindling 5 percent of the U.S. labor economy. Almost a half century ago industrial labor was nearly 50 percent of the workforce. The service sector is the only labor economy that shows growth, and this will remain constant until AI and robotics (productive nanosystems aside) become sophisticated and cost effective enough to spur negative human demand and eventual elimination of the labor market altogether.
Another way of observing the need for labor is by looking at the value of work itself. According to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, personal income has roughly stagnated since the early 1990s, despite steady increases in gross domestic product, with family income raised because of higher employment among women. This may be why the green movement and local co-operatives have become a popularity, for one purpose, to centralize resources and increase individual efficiencies within a community setting. Although incomes overall have stagnated, the richest 1 percent of tax filers have done rather well for themselves, claiming 80 percent of all income gains reported in federal tax returns between 1980 and 2005.
As long as a capitalist method exists, the point will be to profit from it, eliminating the workforce (or any other expense) when cost effective or profitable to do so, as is the nature of evolution and zero-point competitive forces. The moral conception of value will not come into question until work smarter not harder is superfluous, although that is clearly the case today. It is not widely known that even those who are college educated earn less and less (adjusted for productivity growth) as the knowledge market has become more and more saturated, with the exception of college educated women (for now.) As markets become exceedingly top heavy with a monopolizing minority, an economic depression is likely, as debt increases for the majority of incomes that continue to fall, with expenses that remain constant to general financial growth. Markets like real estate and credit agencies are a few of the most volatile, and to be watched closely, as income inequality expands. Even though it may seem clear that income distribution is far removed from the realms of equality, it is likely the overall economic structure will remain the same unless (1) a national or global market collapses, or (2) citizens accustom to a modest lifestyle find themselves increasingly poor or out of a job organize in violent revolution, or the least likely outcome, (3) government officials reform economic policy in a more ethical and less wealth-centric manner, knowing it will benefit the economy and society in the long run. Whatever may come to pass, the economic problem could use a solution.
A Basic Income Guarantee is one way to equally distribute capital earnings regardless of employment participation. Once enacted, jobs considered unfulfilling will earn higher wages than before. Like any other increase in business expense, an inflated job market traditionally costs the consumer as business adjusts to continue profit. However, it's probable that consumer markets will normalize with the enhanced ability to spend, with cost decreasing as automation technologies are adopted. Dozens of basic income proposals are present, primarily written in the past 40 years. Thomas Paine wrote a proposal called Agrarian Justice more than 200 years ago. The United States Basic Income Guarantee Network, among other groups, discuss a variety of methods and issues related to equal income distribution. Full implementation of a basic income has yet to be done, however, as computing intelligences are implemented by management and as management software is used by management executives, income distribution will become a greater issue than what the labor economist or futurist may see today. A basic income seems likely to be the final stage of capitalism.
Like labor, capital too has a shelf life. Once capital is no longer a scarce resource it will cease to be capital. It is the exemplar of zero-point competition in action and the dawn of an effortless economy. Before corporate functions achieve zero-point production and therefore consumption, there will be no reason for corporate functions to continue. All material needs will be rendered as needed in the same manner one uses a telephone for conversation. Examples of this trend are found in grocery store self checkouts, shopping on the Internet, the decreasing income of the college educated, and the sharp decline of industrial labor over the past half century, just to name a few. At the post-capitalist stage, it is likely intelligent systems will take the place of government officials and legislation to distribute resources, continue to streamline productivity to sustain living environments, and foster further development to ensure future growth and freedoms. Perhaps then, we will cherish what matters most, although the reasons to cherish anything will little matter once every aspect of survival and enjoyment is overseen and removed of conceivable problems. If reasons do not evolve with technology, there will be little need for discovery, nor any reason to continue to advance further—or dare it be said—continue at all. That may not seem to be a favorable outcome, but at least its the only thing to worry about once zero-point competition runs the course. The post-capitalist era is the final chapter of effortless economy and will change the very vocabulary of economists, however unnecessary the vocabulary and economist may be.
1. Moravec, Hans. Robots: Re-Evolving Mind or Mass Utility Robots this Decade, Full Automation this Century
2. Artifical General Intelligence Institute: Infantile Stage
3. e-drexler.com. Productive Nanosystems: From molecules to superproducts
4. Wikipedia. Productive nanosystems
5. U.S. Census Bureau: Income
6. Wikipedia. Household income in the United States
7. Levy, Frank. Temlin, Peter. Inequality and Institutions in 20th Century America
8. The United States Basic Income Guarantee Network: BIG Bibliography
9. Goertzel, Ben. Vladimir Bugaj, Stephan. Stages of Ethical Development in Artificial General Intelligence Systems