Episode 237 - The Sofalurity Is Near
Published January 14, 2016
SPECIAL GUEST: John Danaher. What would the world like it, without work? Take a journey into the SOFALURITY with us, as we're rejoined by past guest John Danaher. In this episode, we talk #technologicalunemployment, #impactofautomation, #futureofwork, #AI, #algocracy, and #BasicIncome. Recorded on 1/10/2016.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Philosophy and the Basic Income (Series Index)
Technological unemployment and human disenhancement, by Michele Loi (PhilPapers, 9/2/2015)
Give Directly, charity for transferring cash payments to the developing world
John Danaher's personal website
John's Philosophical Disquisitions blog
Institute For Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) site
John's profile on IEET
Episode 150 - Enhanced! - our first episode with John
Episode 163 - Sex Machina! - our second episode with John
Episode 153 - Basic Benjamins!$!, our episode with guest Scott Santens, on Universal Basic Income
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #237. On the show we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in about thirty minutes or less, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: Greetings cyborgs, robots, and natural humans. I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And joining us again on this episode is John Danaher. John, thanks for joining us.
John Danaher: Yeah, my pleasure to be back again.
MJ: So I guess to start, since the last time we talked to you, which was I want to say about #163…
JD: It was a long time ago, anyway.
MB: Yeah. [laughs]
JD: I think it might’ve been March or something. I can’t remember, to be perfectly honest. But it was around the time that the movie Ex Machina came out, if that’s any indication.
MJ: Yeah, I think for us that would’ve been May.
JD: Oh, was that May? Okay.
MJ: May/June. So, I guess, what have you been up to since the May/June timeframe?
JD: Yeah, well, I mean unfortunately my life follows a fairly predictable routine, so I’m working as an academic, I had summer vacation where I worked mainly on research-related projects to do with technology and philosophy of technology. And I’m back teaching since September, just had my Christmas vacation and coming back now to work again in the new college semester.
MJ: Anything big coming for 2016 that you know about already, or just pretty much more of the same?
JD: Pretty much more of the same. I’m involved in a project now on what I’m calling “Algocracy and the Transhumanist Project,” which will dominate most of my time in the 2016 calendar year. So I’m looking at ways in which automated systems are taking over public decision-making processes and also the ways in which humans are being increasingly integrated into, or fused into, technological systems through various enhancement methods, and the implications this has for the system of values in the human society.
MJ: Sounds like there’ll be a lot of meat there for us, at some point, to talk about with you there, hopefully. [laughs]
JD: Yeah, well I’m hoping to have—there’s a big conference that I’m trying to organize as part of this for late summer/early fall. I’m saying “fall,” I don’t know why, because I’m on an American podcast, but I would say autumn in my neck of the woods.
MJ: [laughs] Okay, well, definitely keep us posted and, you know, maybe we can help you get the word out or something like that, I guess.
JD: Sounds good. Maybe check in after the project so I’ll see if I’ve reached any interesting conclusions.
MJ: Well, and for our conversation today, we had kind of communicated with you in advance. We talked before with you about the idea of technological unemployment and, you know, the impact of automation on just the number of jobs… I know you’ve done some interesting work around that topic. I thought we would dig in a little bit more on maybe just accepting that, if that idea did come to pass, what a world without work would look like, and I know you’ve done some interesting work there. Do you have sort of a high-level view that you give to people when they ask you what that world would look like yet, or are you still kind of in the process of defining, you know, what that world would look like to you?
JD: I think at the moment I’m still in the process of defining what it would look like, partly because I think that the whole concept of work is very tricky. I’ve written about this a fair bit and I find that it leads to lots of misunderstandings immediately when you start talking about a world without work because people have very different conceptions of what work is and what a world without that thing would look like. So I’m trying to clarify the conceptual basis of this entire debate at the moment. But I do look a little bit into what a world without work might look like once we’ve clarified the terminology.
MJ: What are some of the big stumbling blocks that people have around the idea of work?
JD: Yeah, so I guess the biggest problem of all is that when I write about something that says, “Let’s imagine a world without work,” I’m using that term “work” within the concept of the debate about technological unemployment and that prospect of machines taking over many human jobs. Whereas other people use the concept of work to describe anything that we do that is difficult in some way, or that burdens them in some way. So some people view work as anything that’s unpleasant—or people have different views of work; sometimes work can be pleasant, as well. So that definition that a lot of people use would, in my estimation, be a classic example of an over-inclusive definition. So in philosophy, people draw distinctions between over and under-inclusive definitions all the time. Just to give an example, I always use this example: Bertrand Russell, the famous British philosopher in the early part of the 20th century, he wrote a short article called “In Praise of Idleness,” which was largely a contribution to this debate about what a world without work would look like—and he was writing this back in the ‘20s, so that gives you an indication of how long the conversation about this idea has been going on. But anyway, within that paper he defined work—and I’m kind of paraphrasing here—as being of two kinds: one that was moving matter relative to the Earth’s surface, and the other one was directing people to move matter relative to the Earth’s surface, and said that the former was always unpleasant and poorly paid, and the latter was pleasant and well-paid, and was incapable of different extensions of not just that you give orders to people about moving matter, you also consult or give directions to people who are giving directions to others to move matter. To me, this is an over-inclusive definition because he’s defining work—actually, he’s defining it in the sense in which work is used in physical sciences, as any kind of movement of an object, and I think it would be misleading, in a conversation about a world without work would look like, to focus on that kind of over-inclusive of work, because then really we will never have a work without work in that sense, I imagine. We will always be doing things. It’s more a question of what will we be doing, and what will we be doing them for? So in my view, the word “work” should be defined largely in economic terms as the performance of any kind of activity or skill for some sort of extrinsic economic reward, or else the performance of the skill in the hope of receiving some kind of economic reward.
MJ: Do you think this is an area where maybe science fiction has, to date, really not done so much in portraying what a world like that would look like? Or can you think of maybe any good examples in science fiction? The one that always comes up when Matt and I talk technological unemployment is kind of Star Trek. But even within Star Trek, the have work, I guess. It sounds like that might slightly fit into a little bit what you’re talking about.
JD: Yeah so, in Star Trek, as I recall, they have a world which clearly does have work structures, or what we would consider to be work structures. The Federation is a hierarchical organization with promotion prospects, some things like that, for people within it. I guess the view is that they’re rewarded on merit, they’re contributing to some larger project and they’re not doing so for economic reward, they’ve sort of removed money, as far as I recall, from the Federation. And that’s why other species like the Ferengi are kind of looked down upon because they’re these kind of grubby capitalists who are still concerned with money and making profit. But as other people have pointed out, Star Trek’s vision of this may not be entirely coherent and consistent. It may not be possible to have a world without money or economic reward as they are imagining it, and there are ways in which they rely upon economic reward as well. So if you look at the series Voyager, they were always trading things with planets to try and make their way through the Delta Quadrant or wherever they were, I can’t remember.
MJ: [laughs] Yeah, it’s always seemed to me that Star Trek was a little bit mushy-headed around that whole concept of, you know, having gotten rid of work, and just the way they thought that out. I’ve run across some descriptions of a little bit different economic systems in science fiction. The one that always springs to mind to me is Cory Doctorow’s kind of Whuffie system that he uses in I think it’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. But it’s basically like social points that you get through social networking and doing things for people, and that’s treated like currency. Do you think that those kinds of ideas and systems are something that that world without work might actually have or might actually seriously develop?
JD: Yeah, I haven’t read Cory Doctorow’s work, but as I understand it he has a, as you described it, a reputation-based economy and all about point-scoring. I think that’s a possible vision of the future of a world without work. There are some other examples as well that I’ve come across in science fiction, maybe not on currency per se, but some of Asimov's novels, like robot novels, do imagine worlds that are kind of entirely automated and huge teams of robot assistants performing most of our tasks. And I guess maybe one extreme example of a world without work might be the vision of the future depicted in the movie WALL-E, where you have what I think Tim Wu described as a “Sofalarity,” where humans are reduced to these kind of large, obese, passive objects sitting on these motorized chairs, being supplied with food and entertainment as much as they can take. And again, all work is performed by robot assistants in that world as well. So yeah, those are visions of a world without work within science fiction.
MJ: Well, and WALL-E would seem to present kind of an interesting case that it has deviated from—it seem like it has a pretty coherent moral message, I guess, that society, by drifting that way, has kind of gone off course. Is that something that you find within the field, of just looking at this, is a consistent criticism maybe of a world without work?
JD: Yeah, I think one concern that people would have about a world without work is that it would reduce us to this kind of state of these passive slug-like beings who are just being fed stimulation that keeps them sated and happy, but not really doing anything of consequence or value. I think that’s part of the message within WALL-E, and that’s a concern that people have about technological unemployment, that maybe it will reduce us to a similar state. There’s a paper actually that was recently published on this by an Italian-based academic, whose name I will probably butcher but I’ll give it a shot, I think it’s Michele Loi, and he wrote a paper called “Technological Unemployment and Human Disenhancement.” So he was linking the debate about technological unemployment to the debate about human enhancement, which is something I’m very interested in doing as well, and he argued that technological unemployment could lead to a state of human disenhancement because… There’s a few reasons for this and it’s a slightly complicated argument, but the concept of disenhancement—there are two senses in which the word “enhancement” is used in the debate, enhancement could either be adding to or improving human capacities relative to some kind of species-level norm for a capacity. So let’s say there’s a species-level norm within the human species for intelligence—enhancing a human being involves moving them beyond that species-level norm. And then there’s another sense of enhancement which is sometimes used and referred to, which is the welfarist sense of enhancement, which is not defined relative to a species-level norm, it’s defined relative to what would make that individual life better or worse. And he argues that automation and technological unemployment could lead to human disenhancement in both senses, but primarily in a welfarist sense. And that’s true even if you think that robots won’t take over every form of work, even if they just take over some forms of work, because one thing that’s very clear is that automation is changing the nature of work. Even if it doesn’t lead to the long-term structural unemployment that people like Martin Ford or Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue for, it’s leading to the polarization of labor into two kind of main forms of work: this highly skilled abstract work and then there’s kind of lowly manual work. And more people might even be pushed into this manual work bracket, and this is disenhancing in a number of ways because they’re not developing their cognitive faculties and they’re not engaging in rewarding work, and it’s also often very badly paid work with bad conditions of employment. So there could be this disenhancing effect of automation, which is sort of what is being depicted as well in that movie, WALL-E.
MJ: Would you say that—and Matt and I have talked specifically about truck drivers, the idea that truck drivers, if they get replaced with robotics and automation, you’re not suddenly going to make a truck driver into, you know, for example, a Java programmer. Do you think that kind of inequality debate is almost linked to the whole conversation around technological unemployment because of maybe peoples’ differing potentials?
JD: Yeah, so the polarization effect is also clearly linked to an income inequality effect as well, because the manual forms of labor tend to have relatively low barriers to entry into those kinds of jobs, so they tend to be flooded with workers, so there’s more workers competing for fewer jobs. So, it’s possible to kind of reduce the pay and reduce the quality of employment in those industries. And it’s also relatively easy to train workers in those domains as well, compared to the more abstract high-end work where it’s difficult to do so. And, you know, the example of the truck driver—again, part of the whole narrative about technological unemployment is this notion that technological change is becoming faster and more exponential, more rapid, so that timeframe for retraining workers or re-skilling them is becoming ever narrower because the technology is leaping to the next curve more quickly than it used to. And that could be true actually not just for the example of the truck driver, it could be true for other, more highly skilled forms of labor in the future as well. So, we might all be in the same predicament as the truck driver in the future.
MJ: Yeah, I think one of Martin Ford’s big examples that I know he used in the newer book, Rise of the Robots, was the technicians that read x-rays. I think that the machine learning systems have already pretty well caught up and surpassed humans in that regard.
JD: Yeah, I’m not familiar with that particular example, but I know similar examples that are true in other industries. The phenomenon of machine learning, it seems to be the case that it’s producing greater gains than people would have anticipated five years ago. So yeah, the prospect of that happening more and more seems likely.
MJ: So when you kind of survey all these different issues that we’ve touched on so far about the “world without work” potential future, do you think that suggests some changes to how we run things, like, for example, education? I mean the thing that I always think of, and I think Matt and I have talked about this a little bit before, is the schools, they seem to be getting rid of things like art and music programs, or even the vocational arts that are a little bit more hands-on and kind of give people some more practical bedrock skills potentially—even if all of a sudden there’s a robot plumber, for example, understanding things about plumbing may suit some higher level job at some point compared to potentially some of the things that they’ve stressed on, for example here in the US, passing the Common Core test. Do you think in general all these things point at some prescriptive actions that we, as a society, could take?
JD: Yeah, but I’m not sure anyone knows exactly what action we should take. And I guess this also links into this question which I’m interested in when we think about a world without work, is we need to think more deeply about what is it that makes for a meaningful and flourishing human existence, and what kinds of things would make that possible? So again, it could be that types of manual labor or skilled manual labor are very valuable to some people and are a tremendous source of satisfaction and meaning for them, and types of abstract labor which are prioritized in the higher education system aren’t very good for some individuals and, in fact, might be more easily replaced as well in the future by technology. So I don’t have any really strong views on what the education system should look like even though I work in education, which is probably an indictment of my complacency of this issue, and it’s something that I’m trying to think about more seriously. But, you know, I’m incentivized not to think about it too closely as well because I’m protected by the current system. But I don’t have any prescription for what it should look like, but clearly there are ways in which what’s being prioritized at the moment will not be beneficial in the future.
MJ: So I know you’ve written a lot about universal basic income—I think that seems to be, for all the people that are writing about technological unemployment, that seems to come up again and again. I know there’s a number of interesting experiments going on in the world now as far as actually testing these out. What’s your take on the idea of a universal basic income?
JD: The idea of basic income and its interesting potential goes back to this concept of work that we started with. So, I was defining work as the performance of a skill for some sort of economic reward, and we do that because we need economic rewards to survive in society, and to make our way, and to actually engage in flourishing types of activity. The basic income offers up the potential for delinking work and income and economic reward. So people will be supplied with some kind of economic reward, some income irrespective of what they do, and this might have a tremendous potential for freedom and self-determination for individuals if it frees them up to do what they are best suited to do and gives them that kind of time and scope to pursue what is most valuable to them. So there’s a lot of potential within this idea of the universal basic income for realizing a better type of post-work world, or world without work. And I think, as well, the speed with which the idea of the basic income has been taken up by political parties certainly in Europe—I’m not sure the status in North America—but in Europe for sure a number of political parties have taken this up in the past 12 months even, surprisingly quickly. And there are, as you mentioned, a number of European countries that are going to be experimenting with the idea, or possibly introducing, a basic income within the next couple of years. There’s a number of Dutch cities that are going to experiment with it next year; there’s a proposal to experiment with it in Germany; the Finnish government have included it as part of their platform, they might be voting on this I think in 2017; Switzerland is having a referendum on it I think this year, 2016; and in my home country, Ireland, I just noticed that one of the political parties who had previously rejected the idea of a basic income about a decade ago have now included it as part of their election manifesto for the upcoming general election in Ireland.
MJ: I think in North America, I think it’s got a little more traction I think in Canada than the States. I know when we talked with Scott Santens, who’s big in the basic income community from Reddit, he mentioned that Alaska—
JD: Alaska has a basic income, that’s true.
MJ: Yeah, they already have one, so. I don’t know what’s going on at the state level in the US, I haven’t really read anything—
JD: I think the idea, from what I’ve seen, has taken off in popular culture, or cultural debates, in the US, and Scott Santens is a good example of this as well, he’s been doing a lot of good work in promoting the idea. But I’m not sure how much traction it has with the main political parties.
MJ: Yeah, it seems like one of those things that is mentioned a lot if you’re in the right circles, but I haven’t really—to be honest, I don’t know, Matt, if you’ve seen anything different, but I haven’t seen any mention of it really in sort of mainstream politics yet.
MB: No, even with the debates raging right now, both parties running for president, I haven’t heard a single mention of it.
JD: The only thing I can remember now myself that is sort of related to our debate is Marco Rubio’s comment about the need for more welders and fewer philosophers. Sorry, that was something that came across my internet browsing at some point in time.
MJ: [laughs] Well, I think that is somewhat an argument about the return of some of the vocational classes and things.
JD: I will add that philosophers are very quick to point out that philosophy graduates still earn, on average, more than welders.
MB: Yeah, well, only if you can get a job at a university. But if you’re doing a philosophy major, you’re putting out some serious money to get that degree, whereas being a welder takes a few months at a vocational school that doesn’t usually cost all that much, so you’re kind of starting out ahead of the game.
JD: Yeah, I mean, I won’t get into the particulars of it, but it doesn’t matter even if you get a job in academia, philosophy graduates still, on average, earn more even if they’re not working in academia. But anyway, it doesn’t matter. And also, there are some examples of very well-paid welders and then there are a lot of badly paid welders. There have been a few articles about this in the aftermath of that count.
MJ: In kind of thinking about the universal basic income concept myself, it seems to make sense that if someone isn’t desperate for food, that they’re in a little bit more even position with a potential employer when they’re having negotiations as far as coming on. It seems like the employer has an awful lot of leverage, potentially. I just know for myself when I’ve interviewed at places, when I need a job, I’m a lot more receptive to almost anything they’ll offer, pretty much, than when I’ve already got something and when I’m considering to move. It seems like that would level-set that, kind of, for everyone as one of the—potential, anyway—advantages of a universal basic income.
JD: Yeah, I mean certainly within economic bargaining theory that would seem to be obviously true, that the strength of your bargaining position is at least partly determined by what your best alternative is to the job that you’re being offered that you’re bargaining over. So if you have no alternative source of income, you will be much more likely to concede to whatever their demands happen to be. Whereas if you do have an alternative source of income, then your bargaining position is strengthened. That seems obviously true. And also, with the limited experiments that have been done in the past on the concept of a basic income, it does seem to be the case that people use their income to engage in forms of training or self-improvement that they can use to secure better jobs, or to start their own business and things like that. So, if people are interested, there’s a whole charity actually dedicated to a type of basic income, which is called GiveDirectly, which is just direct cash transfers to people in the developing world. They’ve done some studies on how people use that income, and it seems clear that they use it to invest in themselves and the future to secure better employment opportunities. But one interesting thing here to bear in mind is that seems like a very positive result for a basic income guarantee, but it takes place in the context of a world in which working is still a necessity or is part of kind of the background conditions for individuals. They still seek paid employment, and I guess a truly post work world, or a world without work, wouldn’t have any of that. So, what the effects of a basic income are in a truly post work world are unclear.
MJ: Yeah. It almost seems like that’s its own version of a singularity, where it’s hard to see sort of over that horizon.
JD: Yeah, because the world in which we live is one that is very clearly conditioned on the need for a job or a need for work. So yeah, it’s hard to see, it’s hard to set up an experiment where you can test to see what it would be like. I guess we won’t know, until we’re actually there, what it’s like.
MJ: Yeah. I know you’ve written a bit about the attitudes around work. Do you see any real major hurdles on thinking through these issues in the attitudes that people kind of already bring to what work is and how they look at idleness and things like that?
JD: Yeah, so there is a very longstanding tradition, certainly in the political left, of critiquing work and the culture of the work ethic. So, the work ethic is clearly something that is valorized and celebrated in most societies—certainly most societies that I’m familiar with. Work is a source of social status, it’s a source of self-determination, self-actualization; it’s something that makes people feel good, it gives them access to forms of mastery and excellence that they might not otherwise have in their lives, and you set up a political, economic, and educational system that very much values working—and by working, I mean, again, working for an income. But there is a kind of proud and longstanding tradition in the political left that critiques this work ethic, that work is actually a lot worse than we think it is. I mean, I could go into some of the arguments there but it’d probably take a good bit of time to flesh them out. But they are usually have two main forms. One is just pointing out lots of bad features of work, that there are various forms of physical or mental illnesses that are associated with different forms of work, and there are different negative outcomes associated with work, like harassment or bullying and those sorts of things. And then there’s also a set of arguments that usually focus on the compulsory nature of work in modern economies, that even though working can be a source of goods for you, a source of autonomy and mastery and excellence and so forth, it’s also clearly something that you have to do in order to survive. Even if you have access to welfare payments, most welfare payments, unless we transition to a basic income guarantee, are contingent upon one’s willingness or one’s ability to work. So, we exist in this culture of valuing the work ethic and we ignore the bad features of work as a result—the ways in which it compromises our freedom and power for self-determination. That’s a view that’s common among certain segments of the political left, and it’s something that’s re-emerging recently, again, partly in response to technological unemployment, and so there are a number of writers who are encouraging us to, again, look at the possibility of embracing this anti-work critique and transitioning to a truly post-work economy.
MJ: Yeah. Well, I saw something recently about how, particularly in the US, most Americans are like one paycheck away from financial disaster, and the local news here in Chicago recently did something where they were interviewing people who are homeless, and they kind of showed what had happened to them and then the impact that it had on them to be homeless. There was some pretty brutal stuff that they talked about, I guess.
JD: Yeah, like what’s been noticed in the past 30 years even, since post-1980, has been the rise of what academics tend to call “precarity,” which roughly means just precarious forms of work, that people are less financially secure now—millennials are less financially secure than the baby boomers or the mid-20th century people. Because there was a golden era post-war up until that 1980 when we had a sufficient amount of economic growth to correct for any effects of income or capital inequality, but since 1980 that trend has been reversed. We’ve seen it at rise; computerization and automation in the workplace, which seems to be pushing people into the more precarious manual forms of work; there’s a polarization effect in the workplace. So, it’s leading perhaps to more existential angst amongst the younger generation. Work is probably, yeah, a greater source of anxiety than it used to be, and financial security is a greater source of anxiety than it used to be. And again, these are all part, maybe, of the argument for the basic income guarantee. My blog is PhilosophicalDisquisitions.blogspot.com, and if you go there, there’s a “Best Of” tab, and underneath that “Best Of,” there’s a series of posts called “Technological Unemployment and the Value of Work,” in which I explore many of these ideas in much greater depth. So, some listeners might be interested in that.
MJ: And we will put that in the show notes specifically. We always do put your blog in the notes, but we will specifically call out that section.
JD: Thank you very much.
MJ: Okay, well, John, thanks so much for joining us today.
JD: Yeah, it was nice talking to you again. Let’s do it again sometime.
MJ: Yeah, we will be in touch—and definitely interested to hear more about the algorithm stuff. [laughs]
JD: Yeah, that should be good. Happy to talk about it whenever you want.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. Are you interested in the future and how society is changing? We’d love to have you join our community. Visit our website to learn more and to connect with others that share that interest. You can find us at RobotOverlordz.FM. The site includes all of the show’s old episodes along with complete transcripts, links to more information about the topics and guests in each episode, and our mailing list and forums. We’d also love to hear what you think about the show. You can review us on iTunes or email us.
A: We hope to see you again in the future…
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.