Purge the Algorithms

Ned Ludd
Ned Ludd

by James A. Bacon

It’s Labor Day, a suitable occasion for opining on the future of work…

One of the great questions of our era revolves around the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on the job market. People have fretted about automation since the days of Ned Ludd, the knitting-frame wrecker. Machines have been replacing human labor on a large scale for more than two centuries now. Yet somehow the economy managed to generate more new jobs, and somehow our society has managed to become more productive and prosperous than ever.

Some say, this time it’s different. The nature of automation is changing.

My friend David Rafner refers me to an article in Space Daily describing how biophysicists are developing an algorithm for inferring laws of nature from time-series data of dynamical systems. The hope is that large-scale computing can spot patterns that elude mere mortals. If the biophysicists are successful, they will have made a huge advance toward Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the Singularity, in which computing power and AI exceed humans in intelligence, thus accelerating the rate of scientific discovery and the rate of technological development.

Machines first reduced the demand for physical labor; soon AI will reduce the demand for cognitive labor. Once those two sources of employment dry up, what’s left? While machines build the cars, plow the fields, manage the currency transactions and conduct the scientific research, what will humans do? Will we revert to a nation of artists, musicians, writers and craftsmen? Perhaps. David thinks there still will be room for philosophers and bloggers. But I’m not confident that the United States can accommodate 320 million philosophers and bloggers. Personally, I think the only occupational category that’s safe is politicians.

Work is so central to our culture — so essential to our standard of living, our status, our self-worth — one can’t help but fear will happen when the AI-enhanced robots take over. Who will control the wealth and power as robots (a form of capital) replace labor? Will the plutocrats rule? or will we distribute material blessings so that all of us are freed from drudgery and toil? And what would a life free from labor and toil be like? Would humans have any purpose? Would life have any meaning beyond the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure? Are we not destined for an existential crisis that will give rise to nihilism, thrill seeking and violence?

As much as I love my time away from paid toil, I see no substitute for work. Ned Ludd wrecked the knitting machines. Maybe it’s time to start purging the algorithms.

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  1. You bring to mind:
    Rossum’s Universal Robots, by Karel Čapek
    A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, film by Stanley Kubrick
    You Are Not A Gadget, by Jaron Lanier
    — happy Labor Day!

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    hmmm…. shades of Luddite!

    I’m a little surprised that those of Conservative/Libertarian tilt don’t see what drives mankind and that is the ambition to acquire land and wealth – to better their situation – to WORK to get what they want!

    it don’t matter what the time-period is or the rules – they adapt!

    beyond that – as long as we have people dying from starvation and a lack of medical care and we ourselves cannot seem to sustain our lives without polluting ….some would say – destroying our habitat, our planet , and arguing that we cannot “afford” to not pollute or stop altering the climate, increasing sea level…

    hells bells

    I’d not worry about running out of “work – we’re actually headed backwards on education, imprisonment and the environment!

    there’s LOTS of WORK to do – .. getting paid for it is another question!

  3. I have followed Ray Kurzweil (a brilliant guy) and his Singularity proposal for some time. But it has always left me uneasy. The reliance on AI and nanotechnology is an extreme extension of our logical, materialist worldview.

    I founded a computer business and recognize the benefits of technology, but I was trained as a scientist. The only systems which have stood the tests of time are those based on the principles of nature. Because we consider ourselves separate and immune from the laws of nature we build cultural systems that are doomed to failure. The bigger we build them the harder they fall.

    Billionaire’s will admit that a few tens of millions will provide them with a lifetime of all of the comfort and luxury they could desire. The rest is for power, influence and “scorekeeping”. Humans need connection and a sense of value in their lives. So many are struggling to make a “living” that they don’t have a “life”.

    It is interesting that you bring this up because we were just discussing the issue this weekend. We were talking about all of the robots in the Tesla factory. It seemed an appropriate application for robotics, to do repetitive activities with precision and consistency. The only humans involved were highly paid technologists who ran the robots. But then how are the singular abilities of humans put to use?

    In Singularity, whose worldview programs the AI? In Isaac Asimov’s robot novels, his first rule for the robots was “Do not harm humans”. Will it be the same in our age. Much of the funding for robotics has come from the Defense Department with UAV’s and self-driving vehicles. Many initiatives around the world are subtly aimed at reducing the “useless eaters” as some have termed them.

    I think the issues that you have raised are important ones. It is time we asked – what is the purpose of mankind? Have we created social systems and technologies that serve that purpose or work against it? Whose role is it to make changes if we are off track?

    Our educational systems once gave consideration to history, literature and philosophy; even for science and math majors. Now we seem to focus primarily on preparing our children to get a job. Do we really want to create a nation of worker bees who do not question whether the world we are building serves their interest? Perhaps so.

    This is a far distance from the farmers, craftsmen and shopkeepers whom Jefferson felt had the good sense to guide their own government. Now we are only too willing to let someone else do the thinking and decide things for us. Someday it might be a robot.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    certainly thoughts worth contemplating.

    but we have a whole universe to explore… so we ought not to be thinking we’re even close to done!

    A funny thing is happening to Google self-driving cars – PEOPLE.

    the cars are programmed to use logic and precision – which actually gets them into trouble with human drivers.

    Google’s Driverless Cars Run Into Problem: Cars With Drivers


    now – there’s a few ways to look at this – and what the best solution might be – and I would posit – it has a lot to do with the current discussion!

  5. You are talking about Kurt Vonnegut’s vision, in his novel Player Piano, of a world run entirely by engineers and managers. The engineers created the robots that made and repaired everything, including other robots; the managers managed everything. Everyone else was consigned to the Reeks and the Wrecks, who had every material possession they wanted but nothing to do, which ultiimately caused widespread revolution.

    This was a different Vonnegut novel than the one in which alien beings, who communicated by farting and tap dancing, landed on earth in Darien CT. Approaching the first house they spotted, they started vigorously farting and tap dancing in front of the resident, who promptly brained them all with a seven iron.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    sounds oh so human!

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