C: Eventually, AI will be sufficiently advanced that most jobs will be eliminated. We will need UBI to ensure people have access to the wealth created by the AI.

V: That’s not possible. Human want is infinite. For every good and service produced through automation that was not produced before, we free human beings up to produce more, and increase the realm of desires they can fulfill.

C: Previous rounds of automation took the form of labor multipliers. We gave a machine to a laborer and allowed him to produce more, but he kept the job. This is the first round that actually eliminates jobs entirely.

V: That’s not true. The industrial revolution vastly increased the quantity of food produced per laborer, but there were only small changes in the quantity of food consumed. We decreased the number of workers in agriculture, and all of those workers had jobs creating the modern devices people had come to desire. As the industrial revolution waned and globalism, feminism, and the civil rights movement multiplied the size of the industrial workforce, the same shift has happened to services.

People who one day would have grown food were no longer needed to grow food, and got jobs in factories making luxuries like TVs, cars, and dishwashers.

And now, people who one day would have worked in a factory are no longer needed in the factories, and they provide everyone with the luxury of having a part-time servant. This is obvious when it comes to maid service, but what else is the growth of eating out over the last hundred years but the democratization of personal chefs and butlers? Your parents find it decadent how much people eat out these days, and their parents (or at least grand parents) found it decadent how little they cared about repairing things that broke.

C: Our entire economy is built around people working to produce goods in exchange for money to consume those goods. With automation, more and more of that money accumulates to holders of capital. AI breaks the cycle of work -> money -> consume. Even if we could eventually reach a new equilibrium, the disruption could destroy society. So we need UBI to allow us to bridge the gap.

V: I’m not sure how true that is. It’s contradictory to say that the goods are produced too cheaply by a machine for a person to compete, but that the goods are too expensive for a person to afford. If I cannot afford the machine produced goods, and neither can my neighbor, and we are both idle, than one of us will start producing the goods the non-automated way to sell to the other, if only on the barter system.

C: But notice what you have done? I say there will be a disruption. You say there will be no disruption, but that neighbors will be bartering with each other for what they can produce.

V: I oversimplified to give a clear example. If the machines leave productive resources (humans) idle, someone will find a use for those productive resources.

C: But to compete with machines, they will be used very, very cheaply! Maybe for pennies a day!

V: But in order to arrive in this situation, the machines are already producing everything we currently consume for even less than that! Again, we cannot say the machines produce it cheaper than we can, and then assume that prices didn’t fall.

C: The capitalists who own the machines are greedy, they won’t lower the prices.

V: That misunderstands greed. The local general store owner has a 50% markup and sells very little. Walmart has a 1% markup and sells billions. The entrepreneur who fails to understand that 100 billion x $0.01 profit is more than 1 thousand x $100.00 profit is a very poor business man, indeed.

C: This is all theoretical, but we have an historical precedent for something like the advent of AI. The Roman Republic went through this. As the territory controlled by Rome expanded, Rome was flooded with enslaved people from the surrounding countries. For economic purposes, these were like AI, that is, they were intelligent, often highly-skilled workers entirely under the control of the wealthy elite.

The free but dispossessed became known as the “head count.” And they didn’t just adapt the way you promise we would. The only way Rome could keep the peace was through the creation of the grain dole by the Gracchi, which was something like UBI, and eventually through admitting them to the newly professionalized legions by Gaius Marius, which can be viewed as something like a public works program.

V: Two answers: first, Rome was far from a liberal society, so we need not go the way of Rome. Second, that example cuts both ways. The grain dole and the professionalization of the legions both played a decisive role in the fall of the Republic. The grain dole legitimatized vote buying through the promise of greater benefits (with resources that had to be secured militarily), and the practically as soon Gaius Marius turned the legionary service from an aristocratic perk to a job for the dispossessed, the civil wars began.

If AI and automation necessitates drastic social reforms of the type you are describing, we can do them when they becomes necessary. We are not there, and the reforms have dangers.

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02 September 2020