Robo-Marxism Grand Luxe

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.

Comments (18)

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  1. Graeme McCormick says:

    As we live longer with fewer job prospects the time is ripe to introduce a model of Annual Ground Rent which makes land available for folk to acquire small parcels to keep them occupied.

  2. baronesssamedi says:

    Or everyone becomes an artist…

    1. MBC says:

      Unfortunately they are making computers now that can produce art.

  3. Alf Baird says:

    “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.”

    Can we/should we entrust the public sector as it is to run anything well, even the proverbial in a brewery? The list of public sector financial disasters Joe/Jo Public ends up paying for is endless – e.g. Holyrood, trams, ferries, PFI schools, PFI hospitals, PFI anything (e.g. current ferry financing), and then there is Westminster…….defence/wars, NHS, foreign affairs, energy markets, treasury, etc etc etc

    Maybe this endemic continuing institutionalised incompetence has something to do with the ‘training’ and ‘culture’ of the senior UK ‘Home’ civil servant and ruling class more generally? Could we perhaps ‘train’ more savvy street-wise folk to ‘run’ things? Maybe having a first class degree from an ‘elite'(sic) university should be an automatic disqualification – such is the carnage these people leave in their highly pensionable and usually state-honoured wake.

    1. Colin says:

      I kind of agree with Alf. The thought that we could somehow nationalise future AI development is a bit silly. The so-called ‘march of the machines’ started pretty much around the time when the first living organism popped into being. Just imagine how many tens (100’s?) of thousands of people who never got into finance/accountancy/administration etc because of the humble Excel spreadsheet. This has been coming for a long time and has had nothing to do with AI up until now.

      I am hopeful there will always be open sourcers and guys like Tim Berners-Lee who want to develop AI for the benefit of the masses in a not-for-profit model.

    2. Er, PFI are public sector financial disasters?

      1. Alf Baird says:

        The ‘public sector’ propose, prepare and signed up to PFI deals (via our ‘elite’ civil servants/officials, deals rubber stamped by Ministers etc). The public pay/are paying for these deals, through the nose. Hence “public sector financial disasters”.

        e.g. why buy a ferry for £7m (Pentland Ferries) when you can ‘procure’ one that does the very same job for £28m (NorthLink/Serco)? And why re-pay £9m for the former/more competitive ferry using 90% borrowings over 8 years when you can re-pay £50m for the other ‘state’ procured one over 18 years? As I recall the financial engineers behind NorthLink had ‘previous’ in the PFI hospital/schools world, hence the deals are all similarly bad. The politicians have not got a clue. ‘Elite’ civil servants do though, like those who end up chairing airports owned by offshore private equity ‘financial engineers’.

    3. Willie says:

      Agree with much of what you say Alf but at the end of the day democracy is a thing that most Scots don’t really care about. If they did, we wouldn’t be in this mess. We obviously have not had our faces rubbed in the gutter enough. The choice is ours.

  4. Ted says:

    Bring back memories of catching glimpses of headlines in newspapers during the Sixties. As a primary five reading how everyone would have more “leisure time”, as jet packs and cities in the sky would be our gleaming future. F**k, I’m really depressed how the reality turned out!.

    1. John Page says:

      Indeed. Coincidently, I reread B Russell’s 1930s In Praise of Idleness this week. How could we have screwed things up so much?
      I suppose we can take comfort from T May’s leadership in Westminster in the testing times ahead.
      John Page

      1. Frank says:

        Try reading E F Schumacher’s “Technology and political change” to see why things go wrong. It is an essay but I think you will find it in one of his books.

    2. MBC says:

      Do you remember ‘the peaceful power of the atom’ and how we were to be getting free energy? That didn’t work out either, did it.

  5. w.b.robertson says:

    the workers were persuaded 50 years ago that there was nothing to fear, that their future was rosy…shorter hours, longer holidays, more leisure time, job sharing to give everyone an interest, early retiral, secure pensions, etc. New technology was termed “progress”. Employees and their trade union leaders who fought against selling jobs were labelled “backward”. When Scargill and the miners made their last stand and were defeated that was the signal for open season on jobs by the modernisers. It is now clear that the whole exercise has proved to be a successful con by the capitalist system and the so called academic experts.

  6. nick says:

    the capitalist dystopia/utopia has one flaw – if we are all replaced by robots, who’s gonna buy all the goods?

  7. Vronsky says:

    Jellyfish backgammon is a good AI application – and free. That aside, I had a friend who worked in Artificial Intelligence, with many patents to his name. He said he and his colleagues called it Artificial Stupidity.

  8. Matt Seattle says:

    Computational power is two quantum leaps away from intelligence:
    Information requires a quantum leap to be transmuted into knowledge
    Knowledge requires a quantum leap to to be transmuted into understanding

    Want to see what artificial intelligence looks like? Find the nearest mirror.

  9. John S Warren says:

    At the risk of appearing both irrelevant and pedantic, the distinction between the ideas of Lamarck and Darwin is not perhaps quite as clear-cut as suggested in the article (or as clear as the Darwin Industry wishes it to be); at least if we take into account what Darwin (somewhat ambiguously) actually wrote across his extensive published and unpublished work.

  10. Steve Arnott says:

    An important article whose ‘draw-in flippancy’ does somewhat disguise the urgency of the matters it seeks to get its public to debate.

    Far greater automation, AI use and development and greater use of independent or semi-independent robotics is coming. As are massive developments in biogenetic technology. But let’s stick to automation for now.

    In Marxist terms, such a qualitatively different level of automation means a qualitatively different level of profits for individual capitalists, for a period, but, in the longer term and for capitalism as a system it means an existential crisis; this is because the rate of compound capital increases at an almost geometric rate to living capital or labour, creating an increasing tendency for the average rate of profit to fall. (see Marx: Capital, or Mason: Postcapitalism)

    This means the author of this article is right: we either face a dystopian, dehumanised future as cogs of a capitalist machine constantly trying to overcome its own crisis or we take hold of the new technologies through a mixof public, common, municipal and community ownership, and open sourcing. and build the kind of society outlined by Iain M. Banks in his Culture novels, or indeed, by Engels as his highest stage of communism; communist superabundance, described in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific about 130 years ago.

    Fully Automated Luxury Communism? Count me in!

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