Saturday, December 15, 2012

Introduction to Post-Scarcity Economics

     The economies of the world are going to change a lot within our lifetimes. Technology is rapidly advancing on numerous frontiers, forcing workers in all economic sectors to constantly retrain themselves in order to stay relevant to their field. New waves of destructive technologies (a term here used in Schumpeter's sense of creative destruction) are being developed--advanced robotics and 3-D printing, for example, will both lead to the creation of entirely new industries while obsoleting old ones. Labor intensive industries, such as farming and factory work are not too long off from being completely automated. It's not hard to imagine that within a decade or two machines will be created that can harvest crops and plant seeds more cost-efficiently than manual laborers, in fact, working prototypes are already in the fields (see the end of this post for links to examples, and this topic will be addressed further in depth in later posts). Car manufacturing has already seen a large proportion of its manual labor force become automated.
        It's not just manual labor industries though that will be revolutionized by technological advancements in the next century. Doctors too, consummate skilled professionals who even excluding specialized training and continuing education are in school for upwards of twenty years, will see their roles in the medical industry minimized as it becomes clear that super computers which use tremendous numbers of data points and clever algorithms are much better at making diagnoses, and that a robotic surgeons hand will never, or at least on astronomically fewer occasions, slip.
        In 2012 you'd be hard pressed to find a cobbler or a blacksmith, and in 2052 you might find it equally difficult to find a human surgeon or a human factory worker. Robotics will do the job better for cheaper, eventually.
       There will, obviously, be many new professions that arise along with these new technologies. There will need to be companies which design, produce and sell robots and 3-D printers. However, there is a limit, barring unprecedented advancements in the speed at which a person can trained a new skill, how fast people can learn how to perform new jobs. Once the development of destructive industries hits a certain point, the rate at which people are separated from their jobs will exceed the rate at which they can be retrained for new positions, if those new positions even have time to be created. Unemployment, it would seem, would boom in this scenario.
     Economic doomsayers have argued for centuries that each new advancement in technology, from the beginning of the industrial revolution until the advent of the personal computer is bad because although it may be beneficial for an individual to adopt, by destroying a traditional industry (cottage workshops, many secretarial positions) the increase in unemployment would be a net loss for society. It is clear that these doomsayers have been wrong--society has in fact not collapsed because of labor saving advancements, and contrarily, it has experienced since the industrial revolution a meteoric rise in the standard of living, without the sort of employment crisis some foresaw.
     There is a difference, though, I would argue between what has characterized the last several hundred years of industrialization and the upcoming robotic economic revolutions. The invention of factories meant that the productivity of any worker in that factory increased astronomically, and where previously one worker could produce eight widgets a day, ten workers with specialized tasks could produce a thousand. The demand for widgets couldn't possibly keep up if every widget-maker became such a more productive widget maker, so inevitably some of them had to switch careers. Luckily, there were new factories making other products being built all over, so these temporarily deposed widget-makers could find new work before too long. But with a robotic-labor revolution, there isn't really anywhere for the redundant heart surgeon or migrant worker to turn to. Per capita productivity will go up from the robotic revolution, but it won't be because worker productivity goes up. If a robot designs a robot for another robot to make, then that robot goes out is maintained by another fleet of robots that were also designed by robots, and this trend occurs simulatenously in a huge number of industries, where exactly does a massive unemployed labor force fit into the situation? Since all non-creative jobs or jobs that people might prefer to be done by a human such as a masseuse can be roboticized within our lifetimes (I was born in 1992, apologies to an older reader), where do the masses of those in soon-to-be eliminated positions find new work? Wall-E, the 2008 Pixar film, presents a rather convincing possibility--they won't.
    This presents a challenge to our current economic system. When no one (or at least very few) people have to work in order to feed our civilization, how do we manage a food economy? When eventually there are more people than useful jobs for them to do, how do we react? Do we stifle technological progress in order to preserve unnecessary jobs? There is a chance that I am wrong and people will continue to create new industries that still require human labor at a rate exceeding that which robots take human jobs, but I think that is unlikely, and that these questions need to be considered. Much of the world is headed before too long to a place where post-scarcity is possible. This blog will be a place where I attempt to consider the implications of a post-scarcity economy, and the ways that people should start thinking about the world a few decades from now so that the post-scarcity economy can be handled in the best way.

Roboticization of food harvesting

Doctors becoming a different profession, responsibilities diminished by new technologies

A graphic showing a predicted timeline of various technological advancements