Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rise of the machine-owners

In recent years, more and more credence has been given to the scary notion of "skill-biased technological change" - the idea that technology is no longer usable by everyone, and so is causing an increase in inequality. Basically, the theory says that thinking machines have begun to replace some of us, but not yet all of us; those who own the thinking machines (capitalists) and those who are smart enough to operate them (tech workers) will get more and more of what our automated society produces. I'm not convinced this theory describes our current world, but it certainly seems like it
could happen sometime, as computers get smarter but human capabilities don't improve. What do we do if 70% or 80% of humanity becomes no more employable than dogs?

Matt Yglesias suggests that the rich people make the poor people their pets:
One way to think about the skill-biased technological change issue that I think is useful is to construct for yourself an exaggerated hypothetical in which SBTC is definitely driving a big increase in inequality...what would be the correct policy response? I say—higher taxes to finance more and better public services, the exact same thing that’s the correct policy response to the actual world.
Note that he's not exactly saying that rich people should give their wealth to the poor. He's saying that rich people should give their wealth to an organization that provides services for the poor. In Yglesias' ideal world, not only will the poor depend on the (willing or forced) largesse of the rich for their daily bread, but they won't get to decide how to spend that bread; instead, they will live in a playground that is crafted and shaped for them by others, receiving their livelihood indirectly in the form of "public services."

In other words, they will be pets.

Why do humans keep pets? Because the pets are cute, lovable, companionable, etc., which is just another way of saying
because we like them. We pay pets to live in a world that we prepare and create for them, simply because it makes us feel good to do so. Yglesias' solution to skill-biased technological change is to do the same for obsolete human beings.

This sounds nightmarish. But in fact there is no easy solution to the problem of SBTC, as the most obvious alternative - simply ban the technology that makes humans obsolete - is utterly unworkable in practice. What are we to do, then? Will the rise of thinking-machines inevitably force us to choose between "pet-owner socialism" and "ditch-digger socialism"?

It is my opinion that the only acceptable, workable long-term solution to the SBTC problem is to use society's resources to focus on inventing technologies that augment human capabilities - things like intelligence enhancement and cyborg modification for human-machine interface. Furthermore, we should use the government to redistribute not wealth, but inborn capability (much as we try to do now with public education), making sure that things like heightened intelligence and human-machine interface are available equally to even the poorest citizens. In other words, we must battle skill-biased technology by creating and disseminating skill-boosting technology.

I know that sounds really weird, but isn't that better than having a society that's divided between those who own and operate thinking-machines, and those who live as pets for the former? Someday, this will be the choice we face.

1 comment:

  1. Just read this post for the first time. Great way to frame the issue!