A persistent modern fear is that artificial intelligence and robot technology will advance so much that smart robots will soon be able to perform many of the tasks that we humans currently earn our crust with. Since they will come off the production line in a matter of minutes, they will be lots cheaper than us.
With the loss of our productive value, the fear is that our political value will soon follow: the value of a human life will sink to the cost of replacing us with a robot that does not need 20 years of feeding and education, but can be programmed in seconds. Why bother sustaining huge investments in unproductive humans? The usual historical answer has been that rulers do not bother with humans for whom they have no use.
Much has been written about this, but I here want to take the perspective of mainstream economics because I think it is particularly sobering and useful for this sort of question: mainstream economics already takes a very long-run view on markets and production, so now that we finally have a question that is truly long-run in nature, we can draw on standard economic thinking to illuminate the way.
Within mainstream production-function economic thinking, advancement of AI technology is like a drop in the price of a particular form of capital, sustained and followed by an increase in the use of that capital.
In the short-run, it is possible that this additional ‘IA’ capital will substitute for all kinds of current investments and for labourers. This is what new technology in the past has done, from the agricultural boom of the 19th century to the desktop age we live in today. So there will surely be losses to labour in the short-run.
But in the long-run, the glut of cheap new capital eventually raises the value of all other factors of production, including labour, unless and only unless labour can be fully substituted for the newer form of capital.
It is the standard logic of production-function thinking that any factor of production that is available at almost zero cost raises the value of everything else that is not a complete substitute (of course we can think of weird production functions that don’t have this property, but I am yet to see one). The argument is that whatever cannot be perfectly substituted starts to become the relatively scarce production factor whose value increases. This does not mean that labour would necessarily start to command all of the output, but it does mean that the marginal value increases and that hence labour would get a bigger piece of pie, even if it is a relatively smaller piece than before.
This is arguably what the agricultural revolution and the desktop age lead to: humans adapted so that they themselves specialised in different skills than before. The new skills were worth more than the old skills because of the cheap new capital. Hence droves of poor peasants were replaced with somewhat richer factory workers working alongside lots of machines. And those factory workers were subsequently replaced by even richer office workers who work with lots of computers.
There were losses in the interim, but in the long-run we were better off: the labourers found other human skills to focus on as the previous ones they focussed on became of little value. Those new tasks did often not even exist before the revolutions that made our previous jobs obsolete.
So in the long-run ‘we’ are going to be fine as long as there is something, no matter how unimportant or rarely performed by us currently, that robots and computers absolutely cannot do, no matter how much research time the research-robots of the future throw at it. That something has to lead to the production of some output that has consumption value to humans. Something that is pivotal in the production of either some basic goods, or in social goods that cannot be perfectly mimicked.
Even if it is sex, gladitorial entertainment, wombs, visual acuity, or humour that saves us, ‘we labourers’ would then be fine. In absolute terms, life would continue to get better: the value of our unique ability will creep to infinity and our families could live on a smidgen of that skill. So even if our ‘uncrackable skill’ is something as simple as a good joke, then whole human dynasties would in the long run be able to survive on just one decent joke in ten generations. Even the Germans might manage that.
If there is no human ability that cannot be mimicked perfectly well by robots, then, to put it in technical economic terms, labour is stuffed. Our value as labourers then eventually drops to zero and we can expect only the owners to prosper, and even their numbers might dwindle as they compete with other owners and their super-intelligent artificial advisers.
Is there hence something that is totally out of reach of AI and robot technology? Frankly speaking, I personally suspect the answer is ‘no’, but I hope it is ‘yes’. It is more a question for engineers and computer programmers though. Perhaps the reader can think of something?
Will it matter if we humans team up with AI and robots, so that we get augmented humans that combine the ‘best’ of both technologies, which is for instance the future envisaged by Raymond Kurtzweil, who famously predicted that in 2029 artificial intelligence will emerge that is indistinguishable from human intelligence? Think of additional memory and processing capacity outside of human brains, but connected to it.
This kind of ‘interfacing’ will not matter in the slightest in the long-run, for the same relentless economic logic applies: if human interfacing with other technology really becomes widespread and valuable, then the value of figuring out how to replace the human bit in that arrangement will keep rising. So any ‘hybrid’ technology that still requires a human bit is also doomed to be replaced by a fully artificial entity that does not require 20 years of feeding and education, unless the human bit truly cannot be replaced. Raymond’s prophesy thus needs AI to have its limits!
It is hence only in the short-run that it matters whether or not there are particular combinations of human and non-human technology that are more productive at something than either on its own. In the long-run, the key thing that matters is that humans truly have a productive skill that robots and AI cannot attain.
At present, we humans can still do lots of stuff that robots and computers cannot. Unlike computers, we can make babies, recognise a keyboard from a pizza 100 times out of a 100, and run with two legs without looking ridiculous. Well, maybe we cannot quite do the last one!
Interestingly, what I believe are amongst the easiest skills to mimic with AI are research skills, so my kind might disappear more quickly than others. That is because people like me get sit on their behinds all day, don’t have to recognise anything visual, and communicate in a language (maths and formalism) that is already pretty close to computer language. Hence a robot replacing me does not need to walk, recognise his surroundings, be able to hold a conversation, or even understand other humans. Indeed, evil tongues have rumoured that understanding humans is a liability anyway in some branches of social science!
Harder skills to mimic have to do with lots of quick spatial and visual recognition, combined with reading other humans. Those skills requires mobile robots able to simultaneously understand many different entities in new surroundings. Think of plumbers who have to understand the garbled mutterings of distraught home-dwellers whose bathrooms just mysteriously flooded, after which they have to creep through weird cupboard to reach some medieval boiler that needs special re-fitting.
It is somewhat of a comfort to fantasise that the last human workers to get replaced are tradies. Meanwhile, I will console myself with the hope that me and my loved ones are ancient history before that long-run arrives.