Opinion Nov15 2017, Cardiff

There Is No Right Time

Many young people think the rise of automation is a political issue of the future. The few that think of automation as an issue for the population now, think that optimisation of capital is something so deeply rooted to be a battle to be fought now. Owen Tanner argues that the right time for change is not something definite within our system and we should start thinking about this now.

The majority of people in the UK aged 16-30 do not know what automation is. Automation is the taking over of human labour by robot labour or artificial intelligence (AI). 30% of jobs in the UK and 35% of jobs in Germany could be automated by 2030. In 50 years’ time, it is more likely than not that High-Level Machine Intelligence (HLMI) will be able to outperform humans at a cheaper cost[3].

For this reason, many people think that we need to start having serious conversations about our ideology around jobs. For most people within the capitalist system, jobs are our duty to society and necessary to provide for self and family. With mass automation comes all the economic benefits of a human employee for cheaper labour, and this is what attracts most business owners to automate or through computer programs optimise their workforce. As a result, many people are due to lose their purpose soon and, within the economy, there are larger amounts of money going into people higher up in businesses.

This mass vast scale economic disparity on a vast scale (further future than 2030) will be disastrous both for the ruling class and for the previously exploited workers. The ruling class will have massively more efficient businesses but as workers have little income consumption levels will decrease. This does not create —as a classic free-market capitalist might think— a massively competitive economy. Mass optimisation accelerates monopolies because it increases the amount of initial investment of liquid money you need to acquire competitive labour and this could mean the end of small business. As a result, the economy becomes far too top-heavy to function and becomes undermined by human requirements and social unsustainability outside of the ruling classes.  

For the unemployed masses, there are two big questions that follow. The first is obvious: how do you generate income? To me, as a left accelerationist, this seems to have an obvious answer: the ruling class must distribute a national living wage. Also, there should be a massive reduction in working hours to compensate for the massive reduction in the need for labour. After all, less than 5% of jobs in the world can be fully automated; however, 60% of jobs in the world can be at least 30% automated.

The second is far more complex: what is your purpose within a capitalist system now that you cannot, and will not, have a job? I won’t pretend this has an obvious answer.

The humiliation of whole communities losing work has already created large social effects felt not just in Europe but across the world. Jobs in Europe are on the decline and as a result, a pressure is on politicians to reduce immigration.  Immigration is arguably the more visible cause of lack of jobs than automation but at the same time a much less serious threat to the job market in the majority of spaces. Already people are searching for a non-systematic ‘big Other’ to blame for mass unemployment and wholeheartedly believing politicians who sell this to them.

So, when are we going to have these conversations and structural changes relating to automation, and when will we start thinking about how a post-human economy would function ideologically?

For me, this is the point where, frankly, many young people begin to frustrate me, because the answer is barely ever right now. I don’t blame them – it is commonly said it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of consumer capitalism. This coupled with the outright dystopian visions of an automated society gone wrong alienates a lot of people from discussing the future. But also, a lot of young people give well-reasoned arguments as to when we should sort it out. One school is capitalist realists, who think that optimisation of the capital is too deeply rooted in our ideology to change. Another is classical left accelerationism, which is the belief that at some point economic disparity or mass AI events such as HLMI will directly obstruct or contradict leading ideologies, causing them to have to adapt.

Timeline of Median Estimates (with 50% intervals) for AI Achieving Human Performance. Timelines showing 50% probability intervals for achieving selected AI milestones. Specifically, intervals represent the date range from the 25% to 75% probability of the event occurring. Circles denote the 50%-probability year. Source: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1705.08807.pdf

Timeline of Median Estimates (with 50% intervals) for AI Achieving Human Performance. Timelines showing 50% probability intervals for achieving selected AI milestones. Specifically, intervals represent the date range from the 25% to 75% probability of the event occurring. Circles denote the 50%-probability year. Source

Capitalist Realism: Capitalist Optimisation Cannot Be Dismantled

“A History that we cannot imagine except as ending, and whose future seems to be nothing but a monotonous repetition of what is already here.” – Frederic Jameson, Future City

Automation is clearly rooted in the optimisation of capital and this is fundamental to capitalism. Clearly, something which solves the issue of automation is not going to be a reformed capitalism. But this begs the question- where else can the solution lie? Is it even possible to move from consumer capitalism into some new system in which jobs are not central to people’s collective and individual sense of purpose?

It is understandable then, that many young people simply think it is too late to do anything about automation, and that we should never have created a globalised economy where optimisation is so central to the ideology in the first place. It is undeniably hard to conceive of a change let alone install a change to help ourselves in this situation.

In response to them, I say the fact that these questions have not been answered does not imply that they are unanswerable. On top of this, I would argue that there are things to be done, and some of these are very realistic goals, therefore we just need to start taking the arguments away from party politics and begin talking about how the structure of our economy is changing.

For instance, global healthcare systems or a global living wage could be initiated.these are both clearly not science fiction, for example, healthcare systems like the NHS here in the UK could undoubtedly be implemented elsewhere, and investment in them should increase to deal with an increasingly dependent population. Whether you are on the left or right, if unemployment continues to rise (as it will), it is clear that we will need healthcare systems to reflect this—and this is the argument that should be made, automation transcends party politics. It is obvious from the effects of recent cuts that the NHS is almost incompatible with optimisation yet it does exist and is relatively successful.

Starting to put in these kinds of changes begins changes of perception of how we should talk about automation in politics, and opens out space where people are tackling, or at least aware of their oppression when trying to fight it. All of this, in turn, creates space to think about how a new posthuman economy could function, and not force it into a breaking point before it has even begun to be acknowledged.

Classical Left-Accelerationism: Automation Necessitates Change

“You have to be forced to be free. If you trust your spontaneous sense of wellbeing or whatever you will never get free.” Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

It is no secret that becoming free hurts.

The view of many accelerationists who write on issues of automation is that the mass gap between the rich and poor will remain perceived as a sub-ideological (governmental) issue which can be reformed through classical methods such as left-leaning tax plans, increased benefits and so on until we hit a breaking point (usually HLMI) in which the truth is revealed brutally and suddenly, and the curtains fall forcing us into a new ideology.

One flaw in this argument is to assume the population will not attempt to adapt or discuss their issues before a mass automation event. Anecdotally, I and a lot of my peers have an awareness of automation and care deeply about discussing how to approach the coming years, both on a level of thinking about what areas to study and how to instruct a change in the future.

In a sense I agree, that automation does necessitate change. I would even go as far as to agree that we need large events to instruct and justify this change. But the root cause of this the big change which will cause this ideological shift could come from within the population.

We are already seeing some of the mass political events that speculative futurists have predicted, such as the rise of neo-fascism and populism (even in a sense primitivism with this building walls nonsense) in western countries where industries have become massively optimised and as a result unemployment has risen. We have even seen predictions of post-truth politics by Misak who notes in truth, politics and morality that in job crisis’ caused by increased technological advances it is likely that people will find much more truth in past solutions such as economic and immigration controls rather than accepting that technology has out-qualified them.

What is amazing about these successful predictions is how often they have been outright choices of the population. No situation in itself has forced people to support politicians who might put forward these kinds of views. The consensus with many of these political events, for example, Brexit, is that they come from elites duping the population with lies. I would strongly argue that the exact opposite is true, that in fact, the population has rebelled from the elites by believing all the lies they are told not to.  This act of rebellion is not in a direction I would like, but as a demonstration of collective change in relation to unemployment, it serves as a very strong argument against the political scientists who claim that the working class will remain clinging to their ideology until they physically cannot anymore.

This brings me great hope. As long as the public can choose not only to vote against the elite consensus but collectively believe something we are consistently told not to, we can create a space to deconstruct aspects of ideology, autonomously from the current political climate.

My View: Idealism– There Is No Right Time

“What do we mean by the revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. … The revolution was complete, in the minds of the people … before the war commenced in the skirmishes of Concord and Lexington on the 19th of April, 1775. … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.” – John Adams (concerning abolition of slavery)

So if we do not need to think about how to address issues of automation in the past or the future, when do we need to address them?

My view is that the solutions (national living wages, reduced hours, universal healthcare and increased nationalised transport) that we will have to form to address issues related to automation will hopefully be initiated by the population, but this does not mean that it is not urgent- if anything it means that the need to discuss these issues immediately is even greater. After all, it would be foolish to deny that events surrounding a singularity and HLMI would not force an ideological shift if not addressed before they happened. However, the key point is that there is some social mobility in issues surrounding automation, so what we really need is action right now and for people to start thinking seriously about what they can do to soften the shift into the posthuman economy.