There is a great deal of fear and fear-mongering around the prospect of robots “taking our jobs.” I read about this almost daily in articles like this which exemplify the perception that for every robot that enters the workforce, several jobs will be taken away.
That may very well be true. But I would like to illuminate a concept that I have been thinking about for quite some time now, which should lay to rest some of these fears: that robots, artificial intelligence and automation will free mankind from reliance on markets to meet our needs and wants, and will free our time for higher pursuits - like happiness.
Before the industrial age, people’s basic needs were not met by producing, shopping and consuming - they were met by “prosuming.” The term “prosumption” was coined by the brilliant author and futurist Alvin Toffler and means to both produce and consume something. For example, when people lived on farms, they raised cows, milked them, and drank the milk: they prosumed their milk. They cut down trees and used them to build their own homes: they prosumed their homes. They did not rely on somebody else to produce these goods, and they did not use money they earned laboring to purchase them for consumption: they simply prosumed them - there was no money involved.
Then came the rise of the industrial era - what Alvin Toffler referred to as the Second Wave of human development. And with the rise of industrialism came specialization, a migration to urban areas, and an ever-expanding wedge between production and consumption. That wedge is what we presently think of as the market - and that wedge has become so large, so all-encompassing, so indispensable to how we live our lives, that we have mistaken the market for reality. We perceive our whole world to basically be one giant market, and we misperceive one giant market to be our world.
It was that wedge which led to the rise of highly-dense urban areas centered around manufacturing, commerce and trade. And these urban areas, in which we live most of our lives, are in essence, enormous markets: we live in giant markets.
And as robots enter these markets and produce things more efficiently than people, we fear that they will take our jobs, leaving us jobless. And with no jobs, we won’t have the means to consume, and we will be reduced to poverty while income inequality skyrockets. Those who own the robots will see astronomical profits as the masses are forced into welfare programs to compensate for widespread joblessness.
This is the picture painted by myopic thinkers and brilliant thinkers alike - including Elon Musk, who has asserted that the only solution to the rise of the robots is a universal basic income.
However, I see this whole thing evolving in a very different, and positive, direction.
As technologies like robots, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, the sharing economy, and digital communications technologies become even more ubiquitous, their utility will start to expand beyond the market.
Imagine for a moment, how all of these technologies might be utilized if the goal weren’t profit. Imagine a local community coming together to purchase a 3D printer, which would print robot drones, which would be used in permaculture and agriculture, not for profit, but to feed healthy organic food to the local community. Imagine if 3D printers were owned by local neighborhoods for the collective good, to print for the people high-tech devices, homes, cars and any and everything they need. Imagine if all of the technologies we fear will take our jobs can actually be used to free us from the need to have jobs in the first place.
Examples of this are all around us, in the news almost daily. Just last week, a home was 3D printed for under $10,000. In 5 years, that might be $1,000. Now imagine if the materials were actually sourced using automation and robots that utilized the local dirt to make the concrete that fed the printer, and the printer was powered by solar cells.
The cost of land in rural America is say, $2,000/acre. That is not very expensive. In the past, it required a great deal of energy to maximize land use for one’s personal sustenance. So much energy and time in fact, that people left rural environments and migrated to cities to pursue specialization and commerce.
But what if, now, for the first time in over 150 years, prosumption makes a comeback. Imagine a high-tech, robot-powered prosumption that allows people to escape the market once again and realize a high-standard of living - for the first time in human history - without having to actually engage in much commerce.
Imagine using robots to farm, feed, and build the infrastructure for high-tech eco-communities. Imaging using robot drones to harvest materials from 20th century trash dumps that can be used to 3D print the 21st century things we think we need money for. Imagine utilizing technology to forge the architecture of thriving cooperative, sharing communities. Imagine using mobile applications to facilitate specialization without the exchange of money. Imagine if all of these technologies we fear, could actually be used to liberate individuals from the need to exchange their time for money to begin with - so that less time could be spent working and prosuming than would have been spent producing and consuming, and more time could be spent pursuing happiness.
Imagine a more rural existence, in which technologies make prosumption and harmony with nature and each other possible. Imagine robot-harvested hemp fields which provide the raw materials necessary to clothe us, fuel us and feed us, in addition to the construction materials necessary to produce the infrastructure for an eco-friendly civilization.
I do not fear the rise of the robots - at least not in the context of them taking our jobs. The ability to have machines build homes, farm for us, 3D print things, provide for the common defense and enable transportation: these are things that should excite us. What if communities come together and crowdfund the acquisition of these technologies so that even areas which are now poverty-stricken could harness the post-industrial might of the Third Wave of human civilization.
I hypothesize that robots, in conjunction with a myriad of other technologies, will actually minimize the role of markets in the meeting of human needs - thus shrinking the wedge between production and consumption - while empowering the rise of a post-industrial prosumption-based civilization. I hypothesize that humans will expend far less energy prosuming in the future than they presently expend producing, shopping and consuming, and that our time will be freed, if we so choose it to be, for higher uses like art, pursuing happiness, and reaching for the stars (literally).
What if markets are no longer needed to provide for human sustenance, and the markets themselves could actually be freed for higher pursuits and aims.
I challenge you: suspend your fear and biases for a moment, and imagine if the tools we fear will trap us might actually be used to free us.