Do Comrades Dream of Electric Proletariat?

For the benefit of those who are hard of thinking: I am not now, nor have I ever been a member of the Communist Party.

One of the delightful things about living in Oxford is that there are a wide range of events going on. Events run by people who I like, run by people I vehemently disagree with, events run by itellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals alike. I enjoy hearing from a variety of people who don't think the same things I do.

So, last week I went to "I for one welcome our new robot overlords" - a discussion run by the Communist Corresponding Society.

I live tweeted the events under Chatham House Rules - that is, these are the unattributed thoughts of the people in the room. They don't all represent my viewpoint, but I found them interesting enough to comment on.

The central thesis of the event was a little muddled. Let me try to distil it as best as I understood it.

  • The notion that "the workers control the means of production" breaks down when the production is solely the preserve of robots owned by capitalists.
  • Each member of society owning their own robot / 3D printer places production back in the hands of the masses.
  • Increased automation leads to less work. Less work means less money. If the masses cannot afford to purchase - or have their own means of production - what drives the economy?

There are some interesting philosophical discussions to be had here.

Robots are, essentially, slaves. We haven't programmed them with emotions or desires (yet) - so they can't be exploited in quite the same way as human or animal can.

It is possible, however, to perform software exploits on them. A hacker could infiltrate a system and make it act contrary to its owners wishes. An extreme example of this is Stuxnet - a virus designed specifically to instruct Iran's robotic nuclear enrichment centrifuges to self-destruct.

We are already witnessing nation states engaged in cyber-warfare to diminish their rivals' technological superiority. Will multi-national companies also start attacking their rivals? Will the capitalists launch attacks on domestic robots to ensure we continue spending money?

Capitalism can never rest on its laurels. There is always a competitor snapping at their heels. This is compounded by Moore's Law.

Moore's Law states that the computing power doubles for the same cost every 18 months. The robot you buy today will be twice as powerful next year - or you can have the same one for half the price.

This relentless growth is problematic. Suppose you built a state-of-the-art factory this year. A couple of years later your rival can do the same at a reduced cost.

In a way, this hyper-capitalism is delightfully Socialist. They run around like madmen, with the side effect of making the world better for everyone.

As with all massive infrastructure projects, it is often only the State which can afford the long term investment needed.

I wish I'd thought of this next point.

Most people in the "App Economy" are actually in the business of selling pick-axes to prospectors. The average miner / developer is chasing a big win that will probably never materialise. There are only a few million-dollar apps. The real money is in selling services to those developers chasing a dream.

The next few points relate to how we all survive when it's the robots performing all the labour.

Every new invention or labour-saving device puts someone out of work. The vacuum cleaner means we no longer need to employ maids to clean our houses.

The robotic self-checkout means we no longer need semi-skilled people working in supermarkets. What happens to those people? Are they thrown on the scrapheap? Do we need to re-train them?

Do we live in the glorious work-free future? Not quite. But we now have robots to assist with our heavy lifting. The number of people who physically exert themselves for a living has diminished.

Would it be desirable for all the messy, disgusting, and degrading jobs to be done by robots? Perhaps. Are there people who can only do the jobs that robots do? What happens to them?

The conversation took a turn to the inevitability of the capitalist cause.

It's incredibly hard to renationalise infrastructure. The whole ratchet of capitalism is designed to be uni-directional. Once you've had an self-driving car, what would it take for you to go back?

One of the problems with the discussion is that some people have a limited idea of what a robot is. They think it's C-3PO, or a vast car-building robot. That couldn't be further from the case.

When I started working in an office, there was a woman who came round with a trolley. On it was a tea urn and several packs of biscuits. That job has been replaced by a robot. Sure, the vending machine doesn't look like it came out of Star Wars - but it is a robot none-the-less. Ubiquity dulls our senses the the amazing future in which we live.

One woman was insistent that there are some things that robots simply couldn't replace - like midwiffery. That is, in my opinion, an extremely naïve view. A foetal heartbeat monitor is a robot - as are all the various equipment surrounding the expectant mother.

At the moment, surgery is routinely carried out by robots - albeit non-autonomously. Before too long, a midwife in Beijing will control a robot in Tallahassee to assist with a birth. A few years later, the robot will be fully autonomous.

On to some more political points. Capitalism, it is theorised, requires war to stay profitable and reduce the independence of the proletariat.

We're already seeing drones fighting drones, and computers attacking computers. Is the ultimate endgame fully robotic armies fighting each other?

As the work for the masses dries up, does the spirit of revolution increase?

What are the things that only humans can do?

Without getting to into The Matrix, if we can use robots to create efficiencies in reproduction then capitalists can extract more value per (female) worker.

We already entrust so much to robots. Whether it's automated call centres, or High Frequency Trading stock market algorithms. Can we fully understand what they are doing? Is it possible to understand and mitigate the risks involved?

The Flash Crash has already shown us that unregulated robots can take actions which rapidly spiral out of control.

Automated decision making is a form of labour-saving. How much of our political infrastructure can we put into the hands of robots? At the moment we use Excel Macros to calculate tax rates - why not have robots get and set rates automatically?

Robots act as witnesses in court cases (CCTV, computer logs, etc) - how long before judge and jury can also be automated?

These final two points are my favourites.

Some people like work. Even if you may think it is dull, even if they cannot do it as efficiently, even if it is dangerous - is it right to deprive someone of work they genuinely want to do?

Finally, in relation to Social Media

A Conclusion of Sorts

The discussion was lively and interesting. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the nature of automation and how it relates to society - which is odd considering that the Spinning Jenny pre-dates The Communist Manifesto by around 80 years.

Unless we find ourselves reaching an unexpected technological bottleneck, it's clear that automation will only increase.

I don't necessarily believe that Communism is the solution to all of humanity's problems. As we continue to reduce the amount of unnecessary work, there will have to be a massive change in our economy.

There are two possibilities that those at the meeting foresaw.

  1. Robots which require constant care and attention.
  2. Total automation leading to permanent socialism.

In my opinion, we're rapidly reaching an inflection point. Low and medium skill jobs are in the process of being automated. Highly skilled jobs like accountancy can be replaced with digital tools. Computers can begin to program themselves.

Capitalism, then, faces a paradox. It need to be as efficient as possible to derive the maximum value from limited capital. But if every job is automated, the engine of consumerism stops - thus depriving it of profit.

We can't be certain that the robots are coming for all our jobs. Disemployment in administrative jobs could create new, and perhaps highly remunerative, work in sectors or occupations we can't yet anticipate. If we're lucky, that work will be engaging and meaningful. Yet there is a decent chance that "bullshit" administrative jobs are merely a halfway house between "bullshit" industrial jobs and no jobs at all. Not because of the conniving of rich interests, but because machines inevitably outmatch humans at handling bullshit without complaining.
On "bullshit jobs" - The Economist Aug 21st 2013

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One thought on “Do Comrades Dream of Electric Proletariat?”

  1. says:

    I think the woman commenting about midwifes is right. Unlike surgery, or monitoring, one thing a midwife does is be there for the woman in labour, empathise, sympathise and encourage - to be human. Yes, the robots will be there to pick up issues quicker, (assuming the woman is using them and is not just at home), but I think the human role to get a woman through this is unlikely to be replaced.


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