feature22The machines are coming for your job. Do not doubt that for a nanosecond. They’re also coming for your entire skill-set, rendering you a ponderous bio-relic of the post-agricultural, post-industrial, dia-feudal blip that we call ‘nowadays’.

Having recently read futurist entrepreneur Jerry Kaplan’s Humans Need Not Apply, I was interested to see a contrasting take on the exponential autonomous calamity/panacea in The Guardian, entitled ‘Fully automated luxury communism’.

This is going to get acronym-heavy.

According to Kaplan’s analysis, ‘synthetic intellects’ (SIs) and ‘forged laborers’ (FLs) loom largest in the imminent Grand Theft Ergo. Spawned from ‘machine learning’ algorithms self-convoluted beyond their programmers’ comprehension, SIs represent the artificial intelligence (AI) wing of the robot vanguard. Brandishing deft, whirring actuators and blinking all-surveilling ‘machine perception’ sensors advance the FLs.

Want to skim a rapid few million dollars from minute stock-market fluctuations? Deploy a synthetic intellect in the form of a high-frequency trading (HFT) program. Need a dexterous, autonomous kitchen helper that doesn’t require a taped-off perimeter ‘kill zone’? Task a forged laborer to self-assemble from a stack of interchangeable modules and get the job done pronto.

Excuse the flippancy. Like others who contemplate the impact of autonomous electronic agents, I do actually take these issues very seriously. As the study of cybernetics and feedback loops has long shown, odd things start to happen when you plug the outputs of algorithms back into their inputs (not unlike what goes on in your brain). Most of the time, you run up against a computational ‘halting problem’ or processing-power limitation. Sometimes, however, you get a kind of emergence – nothing like ‘consciousness’ (yet), but certainly unpredictable and baffling behaviour. When systems ‘autocatalyze,’ things get radical – fast. Trying to imagine ‘cyberintelligence’ is, as J. Doyne Farmer puts it, ‘like a dog trying to imagine general relativity’.

Casting the emergence net wider, we find our societies feeding back, connected intimately but haltingly, discombobulated by technology evolving and shaping humanity by Lamarckian, not Darwinian, strides. At the top of the new super-sized, self-serving food chain, mega-rich entrepreneurs like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos boast (discretely) enough personal wealth to pay off national debts. At the bottom, displaced workers flounder, often oblivious to the implacable silicon-substrate forces dispassionately bleeding them dry.

And the vast, disgraceful disparity in wealth and living standards will only worsen if humankind continues along this path without its common hands on the economic control panel. As Kaplan points out, Walmart – which still operates in the ‘bricks and mortar’ retail domain – earns annual ‘revenue per employee’ of just over $200,000, while the Internet-based behemoth Amazon is now hitting nearly one million dollars per employee. The shareholder-mediated ‘selective pressures’ on big business push relentlessly in the direction of greater automation and fewer workers. It’s super-efficient. And fabulously profitable.

And the vast, disgraceful disparity in wealth and living standards will only worsen if humankind continues along this path without its common hands on the economic control panel. As Kaplan points out, Walmart – which still operates in the ‘bricks and mortar’ retail domain – earns annual ‘revenue per employee’ of just over $200,000, while the Internet-based behemoth Amazon is now hitting nearly one million dollars per employee. The shareholder-mediated ‘selective pressures’ on big business push relentlessly in the direction of greater automation and fewer workers. It’s super-efficient. And fabulously profitable.

indexHere’s where ‘fully automated luxury communism’ (FALC) enthusiasts and ‘capitalists with conscience’ like Jerry Kaplan diverge. Both sides envision as the best outcome a Star Trek, Kim Stanley Robinson, Iain M. Banks -style sleek, luxurious, workless future for all. But whereas Kaplan and his ilk advocate a gradualist approach aided by free-market solutions like ‘job mortgages’ and highly-distributed (but still private) asset ownership, FALCers wonder why the new, automated set-up requires any capitalist input whatsoever.

And they’re right.

Inevitably, we’ll come to rely on the ministrations of the machines; right now, there’s a small window of opportunity to try to make those ministrations gentle ones. Amazon’s revenue per employee will soon reach tens of millions, all skimmed from us via the subtle arbitrage of increasingly smart algorithms. In the next phase, synthetic intellects owned by the likes of Amazon will – just like corporations – attain ‘legal personhood’. Consequently, those SIs become untouchable pinchpennys, working only for their remote masters. In the final stage of the takeover, the SIs own themselves.

Do you see it? Even before they own themselves, the ‘means of production’ (and the assets) end up owning the people.

In a nascent internation like Scotland, citizens have a one-shot opportunity to wrest the modern means of production (and self-production) – the artificially-intelligent algorithms – from profit-motive corporations, and place them in the service of the people. How would that work in practice? There are various methods, but at minimum it would make sense to bring into common ownership all fully or near-fully automated services. For example, in Brian Merchant’s Guardian article FALCer Aaron Bastani suggests that a municipal body – rather than a profit-making company like Uber – could own and run a city’s autonomous vehicle fleet.

Yes, we can municipalise and nationalise algorithms. Better still, we can legislate in favour of open-source, public-interest hardware and software across the board.

What happens to the capitalist supply-and-demand credo in a ‘post-scarcity’ world? Capitalists idolise scarcity; an ‘Age of Abundance’ wouldn’t suit them at all. Supply and demand won’t evaporate. But cheap, open-source SIs and FLs would flatten markets, broaden supply, satiate demand and shave competitive margins ever thinner. Capitalists will, of course, consider this a great infringement of their hallowed rights, and try to reign in open-source, common-ownership algorithms. According to the great philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell,

Advocates of capitalism are very apt to appeal to the sacred principles of liberty, which are embodied in one maxim: The fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate.

That restraint has never been more important, because increasingly, the agents capable of exercising capitalist tyranny will be non-human ones. And without ethical public-interest programming and deployment, they just won’t care a flipping binary bit about your welfare, meatbag.

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