Eight years went by fast! Better late than never picking back up a blog I suppose.
Since I last wrote (in addition to everyone driving home getting “Internet phones” to provide them real-time traffic data which should hypothetically lead to more efficient travel times) I’ve largely maintained most of the beliefs from my posts and developed my thinking along several lines. Today, I’m going to talk about something that’s been on my mind a lot recently: what will happen to society leading into and after the singularity?
On one hand, the definition of the singularity is that we cannot see what the world will be like beyond its horizon, because we cannot predict what the presence of one or more intelligences far superior to our own would do with the world. However, we can project some of the current aspects of our society forward to the singularity and make some educated guesses about what will happen to them after the singularity as well.
I’m going to first talk through the DMV as a case study in technological advancement, and then describe the two critical developments we need to focus on making now as a society to avoid the worst sociological effects of the singularity. Also, it should be noted that I continue to take the arrival of the singularity as a given – it’s important to prepare for it because there is no way it doesn’t happen.
I should also say this post began from an outline for a book on this topic, which would provide more examples, flesh out ideas further, and try to offer some more concrete suggestions. It also would have more citations, which I ordinarily would include in a blog post but have omitted now because of my purpose for sharing this. I’m posting this as a blog to get ideas down and see what others think of them.
Why Do We Still Have The DMV?
The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV – note that other states have different names for the same function, but DMV is most common) is the bureaucratic hell most of us have to experience every few years to replace our licenses. You go, get a number, wait, then talk to a person who does some work on the computer and prints some things out. A few weeks later, a new license arrives in the mail.
The DMV could be replaced almost entirely by a website. In fact, one day it almost certainly will be. A website could instantly field requests, handle routine activity totally automatically, and make complex decisions with little to no human involvement. A website could provide you an instant temporary license to print at home, and have a new license show up in your mail box within a few business days.
Some states have replaced portions of their DMV process with websites or call centers, but none have gone all the way (comment if you know of some!). There is indeed little effort to create all-software replacements for the current DMV process, and certainly any effort to do so would be encountered by tremendous resistance from the government and likely many other organizations. The DMV process is established and many public and private sector jobs depend on it. It would be easy for those organizations to stymie efforts to fully automate the licensing process by drudging up fear of terrorists, illegal immigrants, and reckless drunk drivers being given licenses by soulless computers.
Yet for the customers of the DMV, a totally web-based system would be a far superior experience. No lines, the ability to renew your license outside business hours or whenever is convenient for you, maybe even the ability to choose your license picture. Nonetheless, there is no real effort being made to turn the DMV experience into a website.
Why? Certainly part of the answer is that as a government organization, the DMV doesn’t really need to compete for customers. But many DMVs have private partners who do face competition, and the tendency of the government’s use of technology is to adopt it slowly rather than never. So why would there be resistance to creating software to make it easier for an organization to deliver better service to those it would serve? If people prefer a given piece of software to provide them a service instead of a human-based alternative, why is it hard to make that happen?
The answer is jobs. Putting software in charge of tasks humans currently perform eliminates the need for those humans to be employed to perform those tasks. Our current economic system is based on the premise that people acquire wealth by being employed in jobs, whether they work for others or themselves, so preservation of jobs is an important subconscious facet of almost all economic decisions. Without competition, the DMV doesn’t need to become more efficient or better satisfy its customers, so it faces no real pressure to change. Without that kind of pressure, the people within the DMV are not likely to start replacing their coworkers with software.
Using a public sector bureaucracy as an example enables us to really highlight a blatant existing inefficiency, whereas a private sector example would likely highlight a company that no longer exists. But this same broad theme is true in many areas: transportation, bartending, outdoor guiding, tailoring, piloting, accounting, investing, governing. Software could perform a great many functions for people, even better than people, and yet in many areas we see little to no application of software to truly improving them to that extent. Where there has been progress, with software like Uber, Spotify, or Amazon, numerous challenges have presented themselves from displaced interests.
Now, I don’t mean to celebrate this trend. Only clearly point out its existence. It’s not necessarily always a good thing to just start eliminating jobs with software (even though that’s what we’ve been doing since the ‘70’s – also, note that the local impact of this is very similar to jobs being exported overseas instead of given to computers). Like anything else there are pros and cons, and we need to recognize the cons in order to mitigate them.
Ultimately, the major con in this trend is that many people are losing their ability to acquire the resources they need to live. By having their jobs replaced, they stop making money, and they face the prospect of not being able to afford to live as they had been.
So, we need to mitigate the downside impact of people losing jobs to software. We’ll come back to that. But first, we need to understand the scope of jobs that are threatened by software.
The Singularity Means A Computer Will Be Bettter At Your Job Than You - ALL Of You
For many people, especially those who I’d expect to be reading my blog, jobs being replaced by machines or computers has always been something that happened to “someone else.” Manufacturing, labor, paper pushing, delivery, basic math, editing… the kinds of jobs that are highly repetitive and/or mainly involve executing a series of rule-based decisions. Not the white collar, intellectual, creative jobs of someone with a college education.
After the singularity, this will no longer be true. The singularity is the culmination of a larger software revolution in which, as Marc Andreessen says, “software will eat the world.”
It can be tempting to argue that the software revolution, like all technological revolutions of the past, on the balance will actually create jobs. For example, while the invention of the mechanized loom drastically shrunk demand for human weavers, it created other, higher-level jobs that could assume the availability of cheap fabric as given and create larger net productivity. Although it’s true that many weavers who lost their jobs could not transition to new roles and suffered as a result, society as a whole benefitted.
What is different about the software revolution is that it results in technology which supersedes essentially all human capabilities. The technology of the singularity is by definition of superior intelligence to humans – it is better than us at any mental task. When a stockbroker or an aeronautical engineer or a lawyer is replaced by software (software more effective than the humans, in fact!), there is no longer a higher-level role a human can move into in order to fulfill some need better than another piece of software could (at least, not in significant enough numbers to provide traditional jobs for all the displaced). There may be a tiny number of jobs created to manage all these pieces of software, but not enough for even 1% of the displaced. And even then, these management jobs will likely be better performed by more software anyway.
The core economic disruption caused by the software revolution is that it will *never* be economically correct to hire a human to do a job over having a machine do it. There will not be jobs to be had because those who might need some work done – owners, for lack of a better term – will find computers a far more cost effective way to have the work performed. Without a need for human labor, the only humans to whom wealth accrues will be the owners.
This means that the people at the DMV, the taxi drivers, and the baristas aren’t the only ones whose livelihoods are endangered by the singularity. Unless you own some technology that will be part of the transformation the singularity entails, you too are threatened.
So, with essentially everyone on the planet at risk of economic disaster, how can we mitigate the downside of jobs lost to software? We'll have to deeply understand the problem first...
The Core Problem: How We Gain Wealth
The primary means by which most people acquire wealth is by having a job. In a job, people sell the hours of their life to perform the tasks that job is intended to achieve. If there are almost no tasks which a human is better suited to perform than software, what happens to all the humans displaced by software? And perhaps more importantly, what happens to the humans who own that software?
The answer today is that the humans who hold the displaced jobs are themselves displaced. They lose their ability to gain wealth and the survival of both themselves and those who depend on them is endangered. Meanwhile, those who own the software and related means that replace them gain the wealth the displaced would have otherwise acquired.
This is not a sustainable arrangement as software becomes more and more capable of performing complex tasks. It’s not the case that a very small few can concentrate the wealth that the great many expected to acquire without consequences. It is hard to predict specific consequences, but these are the circumstances on which revolution is built. Left unchecked, one of two things will happen: revolution, or a return to feudalism. Neither result benefits the progress of humanity; a different result must be obtained.
The advance of technology cannot be stopped. The solution is not to reject technology and attempt to preserve human roles in economic functions. Such an effort may achieve temporary, local successes, but cannot stop the tidal forces of technological advance. The solution is to change the system by which technological advances are managed.
How do we change the system in such a way?
Basic capitalism is a good first order description of a better system, but not the same capitalism that applies in a world where the majority of work is performed by humans. Capitalism is based on the two premises (1) that the application of owned capital is the basis for economic development, and (2) that human labor is an essential function of applying capital. In a world where software can replace the output of multitudes of humans, the second premise breaks down.
The only humans who win in this scenario are those who own the software in question, because our economic system provides them with all the benefits generated by the software. If a new X-ray analysis program eliminates the need for radiologists (or more precisely, offers the same services as radiologists at 10% the price and with 200% the effectiveness), the entity which owns that program gets to assume the economic benefits of a tremendous swath of formerly well-paid, useful humans who no longer have marketable skills.
Left unchecked, this trend will cause a return to feudal society, with ownership of software rather than land as the core mechanic. However, unlike feudal society where tiers of humans were necessary to administer the land and humans occupying it, the need for intermediate tiers of humans will be minimal to none. Instead of a king, dukes, earls, barons, and serfs, we will only have kings and serfs.
The antidote to this problem is not simple. It requires social, political, and economic advances on several fronts. But the critical step is to redefine how wealth is accrued: most people cannot expect someone else to pay them to perform work for them, and simultaneously most people cannot expect to own some set of software that generates wealth for them.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a specific plan for a specific system (yet?), but I do know the two critical characteristics a good plan must have, and these characteristics are goals we can start heading towards now.
Step 1: Eliminate Time As The Core Wealth Generator
Firstly, we must stop thinking that selling the hours of our life is how wealth is acquired. Whether you are a grocery checker, truck driver, lawyer, doctor, stock broker, or even computer programmer, after and even soon before the singularity, there will come a point where your employer will find it in their economic interests to replace you with software under the current economic paradigm. You cannot expect your time to remain a resource others will want to purchase (and besides, they've been paying you to browse the internet and read blogs like this from your desk at least *some* of the time, right? :) ).
While broad changes are needed to resolve this at a macro level, one can pursue this goal on one’s own, without any of macro changes, in order to build a more robust livelihood in the face of larger trends. One can prepare now and set oneself up to survive through the singularity even if one is not one of the privileged few who will own the mechanisms of the singularity.
The entrepreneur is a person doing this already: a person starting their own small business, selling a product or service others will pay for. One is still selling one’s hours under this model, but one is not selling them to an employer who has a monopoly over them and decides what they are worth. One is converting one’s hours into products or services which the market values, and one can pursue increased value for one’s hours according to one’s wishes. You are converting your hours into a marketable good which can be priced according to the demand it satisfies. Becoming one’s own boss is not just a luxury – it is a necessity to survive the software revolution.
A key concept to becoming this kind of entrepreneur is to generate a marketable good whose marginal labor cost is trivial. The total marginal cost can be non-trivial – for example, maybe you make a widget that requires you purchase raw materials and manufacture something on an assembly line – but it must not take a noticeable amount of human effort to produce a unit. Like those sitting on top of the singularity, you need a product which you can allow machines to largely create and deliver for you.
Also note that “entrepreneur” is meant in the classic sense of someone starting their own business, to generate income for themselves. The shiny Silicon Valley “entrepreneur” is not necessarily this person, for many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are still ultimately selling a product with non-trivial marginal labor costs or with significant outside ownership. Someone who is attempting to create a business that existing capital holders (rich companies or people) will purchase for large amounts of money, but with a majority of the return on their effort being diverted to other existing capital holders (venture capitalists and their investors) is not the right kind of entrepreneur to strive to be.
While the shiny Silicon Valley approach can be a valid short-term strategy for generating wealth to sustain oneself through before we get too close to the singularity, it’s important to recognize this form of entrepreneurship is not going to remain effective for the entrepreneur as the singularity approaches. Perhaps worse, it is improving the financial situation for a small number of people by contributing to the overall problem of capital accumulating in fewer and fewer hands. Those involved in this activity aren’t inherently bad, but they are taking the efforts of intelligent people and applying them towards the furthering of the problem of capital consolidation, which is not the best use of their abilities.
So, to take steps towards preparing for the singularity economy, one should look for ways to create a high-demand product with negligible marginal labor costs. Examples include designing a product that can be manufactured and delivered mostly by machines, writing a book or blog, making music or movies, lecturing online, or making software. Unfortunately, it’s not obvious there is enough demand for these kinds of products for everyone to find profit making them (although my ability to come up with examples of these products is limited to my own capabilities - others who can identify new kinds of products can profit greatly). But there is enough demand for many to find a good living at such pursuits. Starting now is a great way to try and find a niche before nearly everyone is trying to do the same thing.
Step 2: Make Ownership Less Important
Secondly, we must stop treating owners as more important than doers. A man who owns a business deserves no more credit for the success of that business than those who work in it. He deserves some – providing capital to the business is usually essential to its success – but ascribing most of the benefits of success to an individual simply because they put in money instead of time overemphasizes the role of capital in achieving success. Further, because benefits of success accrue to owners rather than doers, the problem of capital consolidation grows worse when we use ownership to allocate benefits, because owners gain even more capital to benefit from over time. “The rich become richer.”
However, it’s also not the case that Marxian distribution of the benefits of success to doers is correct. Communism is not the answer to this problem because communism runs counter to human nature at a macro scale. Both owners and doers deserve a share of benefits. But it’s hard to know how to distribute benefits effectively.
It’s important to allocate benefits to those whose actions contributed to success, but to do so one must measure their contributions. Just as capital spent is not a good metric for assigning benefits, time spent to create is also not a good metric. Nor are metrics which measure volume of output, such as units made or lines of code written. Any such metrics can be gamed and organizing the distribution of benefits based on them will only result in activity that optimizes those metrics at the expense of greater success.
Without an obvious way to measure contribution to success, it's best that the profits of success be distributed in a manner agreeable to everyone involved in making success happen. Success comes from a combination of capital and labor that is different for every business, so it seems best for each business to decide how to allocate profits among owners and employees on their own as part of a profit sharing program.
Today, we already have examples of companies who practice profit sharing. In these models, some of the total return of the company is distributed to those who generated that return. Employee ownership models offer similar incentives, as do typical sales or money management jobs where a commission is paid. The key component in these kinds of businesses is that the compensation due to everyone involved scales with the success. Everyone involved earns a percentage, rather than a fixed sum.
However, most jobs are not like this, and many people – not to mention entities like lending organizations – are uncomfortable with jobs whose compensation has little to no floor. And in many of these jobs, the profits shared are a relative pittance compared to the total profit. For example, an employer who shared 5% of profits with employees would be exceptionally generous.
I am not sure how to cause macro changes to our economic system in this vein, but I can see ways for individuals to align themselves more in that direction. The step you can take today is to try and find jobs which include some percentage-based share of profits to their employees. The higher the percentage, the better, even if the actual numbers are less than a different job you could get.
Further, try and encourage your employer to increase profit sharing. It’s still the case that most employers need their employees to do their work today, so leverage that need to gain for yourself while you still can. Try to get profit sharing as a permanent component of your employment contract, and encourage your co-workers to do the same. If you can, organize – unions have always been the friend of the worker (how capital holders have managed to convince workers to hate unions is a tragic coup for another discussion).
The key is to distribute the benefits of ownership away from actual owners and into more hands. If possession of capital remains the primary determinant of how wealth is accrued, capital will continue to concentrate into fewer and fewer hands because the ability to leverage capital becomes nearly infinite post-singularity. Even if you are a millionaire today earning 7 or 8 figures at your job, be aware that the 10 figure owner of your company will be happy to replace you with software as soon as possible.
Possible Bonus Step 3: Other Transformational Technology*
There is a possible third way to resolve the problem of economic inequality post-singularity. Whether through the means in which the singularity is achieved or simply through technological advances on other fronts, new technology could disrupt the current economic paradigm in such a way that capital concentration is no longer a problem. Sufficient benefits for every human being might be available no matter how the benefits of success are ascribed.
For the benefits of success not to be ascribed based on capital invested or work performed, benefits must be distributed based on some basis orthogonal to the success itself. This may seem to imply the creation of some sort of magical charity state, where people invest lots of capital and do lots of work for no reason, but there is an incorrect assumption in that implication which provides a different answer: that the supply of benefits is finite.
It’s not the case that everyone in the world can have a mansion, 68’ yacht, and steak dinners every night. But it is the case that everyone in the world can have a comfortable house large enough for their family, access to wonderful recreation, and enough good food to eat. With the reduction of the need for human labor to achieve goals through the software revolution, enough value can be created without significant capital or labor investment to provide significant benefits to every human on the planet as long as so many benefits are available that they cannot accrue in the hands of a few kings.
One way to achieve this is simple to state and hard to achieve: the software revolution must be for all. It must be embodied by freely available, open-source software, with contributions from the greatest minds available (at least, until the greatest minds are themselves open-source software). Today, it’s the case that these minds are generally employed by would-be kings – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, even places like Stanford and MIT. But there is no reason that this must be so, and no reason that must remain so once momentum is built towards a different way. If fantastic productivity is available via free, ubiquitous software, there is no reason every single human cannot live what one would call a comfortable upper-middle-class life because all their needs are met by free software and machines. Some may even still live extraordinarily comfortable upper-class lives, but that does not mean others must suffer for it or that the extraordinarily comfortable need oppose this development (for if one has a wonderful life, what does it matter if another has more?).
Another possible development is significant advances in energy, food, and other forms of production such that the availability of the resources needed for a comfortable life is practically infinite. Even if there are kings, if there is so much available that they could not possibly possess it all, then it doesn’t matter if they possess arbitrarily large amounts. And over time, if possessing more does not matter, the drive some feel to acquire more and more may subside – if owning things and acquiring more wealth has little to no bearing on how you live your life, why own more?
This essentially attacks the problem of ownership and greed on the supply side, instead of the demand side.
An example of such a change could be practical fusion energy. In theory, fusion power could provide orders of magnitude more electrical energy than produced by all the world today, and primarily consume water as its power source. Energy costs would go so low as to approach zero, and suddenly wealth would not be required to obtain nearly any amount of energy. Were this to be true, power could be treated as a basic human right, enabling many to improve their lives significantly – even if other people still have more than them.
An analogy can be drawn right out of Adam Smith’s original thinking on capitalism. For him, it was important that people engaging in capitalism not take ownership of so much as to leave others unable to survive and participate economically. Suppose there were an island with 10 people on it, and the primary food source on that island were banana trees producing 1000 bananas a day. A person needs to eat 10 bananas a day to survive, and perhaps another 10 to have some surplus to feel comfortable.
Under Smith’s vision for capitalism, it’s OK for 1 person to own a banana harvesting business and gain 820 bananas a day, with the other 9 as his employees earning 20 bananas each. It might even be OK for the 1 owner to gain 910 bananas and leave the other 9 only 10 each – they can still survive, so it’s an ethical question whether it’s acceptable for the owner to deprive the other 9 a feeling of comfort because he owns the business. But it’s not acceptable to go any farther than that.
But what if the supply of bananas were infinite? Well, then the 1 owner can take as many bananas as he likes, because the 9 employees can still get their 20. In fact, the owner can let the employees take as many bananas as they like, because it doesn’t prevent him from having as many bananas as he likes. It’s even possible the owner will stop even caring or noticing that he owns the banana harvesting business, and it will become a mundane property of just living on the island, same as having air to breathe and a sun in the sky.
Because it requires a either the singularity to be achieved in a specific way or significant technological breakthroughs on other fronts, it’s not a given that a solution like this will present itself, so one should not bank on this over the first two steps. But it’s a good low-probability get-out-of-jail-free card, and if you happen to be someone in a position to push in these kinds of directions, doing so would be a great service to humanity.
So what was that all about? Well, briefly:
- Most people today get money by being paid for their time at a job
- Organizations (like the DMV) are made of people, who resist the elimination of jobs
- Nonetheless, eventually software will eliminate all jobs
- Significant social change is necessary to truly prepare for a world without jobs
- Whether or not significant change will happen, one can personally prepare for a world without jobs by
- Finding ways to earn money besides selling one’s time
- Finding jobs that include significant profit sharing that scales with profits
- There is a chance that through either being purposeful about making the singularity work for all or by dramatically improving production on other fronts that people will end up living comfortable lives despite the problems the current trajectory to the singularity imply
Hopefully this post gives you some things to think about in how you live your life. For me, these realizations have caused me to become a lot more entrepreneurial and look for multiple passive income streams I can implement in my life. After all, the alternative is to wait around until software eats me, and I would prefer to be immortal and comfortable because of the singularity rather than chewed up by it.
* - much credit for the step 3 section goes to Ryan Flynn, who first told me about his thoughts around fusion and infinite energy and inspired me to think about addressing the capital concentration problem from the supply side.