Robots alone might not save us, but they can help

A sci-fi film response:

Our hero wakes. Using her 3D food printer she prints out a full English breakfast, eating it in the front room of her flat – part of the great house-building of the 2020s. Pouring recycled water into the solar-power kettle our hero relaxes back and muses while her cuppa boils. A basic income and housing revolution, combined with technological innovation has enabled any individual to live outside of the capitalist system. Yet, many people were still trapped in a cycle of working to maintain their consumer status. It was time for a revolution. In space. With lasers.

[I have pretensions to being a sci-fi fan, so apologies for any slightly less than academic references that slip in…]

Simon Duffy argues in this blog post that the automation of jobs is not a compelling reason for a basic income. Capitalists will always find a way to make a profit. However, I argue below that technology makes the transition to a basic income more likely. It does this through providing greater choice over how we spend our time and providing us with a greater ability to meet our own needs.

Technology has been largely responsible for a halving of the average working week since the inception of the industrial revolution. Greater productivity and an abundance of resources has led to people having more time outside paid work than any time since the 1520s. Leisure time is important because it gives us time to seek roles and meaning outside of paid labour. There has been a paradigmatic shift from work being the central pillar of individual, family and community life, to work being almost peripheral to the lives of many. This is not to ignore people who either have to, or want to, do more paid work to get by, or those who devote their lives to a profession or career. Averages never tell the whole tale. However, technology has removed for many the demands of work that dominates every waking hour. This change has made the step to living an independent life on a basic income more accessible for the average person.

So technology has given us more choice over what we do with our time.

Technology has also devolved power. What previously would have taken teams of people to accomplish can now be done by just a few. Monopolies on information have been thoroughly disrupted, those on energy generation and manufacturing teetering, with others in the sights of innovators. People are producing and distributing their own media, producing their own energy, and manufacturing in their backyards. This is not to say that technology could replace a basic income, but it could significantly reduce the amount of income needed to become self-sufficient. Currently, the shortage of housing is a critical cause of poverty and inequality. Technology could not solve the problem, but should the right policies be implemented, technology could magnify and democratise the impact.

So technology offers the chance for individuals, households and communities to become producers as well as consumers.

If technology could help pave the transition to a basic income, what of the argument that it would make a basic income a necessity? As Elon Musk has recently found to his cost, automation is great for repetitive jobs but is less great for jobs that need flexibility. Human beings are marvellously adaptable and remarkably low maintenance compared to machines. For any employer, such a resource is great to have around. Human labour hasn’t been made obsolete yet, and employers will still have to pay up or create work that people want to do regardless of pay. Yet, the endpoint of this process is arguably far more interesting than simply being “robots will take our jobs”.

Self-replicating autonomous robots that could construct themselves out of waste might be thought of as a slave army for the new industrialists. Labour costs would be near zero. Simon suggests this might lead to a dystopia, perhaps where most humans are scraping a living as the new industrialists move to an orbiting space station (as in the plot in the 2013 film Elysium).

However, technology does not just give us time but also power. The cost of a self-replicating autonomous robot would be near zero, and so something available for every household. Every household becomes a factory that can produce white goods from blueprints and waste, reuse and recycle and create what is needed. Before the industrial revolution, many households were largely self-sufficient. If we approach this situation again, capitalism itself may teeter on obsolescence as we enter a post-scarcity world (like a story from author Iain M. Banks’ ‘The Culture’ series). A basic income in such a world would simply be a way of ensuring exchange with others could continue when there was no need to be in paid work.

Prior to this utopia, we are witnessing the downsides to technological revolutions, largely driven by the wish to gain status through consumption, wealth or power. In our current revolution, humans have to fit in with technology-driven systems. Workers are monitored and evaluated by automated overseers. People are required to do emotion work to emulate unflappable automata. The globe has shrunk such that local power and relationships have been disrupted, whilst globalised capital has promoted its own interests.

Technology does not mean emancipation. The 50s housewife, freed from one set of chores by labour-saving devices, was engaged in other chores in an arms race of what it meant to be a good housewife. A person working 80 hours a week, freed from the basic need to do paid work, may still work long-hours to fund extravagant consumption. The challenges of consumerism, climate change, pollution, inequality, and conflict are political ones, not technological ones. They are a long series of choices that we must make as individuals, households, and societies. However, technology is giving many people choices where they did not previously exist.

The last time the average working week was 32 hours was in the 1520s, when many households could be self-reliant, at least when the crops didn’t fail. The freedoms we have now are extraordinary compared to then. The power to make choices is itself revolutionary. We can look towards the 2020s with an optimistic eye on what technology has enabled. Robots and technology won’t save us, but they are making the step to a basic income more feasible.