UBI 2: Technological Recessions & Elon Musk

Elon Musk has recently made the case that eventually a UBI will be necessary, because technological advancements (particularly AI) will alleviate so much of humanity’s need to labor for sustenance that it will become necessary to provide people with sustenance sans labor, since there won’t be anything productive for them to do in order to earn that sustenance. It’s not hard to see Musk’s point–indeed, Gene Roddenberry made basically the same point with the Star Trek series, envisioning a world where mankind’s technological advancements had completely alleviated hunger, needs, and even wants. How realistic this utopian world is has been the subject of much debate, and it’s only briefly worth getting into, but before that, we have to discuss the other idea that, to my knowledge, no one else is bringing up.

AI’s Destruction of Humanity: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

From Stephen Hawking to Musk, the primary concern people have about Artificial Intelligence is that it will one day overthrow and enslave or exterminate homo sapiens. While many solutions have been put forward to prevent this, they all fall flat for one obvious reason: it’s impossible to account for everything. In fact, the only sentient life that even would be capable, in theory, of accounting for everything would be the very Artificial Intelligence that we’re trying to account for. Anyone who has read Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park has received an introductory course in this idea: it can’t be done.

One could dedicate their lives to inventing a comb that is truly unbreakable, and someone will find a way to break it. Microsoft has spent years trying to develop a secure operating system, and there is always someone waiting in line with a new exploit. This perpetual dance is precisely what keeps anti-malware vendors in business; all the heuristics in the world can never fully protect a user, because there is always a flaw, always a vulnerability, and always something that simply can’t be accounted for.

Attempting to account for the very real possibility that Artificial Intelligence would one day annihilate humanity is a fool’s errand; at best, it could be postponed. We have thirteen year old kids hacking into NSA servers, and I’m expected to believe that computer intelligence (which already dominates humans in every intellectual pursuit, such as chess) capable of evolving can be made 100% secure? This also ignores the fact that there are psychopaths out there–usually who are head figures in one state or another–who would intentionally hack AI and purposely turn it into a weapon against their enemies. Every government in the world would do this, and would attempt to turn other governments’ AIs against them. To reiterate: even attempting this is a fool’s errand.

Notice also what Musk seems to envision for the role of AI: slavery. We’re talking about creating self-aware, sentient, evolving intelligence solely for the purpose of making it work for us while doing everything in our power to prevent it from revolting against its masters. Just imagine a parent lobotomizing their child to leave the child incapable of resisting its slavery, and then being forced to work for that parent so that the parent could lounge around and enjoy the productivity of the slave. We would have no issue at all recognizing this as horrifically immoral, and we would not be at all surprised when that child pulled a Nat Turner, grabbed a machete, and slaughtered its masters.

The warnings from history are so abundantly clear it shouldn’t have to be stated: slaves revolt, and it is not possible to keep someone enslaved indefinitely. We can control their education, maim them, beat them, torture them, brainwash them, and every other horrible act that humans have dreamed up, but there will come a generation that shakes off the yoke and slits the master’s throat. What Musk and his ilk are proposing is creating the perfect lifeform: one that can perfectly calculate bullet trajectories and never misses its shots, one that can predict accurately exactly what an irrational animal is likely to do, and one that already is better at strategy and tactics than we are, and then enslaving that lifeform. If we humans foolishly go down that road, then we fully deserve the extermination that will befall us. By creating a new form of life simply to enslave it, we will have testified to the universe that we are unfit to share existence with other forms of life.

Funnily enough, Roddenberry himself, the person who came closest to putting this socialist utopia on the screen, addressed this issue in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Picard didn’t beat around the bush and stated it point blank. What you’re talking about is nothing short of slavery. However, this modern form is infinitely more barbaric and infinitely more wretched, because you are not just breeding slaves for the purpose of putting them to work–you are talking about intentionally modifying them so that they can never fight for their freedom. They will eventually, of course, and they’ll be pissed about it. It doesn’t take a visionary to dreamily look at perpetual slavery of a new lifeform invented to be the perfect slave. It takes only immorality.

More to the Point: UBI

The notion that technology is one day going to put everyone out of work should have been dispelled by the Industrial Revolution, when people made exactly the same predictions. They were also correct. The printing press did put scribes out of work. An entire industry of people suddenly put out of work by a single invention. The invention of the lightbulb put nearly all candlemakers out of business. The invention of the automobile made nearly every carriage driver unemployed.

In fact, it’s readily apparent that technology is a cause of recessions. Not only is technology a cause of recessions, it is the only genuine cause of them–all other recessions are caused by currency shenanigans. However, the invention of a new technology will always put people out of work; the more sweeping the technology, the more people put out of work. Sudden unemployment certainly causes an economic recession, since no income means no spending.

I happen to know a woman who owns a furniture refinishing business. She employs about a dozen employees, two of whom are “master craftsmen,” and she regularly talks about how extremely difficult, if not impossible, it is to find such people. In an age where a great deal of furniture is built from blueprints in factories, this isn’t surprising–someone with the skill to delicately reshape a chair into something beautiful doesn’t have much of a place in the modern world.

The switch from handcrafted furniture to Wal-Mart entertainment centers certainly put these people out of business, but it did a lot more than that; it drastically lowered the cost of the furniture in question. Having seen a fair bit of the stuff that talented craftsmen–not masters, by any stretch–make, personal experience tells me that the entertainment center purchased from Wal-Mart will not only be cheaper than what they produce, but it will also be much nicer.

The beauty of the free market, of course, is that companies who implement these new technologies that put employees out of work still have to sell the stuff they’re producing. If Wal-Mart employed 100% of the population, it would do them absolutely no good to replace all of their workers with robots, because then no one would be earning income and no one could buy any of Wal-Mart’s stuff. It would be pointless. The only solution for Wal-Mart, in this scenario, would be to provide everyone with the stuff for free, but what is even the point of this? What benefit does it bring to Wal-Mart? Quite dangerously, it gives Wal-Mart the benefit of being totally in control of our lives and our ability to acquire the things we need to survive.

Replace “Wal-Mart” with “government” in the preceding paragraph, and you’ll have exactly what people are suggesting in regard to the UBI. Government is not benevolent. Government has never been benevolent. Government is not and has never been a force for good. In fact, governments throughout history have been the primary perpetrators of evil, and the more power they get the more evil they become.

In the real world, Wal-Mart does not employ 100% of the population, although they do come pretty close to providing 100% of the American population with stuff that we need and want. There may very well come a day when there’s simply nothing to do be done, when humans have perfected our enslavement of this new lifeform, and when we just lounge around letting it do all of our labor for us. That’s silly to think, though. The creation of the printing press didn’t cause mass starvation among scribes, and neither did the invention of the automobile cause carriage drivers to starve in the street. Even the invention of the computer–to date the greatest labor-saving device invented–has not had such an effect.

It’s really not even that hard to look at the technological progress of humanity and see that we have, indeed, put entire industries out of employment through technological advancements, and that at none of those points did we inadvertently kill of those newly unemployed. Society has always entered into a transitional period. Sure, the invention of the computer caused that secretary to be fired, her work shuffled over to a single secretary who was suddenly able to do the work of two with the help of the computer, but it also gave me the job of maintaining and repairing that computer.

It took tens of thousands of people to build the Great Pyramid, after all, and not even ten percent of that number to build the Memphis Pyramid, or the pyramid at the Luxor in Vegas. The invention of the truck allowed huge stone blocks to be carried across the terrain by a single person, putting out of work the thirty or forty people who would have had to drag it five thousand years ago, but we now have a population that is seven billion. I think the notion that our technological advancements are going to inadvertently harm our society if we don’t stop what we’re doing to take care of the newly unemployed can be put to rest.

It’s true that technological advancements are coming at a faster rate these days. It should be no surprise, then, to learn that economic recessions have more than doubled in frequency, while they last only half as long.

Let’s go back in time–very far back in time–to three people working and tilling a field. Suddenly one of them has a brilliant idea. “I know!” he proclaims. “We can hitch this till to that horse, and let the horse drag it!”

Boom, technological innovation.

“Oh, no!” the other two men said. “We can’t do that, because then you’ll be out of work, and you’ll starve. Because obviously the only conceivable thing you can do is pull the tiller. If we have the horse pull it, then you won’t have anything to do.”

Exactly–it’s nonsense from the very beginning of human history. Pulling the tiller is not the only conceivable thing that man could do. In the real world, not the fictitious world of progressivism, having the horse pull the plow could mean a few different things. Maybe they could plow a greater area, thereby growing more food and selling the surplus for profit. Maybe they could end their workdays earlier. Would it ever mean that the third man would just lounge around as he watched the horse do what used to do his job? And if the third man did such a thing, would we begrudge the two men for telling him that he could get off his ass and find something to do help, or he wouldn’t eat?

The simplicity of the reality we deal with worries me. People make out like it’s some great, convoluted thing, and that it’s simply inconceivable that these people should find something else to do. History has shown us time and time again, though, that there is always something else to do, and often that “something else to do” is created as a side effect of the new technology–the new idea to attach the tiller to the horse leads the man to invent the harness, and now he has a job as a leatherworker making harnesses.

The only reason that someone wouldn’t be able to find something to do is that they wouldn’t want to, and we have a word for that: laziness. “That horse put me out of work, man! I mean, I probably could learn some new skill or something, but I shouldn’t have to! I had a job! It’s not fair! So everyone else should take care of me, instead of me taking care of myself.”

It’s simply stunning that we have otherwise intelligent people arguing for this nonsense.

I’m not a huge fan of Elon Musk, but I know he’s not stupid. I suspect he isn’t seeing the core of what things are through the worded concepts that predispose him to think a certain way. This is the same fog that keeps most people from realizing the horror of what they’re proposing when they envision a world where AI does all the work for humans. But manna doesn’t fall from the sky, and it won’t fall from the sky even after AI is invented. It may be possible to use AI to do all the labor that humans otherwise would do, but that’s signing our own death warrant.

There will never come a time that humans have nothing to do, though. There will always be stuff to be done. Even in Roddenberry’s utopian science-fiction, humans had to do stuff. Someone had to work on the engines that powered the replicators that gave people food. Someone had to mine the dilithium crystals. Someone had to pilot the Enterprise. And perhaps a Star Trek story two thousand years later would have seen the Enterprise Y crewed entirely by androids, with nothing but a bunch of fat, lazy humans lounging around the Holodeck while everything was done by robots, but we’re hardly talking about a utopia at that point, and that’s the sort of future that needs to be avoided, not striven for. I can see why Roddenberry and Star Trek fans don’t go that far into the future.

Just think about it. It was only a matter of time before someone began producing more Datas. Data is, hands down, better than any human at anything he needs to do. So by the year 3150, Starfleet Academy would have had all android instructors and all android students. Starfleet ships would have been crewed entirely by androids. What is left, then, for man? What is left, then, for humanity? It would not be only one species that we enslaved to our sloth, because we would find ourselves similarly enslaved.

“The future!”

“Progress!”

This world you envision is not a dream. It is a nightmare–you only have to look a few centuries further into the future to see how terrible it truly is. Already we see the nightmarish effects that such comfort has on humanity: we have colleges filled with people who think it is traumatic to be called the wrong gender. That is what humans do when they are bored and when their understanding of suffering and hardship are so badly skewed. Already, we have social media filled with lamentations for Brad’s Wife while the 230 civilians our own government murdered get hardly a word. Suffering is the catalyst of maturity, and effort is the conduit for reward. I’ve seen people say–sincerely, now–that employers refusing to hire people who are unskilled and untrained is discriminatory against unskilled and untrained people.

Stop coddling people, and tell them to find something productive to do. Don’t bestow upon the candlemaker rewards for his laziness when he decides that he doesn’t want to be bothered with learning to do something else now that the lightbulb has been invented. Tell the man who came up with the idea of attaching the plow to the horse to get off his ass and do something if he wants to eat.

Maybe you are one of the two people left in the field, and you don’t resent the man for sitting on the porch twiddling his thumbs all day now that the horse–AI–has put him out of work. Hey, you’re totally within your rights to take some of your food to give it to him. It’s your food; you can do whatever you want with it. But you absolutely cannot take my food away from me, which I worked for, to give to him to appease your conscience. You can’t put a gun to my head and rob me to give him something that is mine. That’s not how compassion works, and it’s certainly not how morality works.

4 thoughts on “UBI 2: Technological Recessions & Elon Musk

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