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Left to Our Own Devices: Futurist Predicts Full Unemployment


Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
James Dator is Professor Emeritus of the Hawai‘i Research Center for Futures Studies, Department of Political Science, UH Manoa. We met January 28th, 2016 at Kapi'olani Community College to discuss a future in which, due to automation, only about five to ten percent of the population actually needs to be employed.

Most people assume that robots, artificial intelligence and technology will play major roles in our future, but have you really thought about their implications for society?  Futurist James Dator contends we are already half way into changes that may make working for a living obsolete.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports.  

UH M?noa Professor Emeritus James Dator is a futurist, he studies history, culture, and theories of social structure and change to envision possible scenarios.  Dator says now, technological developments have us moving toward full unemployment, a job-free future where robots labor and humans, probably a lot fewer of us, are left to our own devices.  Could that be a good thing?  Find below for the transcript of a recent address given by Dr. Dator at the National Library of Morocco.

Creative Commons
Credit Creative Commons
This 2005 robot named Actroid-DER was developed by KOKORO Inc for customer service and responds to commands in Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and English. Robots today are increasingly responsive, with ever more complex logical systems. Dr. Dator contends using human judges for decisions prior to the Supreme Court level is a waste of energy.

Check this article about universal basic income and a Canadian example in the New Yorker .

Here's an article about the pros and cons about robots and jobs in the Washington Post.

There's an experiment underway involving free cash in Finland  in this article in the New York Times.

James Dator is professor emeritus of the Hawai‘i Research Center for Futures Studies.  Dr. Dator specializes in how technology changes behavior, values, and therefore, society. 

He’s been talking about full unemployment for several decades and says societies must embrace technology’s ability to do nearly all human work.  Dator points to the Brexit vote, and November’s elections in the U.S. as examples of complete disillusionment with the existing economic system.    

“One of the things they’re dissatisfied about is, no jobs.  The impossibility of having a comfortable middle class life anywhere, and they’re willing to do anything to have some hope that somebody will bring jobs back but jobs are not coming back.”

Dr. Dator says, as far as stimulating job growth in America, privatization and other factors could affect expected benefits from infrastructure investments promised by the Trump administration. 

“And therefore, I’m highly skeptical about how that will go, but I may be wrong, I hope I’m wrong.  (Infrastructure investments) I think are good if it will give people jobs, but it’s just a short run solution.  We are not going to need many people to do the kind of work that infrastructure repair or manufacturing require.  That’s why we have problems now.  We have automated those jobs. The focus is outsourcing them to India and elsewhere but the reality is even in India and everywhere else, those jobs are being automated.  It’s as much a threat in the so-called developing nations as it is here.   It simply makes economic sense, given the way our economy is currently organized, to not have people work.  That’s the main expense.” 

Dator says labor costs are often the greatest expense, so businesses will save money using automation.

Creative Commons
Credit Creative Commons
Once humans are freed from economic necessity, will innovation and aspiration wither? Check the linked articles for explorations on that.

 Cutting labor, however, causes social pain and may mean your consumers are left with no money.

“That’s why we need to understand that the goal of our economy must be full unemployment.  We have to recognize that we have cut, already, the relationship between work and access to goods and services.  And so just because there are no jobs should not mean you have no access to goods and services produced without much labor.  So in a sense we are headed towards where the way humans used to live for tens for thousands of years in hunting and gathering societies.” 

Experiments in a basic living income have been done in the past, and Dator points out, one is underway now in Finland.  He calls these steps in the right direction.  Unhinging activity from livelihood and self-worth in the ways we've been used to, could be a challenge, but 

Dator says in the 60’s and 70’s when automation began to displace workers, credit cards became a way to stay in the system without having money. 

“Credit cards are a perfect example of what happens when you can’t possibly work enough to earn money to get things.  So they give you credit cards.  They want me to keep taking all the crap that is being produced that they can’t possibly sell simply on the basis of people’s incomes.  And so the credit card the fact that most people are maxed out their credit cards and have repeatedly gone into bankruptcy to get rid of it indicates that there is nothing about the current system that operates the way the myth of work and access to services is.  The credit card really is the thing that shows the financial system has no clothes.  And is based upon the fact that we have gigantic overproduction and no way for employed people much less unemployed people to get all the stuff that’s being produced without their labor.”

“We are moving towards full unemployment.  The question is whether it will be purposefully based on policy and understanding based upon people wanting to move in that direction, buffering people who suffer as a consequence of the change.  Or whether it will be the way it is now, by just throwing people out of work, by stealing their pensions in spite of the fact that they’ve fulfilled their part of the bargain all their life, and having this massive worldwide rejection of the economic system because it’s so grotesquely unfair.  There are still going to be many more manifestations of fed-upness with the current economic system which could or could not end up very pretty.  So if we don’t make conscious changes, it’s going to be a very bloody transition unfortunately.”

Dator says maybe 10% of the population would do certain human only jobs but others could pursue athletics, arts, video games.  Others have postulated about a universal basic income, for example, that would be something like expanding welfare to cover everyone’s expenses.  The buraucracy that dispenses and monitors welfare would be unnecessary because livelihood would be guaranteed.  Key is accepting no connection between income and work, and not viewing the unemployed negatively.

“It’s not their fault that they don’t have jobs.  This idea of going to school and training for a job, that job is not going to exist, or is not going to exist very long.”

Dr. Dator maintains work, labor for pay, really only began with the agricultural revolution eight to ten thousand years ago.  

“And then most seriously with the industrial revolution several hundred years ago.  That’s when jobs became important.  And now they’re not.”

Dator noted, the labor free future he imagines is not like pre-contact Hawai'i at all.  That, he says was a tightly functioning society in order to support a fairly large population.  What Dator imagines is more like the earlier hunter-gatherer societies, believe it or not, with a much smaller global population, possibly twenty percent of the ten billion most population estimates predict.

Finland is experimenting with a generous guaranteed income, and Dator says, certainly some will buy drugs, some will invest, but overall it’s an experiment in the future. 

Dr. Dator estimates we are already half way toward a fully automated future, and the only question remaining is whether we embrace it or degenerate into it.  In the full unemployment future, Dr. Dator says one benefit could be, that with fewer economic demands on our time, we, as citizens might turn our thoughts and energies to better society.

Robots, Artificial Intelligence, and Full Unemployment

Royal Institute of Strategic Studies

National Library of Morocco

July 13, 2016

Jim Dator

Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies

Department of Political Science

University of Hawaii at Manoa

Honolulu, Hawaii

I am very honored to be part of this panel. My experiences in Morocco over the past few days have been memorable indeed. What an impressive group of people determined to create even more vibrant futures for this impressive place!

I have been asked to speak today about the futures of artificial intelligence and robotics, and how those technologies might result in a world quite unlike that of today, or of any yesterday.

I will do that.  But before I do, I need to explain that I have been devoted to futures studies for a very long time—I am said to have taught the first officially-approved university course in futures studies while I was at Virginia Tech in the late 1960s—fifty years ago. 

One of the many things I have learned over all these years is that it is not possible to “Predict” “The Future”. We can “Forecast” and evaluated four generic “Alternative Futures”, and then envision and design “Preferred Futures”.

The four generic alternative futures, always before us, are Grow, Collapse, Discipline, and Transform. Each one of these four futures has an equal chance to become the “real future”.

I will speak briefly today only about one aspect of a Transformational Future. I will discuss robotics and artificial intelligence within the context of a Transformational Future.

We presently live the way we do in part because of our natural biology and natural environment, Earth, and because of the social institutions and cultures we have created.

But increasingly we live the way we do because of the kinds of technologies we have developed and used. Technology is neither “good” nor “bad.”  But also, technology is never neutral. It is always mutative. It always changes us; changes what it means to be “human”.

As Marshall McLuhan said, “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Robotics and artificial intelligence have already changed the lives of many of us profoundly. Physical labor that once only humans, other animals, or the manipulated forces of nature—flowing water, blowing wind--could perform are now done entirely by automated technologies. 

Similarly, once upon a time, only humans could think, choose, make decisions. Increasingly we now rely on artificial intelligence to make decisions more quickly, more decisively, more fairly, more repeatedly, more patiently, and more cheerfully than humans can.

Our world now would not operate as well as it does without our reliance on artificial intelligence making decisions for us.

Baring decisions by humans to the contrary, or environmental and social collapse, we very soon will be in a world that simply does not need, and may not be able to allow, much human physical or mental labor.  It may simply be too dangerous to let selfish, lazy, error-prone humans intervene in automated routine decision-making process.

The role of humans in this future will still be important. The role of humans will be to set the basic goals and guidelines for society. But how those goals are articulated and carried out may be done entirely automatically without further human guidance.

I am not talking about some distant future. Even now, vast numbers of people live lives without purpose, in poverty, hunger, and misery because they are unemployed with no hope of meaningful employment in the future.

Also, this is not just a problem for advanced countries in Europe, North America or East Asia.  It is a challenge for all people everywhere.

This need not be.

One of the clearest lessons from developments in robotics and artificial intelligence is that our entire economic system needs to be reoriented.

At the very least, we need to realize that—if human manual and mental labor is not needed to produce all the goods and services anyone could want--then we need to have a goal of  “Full UNemployment”, and not “Full Employment” which is not possible.

Moreover, we need develop educational structures that teach humans how to live, play, and pray together peacefully, contentedly, and meaningfully without “working.”

For thousands of years, humans lived in small hunting and gathering societies, surrounded by abundant natural resources. Very little human planning or labor was needed in order for everyone to thrive.  With the invention of agriculture and then industry, humans destroyed the natural ability of nature to provide for us, and so most of us have had to learn to work harder and harder just to survive.

As a consequence, geologists tell us, that we have entered a new geological epoch. Homo Sapiens, Sapiens emerged during the Holocene Epoch about 15,000 years ago. Since then, we have so modified our environment that we live in a new Epoch called the Anthropocene.

Designing and maintaining such a world on the basis of human intelligence and attention alone may be impossible. We are not smart enough or diligent enough.

However, together with automation and artificial intelligence, we have the potential of returning to a world of material abundance that does not require human labor. If so, this will enable humans to focus our attention not on working and fighting, but on the things humans do best, which is to play and to pray.

Of course, this is only one future, and only one sliver of that future.

The same technologies that allow full UNemployment could also be put to the service of a Disciplined Society of total electronic surveillance. Not only our actions, but our thoughts could be monitored and manipulated well beyond anything possible now.  Who will be the monitors and manipulators, and for what ends?

This is not a trivial question.

Nonetheless, whether Transformational or Disciplined—or Collapse—our world of tomorrow is not likely to be much like our world of today, and so I will end by reading one of my favorite poems, expressing the hope of Transformation:

I like to think (and

the sooner the better!)

of a cybernetic meadow

where mammals and computers

live together in mutually

programming harmony

like pure water

touching clear sky.

I like to think

(right now please!)

of a cybernetic forest

filled with pines and electronics

where deer stroll peacefully

past computers

as if they were flowers

with spinning blossoms.

I like to think

(it has to be!)

of a cybernetic ecology

where we are free of our labors

and joined back to nature,

returned to our mammal

brothers and sisters,

and all watched over

by machines of loving grace.

"Machines of Loving Grace," by Richard Brautigan

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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