In a world where people have advanced robotics and A.I. to the point that most people can just have a machine do things for them, is there any reason for slaves to be used also?

Obviously nobody needs slaves, you can operate farms and factories with paid labor or robots. Not to mention just doing things yourself. But aside from the robots, those options have existed since the invention of money. But slaves were kept anyway.

The only benefits I can currently imagine it gives is that you can capture your own slaves rather than pay for expensive robotic solutions. Or an owner may just want to dominate people and their slaves can't object.

In this scenario slave ownership is illegal. But that doesn't ever stop it in the real world. Here in the U.S. slavery has been illegal since 1865 but that isn't stopping people today.

Is there some other possible reason that an individual or corporation might seek and own many slaves when they could get the job done with legal means?

Alternatively, is there a job slaves could do that wouldn't be possible with robots or legal workers?

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    $\begingroup$ are the machine flawless, wont harm or dangerous to the owner, or not making loud sound? $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 14:18
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    $\begingroup$ "ownership is illegal" - how well this is enforced? In US, any slavery incident leaked to public would lead to swift action by the law enforcement. In some other countries, law enforcement would just take bribes and look the other way. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 17:04
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    $\begingroup$ Historically, most slavery was punitive, and most nations still allow for it. Usually because you either owed a debt you failed to repay, you commited a crime, or you're a POW. Chattel slavery is illegal almost everywhere now, but punitive labor is still legal in most countries, not just the US. Japan, Spain, Hungary, Great Britain, Latvia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Greenland, etc. all allow for forced labor, and of the nations like Germany that can't "force" it, they create incentive programs that make nonparticipation result in significantly less humane prison conditions. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 13:55

20 Answers 20


One of the ultimate signs of wealth is being able to command services from other humans at your whim. The ultra wealthy have maids, pilots, cooks, drivers, guards, etc. and even if these jobs could be automated, there's still a feeling of power that one can derive from commanding others who are like you, and it's a sign of power to others.

So, some hypothetical reasons for having slaves despite it not being fiscally wise:

  • It's fashionable. In high society, owning slaves is expensive and training them well is a sign of status, despite machines being able to do the same jobs better
  • It's traditional. Certain traditions really don't want to die. Maybe, your empire was built upon the idea of conquering other peoples, and slavery is just a holdout.
  • It's fun. Some people enjoy ordering other people around. Slavery is just the ultimate level for a control-freak, and for the twisted, it might be a way to indulge reprehensible fantasies
  • It's punishment. Denying the free will of another sapient being is arguably the ultimate form of punishment, potentially even worse than death. Slaves are held as punishment for crimes (although what constitutes these crimes can be very flexible)

Note: I shouldn't need to say this, but this answer in no way endorses slavery. Duh.

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    $\begingroup$ (Broad strokes) - In the US, slavery is allowed as form of punishment per the 13th Amendment: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." $\endgroup$
    – BruceWayne
    Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 21:56
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    $\begingroup$ A simple real world example: Having a personal chef cook your meals for you makes projects a sense of wealth. Having a machine do it for you (microwave) really doesn't convey the same sense of wealth. $\endgroup$
    – Flater
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 12:21
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    $\begingroup$ @BruceWayne: Contextually it seems to focus more on the indentured servitude part than the slavery part - but semantically you are correct that it applies to either. It's just that slavery carries connotations of it being permanent, privatized (i.e. the acquisition of slaves/workers) and/or institutionalized, which doesn't quite fit with the general idea of governmental (not privatized) convictions, temporary incarceration, optional (though definitely indirectly coerced but not openly so) prison labor during said temporary incarceration, or community service. $\endgroup$
    – Flater
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 12:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Flater: I believe that when the 13th amendment was written, mandatory labor was present in prisons. E.g. chain gangs, prison farms, the "classic trope" of breaking rocks in stripped uniforms. $\endgroup$
    – sharur
    Commented Aug 5, 2020 at 5:39
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    $\begingroup$ What about prostitution - many prostitutes are slaves. Would you mind putting it into your answer? It's a real-world use today and I guess in the future, too. $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Commented Aug 5, 2020 at 8:26


(and assorted criminal activities)

I hate to point out the obvious (ok, that's a lie; I LOVE to point it out) but most of the slavery in the US not linked to sweatshops is in the sex trade. Even with AI and fancy machines, there's something about a real person you can't quite get right, and the harder they try, the weirder it seems.

The same rule generally applies all over the world. People and their base instincts don't care what is or isn't illegal - they don't even seem to care what others DO or DON'T want. They just want it. It's so prevalent, they have a separate term for it - white slavery.

While this applies mostly to the sex trade, any criminal operation will be likely to employ involuntary labor - either through actual imprisonment, complete control of dependent people (like often happens to illegal immigrants) or substance abuse (like working for your dealer to get drugs). A computer and a robot are nice, clean, efficient ways to get work done, but evil or criminal work doesn't want to be seen. The more efficient machines get, the more sophisticated the monitoring and tracking.

I read a story once where an alien crash-landed on Earth, and was put to work making amphetamines in a country lab. If you are breaking the law by doing (X), why not break the law and use slave labor to do it?

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    $\begingroup$ I agree about the sex trade part, but if the robotics are advanced to the point of OP's world, all the other tasks will probably not be competitive, when done by humans, especially since forced labourers are prone to rioting and being overworked. Making amphs via a clean and efficient machine which has low error rate seems much more reliable. And organized crime is all about profit. $\endgroup$
    – Gnudiff
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 16:54
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    $\begingroup$ +1. Comment to add that for illegal activities, a building staffed with robots will have a higher power consumption than normal, and that can tip off law enforcement. They already use this tactic to find grow ops in neighbourhoods. A team of human slaves won't have as big of a trace if you can figure out how to smuggle in enough food unnoticed. $\endgroup$
    – Aubreal
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 18:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Gnudiff I totally agree that robots in an advanced society should be able to outcompete human labor. The problem is that robots aren't competing for the criminal jobs. But hey, maybe there are criminal-controlled bots mixing drugs in trailer parks. Who knows? It's the future. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Aug 5, 2020 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ @DWKraus the way it seemed to me is that if any gang wants to set up a meth lab, they are far safer off buying (or constructing, or stealing) any of the ubiquitous bots there are, instead of trying all the messy business with kidnapping, slave labour etc. but yea, this is the future, maybe bots are now so sentient they can now resist or resent orders like humans. $\endgroup$
    – Gnudiff
    Commented Aug 5, 2020 at 21:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Gnudiff Robots tend to be too complex for the average criminal to build or program, and you can not make a generalized AI safe enough for consumer markets without creating significant ethical parameters to keep people from weaponizing them. As AI becomes more advanced, and manufactures get sued for the crimes thier bots are used for, legislation and corporate policy will likely force all general purpose robots to be able to understand and abide by the laws of thier jurisdictions. Some could use hacked bots, but smaller criminal organizations may still find slave labor easier to procure. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 14:14

John Milton wrote a poem called Paradise Lost. There is a passage where Lucifer says:

Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

I come from a place where people are willing to have a lower salary if it means others will receive even less. The most important thing is to have a greater salary in comparison to others. Take it to the extreme: people would be willing to be slave drivers if that meant they could be better off than other people who would be the slaves.

In a society where everyone is equal, that other person who is smarter than you might one-up you at something. Many people get anxious thinking that could happen, so the way to keep that from happening is crushing other people's spirits.

Any similarity with the real world is not a coincidence. We have not achieved the state mentioned in the question yet. But the fact that people have to fight for equality, and the fact that there are people fighting against equality kinda shows where we are.

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    $\begingroup$ The author is John Milton! $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ @DuncanDrake Lucifer made me type that wrong, but I've fixed it now. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 15:03
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    $\begingroup$ Happiness is relative, people are happy with their salary if the people around them are getting less, the absolute wage is largely irrelevant to this. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 7:30
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    $\begingroup$ @RusselMcMahon Brazil. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 13:01
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    $\begingroup$ It deeply saddens me to read "I come from a place where people are willing to have a lower salary if it means others will receive even less" and instantly know where you come from. $\endgroup$
    – Ramon Melo
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 22:05

A lot depends on how far robots, AI, and androids have replaced humans. The more they replace us, the more reasons you can find to own a slave.

  1. Show of power: few things make you look more powerful than owning someone else. Slaves being illegal only means it's harder and more expensive to get one, and with robots becoming more common and accessible, slaves really becomes luxury items.
  2. Sex: sex-slaves are probably the most common kind of slaves today, and I can easily imagine it becoming even more common in a world where almost every other task is replaced by robots.
  3. Illegal activities: you haven't specified how advanced your robots are, and what limits their AI has. In a world where consumer robots' AI has been coded in such a way that prevents them from doing some illegal activities, human slaves are the only source of labor for such jobs. From processing drugs to murder, you might be unable to get a robot to do it (or it might be less safe, considering a robot can probably be easily tracked and/or hacked by a rival).
  4. AI phobia: the rich and wealthy are often the ones with the weirdest "phobias". I can easily see someone insisting they don't want robots inside their house, and would rather have humans doing chores. But in a world where robots have become cheap, it's unlikely you can find someone willing to clean your bathroom and iron your clothes... Unless you buy them! Same goes for nannies, caregivers, and so on.
  5. Flesh and blood: you can't always replace the human experience with a robotic one. From simple illegal fighting matches, to the weirdest torture or experiments you can imagine, people will be interested in getting slaves for it.
  6. Other Entertainment: most people do their jobs because they need money, and that goes for the entertainment industry too. So if you want someone to play at your party or to entertain yourself privately, you might have to go through some illegal dealings with some shady company "employing" slaves.

These are just some of the reasons to own one. The more advanced AI becomes, the more some people will desire to go back to having humans to serve them.


It is Seen as an act of Public Service.

In the future complex and expensive body modifications are the norm. In fact it's very hard to even buy things at the grocery store without the augments that link your genetic code to your bank account.

Of course when this took off, a large proportion of the population was left behind. They were unable to function in the newly integrated world.

So what to do with these dispossessed baseline people? It is seen as a kindness for a large company to collect 1000 of them and build a non-integrated compound where they can live out their lives. This is expensive but less expensive than giving them all augments. It is also a one-time cost.

Eventually the overlords realize the people are not happy to just sit around in the compounds. Making paradise compounds is too expensive and doesn't really fit human behaviour either, since a certain level of strife is required to stop people going insane with boredom.

To introduce that strife and regain some of the money, they companies give all the people jobs in their factory. The argument is their lives are similar to the 21st century before modifications came into fashion.

The big different being, of course, they are not allowed to leave.

  • $\begingroup$ a certain level of strife is required to stop people going insane with boredom ... actually, any type of high-quality mental stimulation will do. $\endgroup$
    – cowlinator
    Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 22:02
  • $\begingroup$ @cowlinator Agreed. But allow me to weasel out of the question by redefining strife to be something more abstract and yadda yadda yadda. . . . $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 11:18

Any Effort Requiring More Capability Than One Human Being (or Robot) Possesses

We do projects with teams of people because we need the versatile expertise. Teams build houses because sometimes you need many hands to get the job done. Teams sell fries because many hands get things done quickly.

Moving Bar of Want

Machines replacing people has a great deal of historical example. Calculators used to meant floors of mathematicians painfully working on problems with paper and pencil. Word processors were divisions of a company that took scribbled notes, typed, and edited them.

Each time we simplify a large task, it opens up opportunities for us to reach farther. Now we use all that spare calculating capacity for algorithms to best figure out which movie you want to watch next. People are still required to hit this moving bar of want, roughly in the same quantities as before.

Waste of Resources

When you see someone pushing a lawn mower, think for a second: that's a $\approx 1 \times 10^{18}$ ${operations} \over {second}$ supercomputer. And it's being put to pushing a sled around in a square pattern.

Or Is It?

We're good for most things because we're very smart. You can take a group of people and just drop them into the situation with no prep and trust that they will "sink or swim", or otherwise figure out the problem that you (the employer) can't even really articulate, certainly can't document, and definitely are not yet prepared to automate.

So, Why Free?

We all have projects we want. Let's say it's movie making. You want your cast of hundreds of extras, a few good primary actors, some talented writers, a steady (and maybe visionary) director, artists for set design, marketers, lawyers, practical and CGI effects talent, lighting, sound, camera operators, carpenters for set-building, electricians, and so on.

Let's say robots can replace 75% of that. That still leaves you with some percentage of jobs that have some element (creativity, training, personality, star power) that has not yet been codified into software, and only exists in people.

If you don't have a bunch of resources, you want that lingering 25% to fit in your budget.

What If You Really Could Do It All for Free?

Let's say you could produce an entire film on A.I. or robotic resources. Is it the film you want? Or, are the pioneers the guys who are doing bleeding edge stuff over there? The stuff that can't be mass produced; isn't that what most folks want to do?

Business Models Built on Free Labor

Robinson Crusoe, strangely enough gives us a classical model of how this happens. Before the title character's unfortunate stranding on the island, and after a career as a sailor, he has semi-retired to a job of plantation owner in South or Central America (I'd have to look it up). He works the plantation at first by himself, but sees an opportunity to expand. He can't work all that extra land himself. He doesn't have the deep pockets to pay laborers on an expansion that ultimately might not work. So he looks to buy slaves to make the expansion.

  • $\begingroup$ The Moving Bar of Want is a good point, but only depending on how far future you are looking at. It is a lot like Moore's law though in that it is true until practical limits make it not true. The Moving Bar of Want may keep people employed much longer than we would expect, but eventually robots will be better than people at performing new tasks, and when that time comes, it will stop being true. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 13:25

You need slaves to moderate social media.

Why not robots?

This job requires an intimate familiarity with human morals, politics, thought and culture. Any worker who is not an active, self-aware participant in human culture will get it wrong. If a machine is an active, self-aware participant in human culture, it's not a robot, it's a mechanical person (and forcing it to work without compensation would be slavery under the Mechanical Rights Act of 2177).

Why not free persons?

This job exposes the worker to the worst parts of humanity. It's difficult, it's degrading, it's traumatic. It makes you cry, it makes you hate your own species. The workers are regularly exposed to every kind of illegal or abusive content that you cannot legally compel a free person to see: gory violent imagery; racism, sexism, speciesism, mechanophobia and other forms of hate speech; illegal pornography and memetic hazards; unthink and enemy propaganda.

The profit motive

SpaceBook, Spaceblr, Space Exchange and so on would simply not be profitable if every moderator was paid a wage commensurate with the hazards of the job.


Because ending the slave trade is too dangerous

Imagine the setting, the blue-crested lizardmen enslaved the green-crested ones twenty-thousand years ago and made them build pyramids and harvest the grain-like stuff.

Now everyone lives in space, robots can do all the labour. Slaves are not needed, but what to do with them? Many of them might harbour deep resentment and hate towards the blue-crested maser lizards. Even if they mostly don't the blue-crested boss lizards might think they do. If they were given freedom they might go seeking revenge, blowing stuff up or killing.

Its safer to just keep them chained up, its stable. You have thousands of years of history showing that that is safe and it works. If they need to be locked up and kept prisoner anyway then work keeps them busy and distracted.

So you could pay 100 currency to have a robot build a home for you. It costs 300 to have it slave-made, but the government is desperate to keep the slaves in chains to contain civil unrest, so they will subsidise a slave-built home by 210, so you only need to pay 90 if you go for slave labour. As far as this society's distorted goals are concerned you are going a social good - like sponsoring a prison.

But why not genocide? you might ask. Any number of reasons. Maybe that is seen as immoral. Maybe they are worried that if they tried that they might initiate the very inter-race violence they are trying to suppress.

Final point: maybe the slaves are a useful source of organs for donation or blood for transfusion. Perhaps vat-grown lungs are not yet up to snuff so your robots can't yet fill that niche.

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    $\begingroup$ This so closely mirrors a lot of concerns that Americans had with the idea of general emancipation before the US Civil War that in my head I just swapped out lizardfolk with human ethnic groups... then I read the final paragraph and really wished I was still picturing lizardfolk... $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 13:36

One thing people seem to gloss over is that such a level of full automation where you dont need humans would mean that there is no more work or wage or an economic system.

Imagine this: you are a CEO that can swap its workforce that has a day/night cycle, requires breaks, sick leave, vacations, need to earn experience and will not always work as hard has they can for some robots that can do the same job 24/7 without needing enough pay for houses, food, water and commodities. You'll switch to robots! Many assembly lines have already done this, with the remaining staff there to observe and maintain the robots.

If all big companies do this you get a problem: they build things to sell, but most of the people are unemployed and cant buy it anymore. You have to restructure the entire society to a post-scarcity socialist/communist like society or you have to watch most of the population die out or form sub-economies while shunning large amounts of the robotic society produce and services.

The most important things in a society where no one has to work would be things like creating art, social status, feats of strength, culture, religion.

Now consider that moment where society has to restructure itself or watch large groups of the population lose their jobs and the economy falling to ruin. Imagine that during this transition process people who were rich and owning the robots figured that owning people was more enjoyable than watching them die, so it became acceptable to own slaves. Perhaps as "social support" at first, but as people were wholly dependent on these handouts they were made more and more into slaves. It became signs of status, power, social standing, the things that have just started to matter more in a this society.

  • $\begingroup$ capitalistic free-market economy is not the only possible way of doing things. There are at least communism (wich implies such level of automation), feudalism and theocracy (where way of producing thing does not matter at all). This societies would not crush, but benefit a lot form total automation. What you are describing - is basicly begininng of Marks's communist revolution $\endgroup$
    – ksbes
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 9:21
  • $\begingroup$ Marx, not Marks. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ I might quibble with the "have to watch" part that is key here. Easier to just not watch, or actively deny, which is pretty common. (Thinking current history textbook debates.) $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 19:32

Some people are just sadists

They enjoy dominating other human beings by bending them to their will and have them perform menial tasks. Doing the same with a robot just isn't the same. You know its a machine and it doesn't actually feel bad when you kick its face into the dirt.

So some of the powerful but less moral people of society might keep illegal slaves just because it pleases them to feel power over other people.


Some Types of Labor are Better Done by Humans than Robots

Having slaves doing these kinds of work earns money for the masters. In Roman times, the most valuable slaves were literate, or had an exceptional skill. Slaves in your world might still be skilled technicians, researchers, singers, novelists or whatever else. The master 'invests' in educating their slaves and reaps their profits. What kind of work can robots still not do in your world?

Sex slavery is another thing a human can do better than a robot.

Slavery can also exist to keep a lower class down. The upper class would never allow their slaves to become equal, even if robots could do the same jobs better.

Paradigm Shift: Debt as Slavery

Debt, for example, via credit cards, is similar to slavery. The masters may not even need to take care of the slaves, just have a perpetual interest payments going back to them with a clause to rollover debts to children when the parent dies.

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    $\begingroup$ In ancient times, most slaves fell into one of three categories: the "true" slaves (people who were forced into slavery, such as POWs and prisoners), the debtors who became bondservants (read: temporary slaves) in order to pay off a debt, and the willing slaves, who legally sold themselves for a period of time (usually around seven years). $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ Big difference is that you can do anything you want with a slave. Not so with an indebted person. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 5, 2020 at 3:27
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    $\begingroup$ This is closest to what I would have answered, which is "knowledge work." AI is good at solving existing problems in well-understood domains, not being creative or innovative. Being able to capture new ideas and profit from them is a huge benefit to current corporations with employee intellectual property agreements, without the flagrant abuse and human rights violations, and I do not foresee AI or automation limiting this. If anything, this might some day be the only valuable human labor. See also:"Wage Slavery","Debtors Prisons", etc. Obviously not the same, but tolerated better by society. $\endgroup$
    – CodeShane
    Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 23:11

It would be due to two major factors:

  1. The very fact that people's direct labor is so very valuable.
  2. The fact that property can be mortgaged or leased out.

Bear in mind that for thousands of years not much was more sought as a prize of war than slaves. (Why wouldn't you do the Nazi thing and just kill them, then move your own people into the empty, ready lands? You won, and it's so much more secure. But dead people don't produce wealth for you...) No matter what some economists have said about slavery being a dead loss to society, things ran very nicely for folks who took slaves in the greatest quantities they could bear. Besides, mortgaged slaves (as part of property available to plantation owners for mortgaging) were the economic millstone, not in and of themselves and the fact of their slavery, but due to the greater debt burden the plantation gradually took upon itself in order to stave off bankruptcy... that was the unworkable economic system. Farther back in time, or away in distance but the same time, slavery was very workable and lacked that one element: financial source entities that had no use for whatever physical property they took as collateral. Other times and places had entities providing loans which would be happy to take the collateral of slaves and use "it", lease it, and gradually sell it off their hands when it exceeded their own needs.

But that was to a large extent, and mostly, as the centuries drug on, the average worker type slave, a fieldhand, a ditch digger, a human mule. To be sure, even goldsmiths could be slaves (again, not as recently in the West, but reasonably recently elsewhere) but it wasn't usually (or almost ever) the situation of Negro slaves in the New World. In Sumeria for example, the Code of Hammurabi specified that such a slave owed only 20% of his earnings to his owner. "Toby" didn't likely even get better food.

So low level (low value, but needed and therefore useful, labor) slaves were still prized and sought.

Today though, the hallmark of our economy is all the ways in which we amplify the value of a single worker. Not only in production line teamwork but in having a single worker operating one or more machines that can be programmed to produce far, far more than he ever could and usually better. Those workers are worth more whether they get paid more or not. The company I work for produces eight times what it did 20 years ago with the same number of workers. If the low level slave was of important value even 100 years ago in China, India, the USA (a sharecropper by any other name...), and so on, just think of how valuable a modern worker can be. Even jobs that actually take far more knowledge than one thinks (Subway worker) need workers. They pay "poorly" because so many more people can do those jobs than can do "doctor." Not because they lack value.

All those robots and all that equipment, both of which are only getting better, amplify the value of a slave. At least until AI follows chess playing engines and outperforms humans.

So to sum up, the very existence of value-amplifying machinery makes the slave of greater and greater value, not lesser value. It has always been the value a HUMAN provides vs. what the old style machinery (oxen, horses...) provided and the way a human amplifies the value of the machinery in return by being able to supervise it, feed it, and correct it when it begins to go off-track that makes humans so valuable and therefore, so worthwhile as slaves. Add to that the way people with piles of money have some pretty poor choices for how to make money earn more money (providing mortgage money for \$80,000 houses even in recessions is just risky and a poor investment, but it represents "all there is" for they guy sitting on a huge pile of money without a business he has the genius to run without getting any more involved in it than he does with that lending), and it is only natural (just kidding, it's a sickness: you have \$30 billion and you want more?) they should want a huge new idea for collateral capital. It's like buying Yahoo on Day One was. What other ideas are out there for huge new sources of mortgage-ready capital? Temp agencies would move right into that owning and leasing of slaves market. Sadly... the world seems pretty ready for it. Even today there are millions of slaves. That nice Saudi fellow who sells you super-priced gasoline? He owns a couple-three Fillipinas. And a wide, mature market means they're all "fungible": no sweating that one got cancer and you're gonna lose everything with him dying or for healthcare to keep him performing. Easy-peasey to sell him off to a mine that is used to wearing them to death in six months anyway. The small, personal benefits of what those two larger points above enable...

So definitely, an ultra-advanced society could easily still make very happy (for the owners) use of slaves.

They'd just have to avoid that millstone the plantation owners had and honestly, given that Wells Fargo just doesn't have a use for slaves, really, not by the millions, so they'd dump them like stolen homes depressing the value of slaves and thereby hammering the whole slave owning elements of an economy causing them to default on their loans as they had to pay back (tomorrow) at least what their collateral no longer covered causing further sell-offs and lowered values... none of which would be grief to the lenders... well, a "run" on slaves like that could easily be the driving force or blow that leads to whatever societal upheaval is the backdrop for a story. Very akin to bank runs after the 1929 stock market crash.

  • $\begingroup$ The formatting engine supports something called MathJax. It's not really documented in the help section, but you can find some background at worldbuilding.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/607/… $\endgroup$
    – tripleee
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 6:11
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    $\begingroup$ You escape dollar signs using backslashes, like this: \$. I had to learn that the hard way as well, so don't worry about it. $\endgroup$
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 7:05

Human money farms

As automation progresses, the question becomes is everyone better at something than a robot? and the answer to that is likely a resounding no. Capitalism stops working when robots become better at all of the jobs that a person with no extraordinary talents would be able to do. People often talk about how important things like art, entertainment, research, and IT work would be in such a world, but you can't employ a full population off of such specialized labor. Not because there are not enough jobs, but because not everyone can specialize enough to beat a robot at anything at all. When society reaches this point, the only way to prevent a runaway economic collapse is to stop making jobs a necessary thing.

If only 10% of your people are smart/talented enough to be gainfully employed, then there are only a few possible ways this could play out.

  1. Your lower 90% either starves to death or revolts and has to be exterminated. This drop in population will cause a new wave of unemployment followed by more revolutions and more exterminations until someone someone steps in and forms a socialism that will support the unemployed masses.
  2. Your lower 90% successfully revolts and forms a socialism that will support the unemployed masses.
  3. Enough leaders see the problem before it boils over so they form a socialism that will supports the unemployed masses before then.

No matter how it plays out, you will inevitably end up with a "lazy socialism": a system where you are given a ration to live off of regardless of whether you are gainfully employed or not.

With this backdrop in mind, picture a world where you have a chip in your arm, and as long as it detects your biometrics, it functions as your government issued ration card. You use it to buy food, furniture, clothes, services, etc. Everything you need to live and be happy thanks to the hard work of robots.

The thing about this system though is that as long as you are alive, you can claim your ration meaning you don't actually need to make a slave do work for you to make money off of them. Just keep a bunch of people chained up in your basement, and swipe thier chips to buy whatever you want. Sure you have to feed them, but the government is not so cruel as to make the lower class have to survive at a true sustenance level baseline, so you use thier chips to pay for the absolute minimum it takes to keep them alive and you pocket the rest for yourself.

So instead of slave labor looking like this:

enter image description here

It would look like this:

enter image description here

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Philip Jose Farmer, in his Riverworld series, had all the people supplied with daily needs, but people wanted more and kept others as slaves to take their daily ration and give the slaves just enough to stay alive. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riverworld $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 3:56
  • $\begingroup$ Never read that one, but it's interesting to see others have already explored this idea. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 13:12

Slavery is not economical. It is very costly

At some point in the past, production of any kind was very labor intensive. The ideal of any male was to have a wife that would "produce" a lot of kids so they could be put to work. And become wealthy by keeping a good percent of their production while they grow up. Slavery, defined as owning a person, has very high costs. And the only jobs that can be done by slaves are the most labor intensive, and least intellectual. For the fundamental reason that people do not like being "owned" by someone else. There needs to be armed men ensuring slaves don't insurrect or escape. Some will act against their owners and will need to be punished. Others need to be warned of consequences of their escape. Ect... For the little value of the possible jobs slaves could do. It does not make economic sense.

Civilization gap may change the economics of ownership

If there was two groups of people where one of them had access to near endless resources Lets call it rich. While the other is at our level of access to resources, that would be the poor group. It could be that the rich could pose such a threat to the existence of the poor group, that the poor group would have no recourse but to resign itself to slavery. Over the years the enslaved group would become more and more submissive. The degree to which technology could enable the rich group is critical. It could be that the rich group does not even have to worry about the politics of "educating" the poor group about their new circumstance. Robots and AI could do it for them. Robots could do all the dirty job of threatening, punishing and policing. While at the same time supplying the rich group of slaves only when they have been truly enslaved. At that point the question becomes to what end? Clearly we humans have proven ourselves capable of the most insane activities. And this action could be perpetrated by just a portion of the advanced civilization. It does not have to be sanctioned by the whole.

Long term risks

The biggest problem is the long term risk associated with psychological harm. Clearly the distinctive quality that could create the inhumane wish of enslaving another human being. Is our actual human condition, and that as humans we engage each other at a cognitive level. This cognitive interaction is precisely where the risk lies. Because in an advanced civilization where individuals have access to immense resources, the possibility of a few antisocial individuals causing extraordinary harm is very real. The psychological harm required could be creating the people who would eventually destroy civilization. We humans are just too random, It's impossible to predict what interactions those potential slaves will have in 100, 1000 or 10000 years from now.

Humanity may not even be capable of being highly civilized

All this brings us to the last point. Which is, will humans ever be highly civilized. The risk posed by people who could potentially be enslaved, already exists now. There may be enough crazy people in this world. That at some point a small group or even an individual could do huge harm to our civilization. What will the smarter people decide to do? Will there be two civilizations? One of poor people who are learning to be a part of the advanced group. And a rich group who's biggest preoccupation is the safety of the rich group from itself and the poor group?


Avoiding government surveillance

Advanced robots require very high technology level. Governments can oversee their production and enforce mandatory surveillance features.

Legal workers demand pay, and may leave to other work opportunities. They can also be disloyal and share your secrets.

Volunteers / cult followers are loyal and don't need to be paid, but they need to share your goal. If you want to keep your goal completely secret or if few other people would agree with it, you would have to trick them with a fake goal. Depending on the work you need the workers to do, this might be difficult.

Thus, if you want to do something that requires a lot of work and that both majority of the population and the government would disagree with, slaves would be the most economical and easiest to control workforce.


Because they are afraid of AI uprisings (perhaps from experience in the past), and so they don't allow AI robots. Therefore for jobs that require intelligence, they need sentient organic beings.

The jobs that would require a high level of intelligence would be those that pull together multiple disciplines and require seeing the world through multiple lenses, self-modification/adaption, creativity, and intelligent communication.

  • Research and development, engineering, scientists, etc
  • Personal servants (they have to be intelligent enough to understand any command you give them and perform a wide array of complex tasks)
  • Creative endeavors - writers, film-makers, musical artists, actors

Of course, you would need to invent some reason why the advanced civilization values having some other race perform some of these jobs. Maybe they value cultural diversity, or having people that look at things from different angles, or it's about novelty, or they all got really lazy, or some combination of these. Maybe all forms of work (outside of management/government) are delegated to other races because the aliens think they're the ultimate life-form in the galaxy and they shouldn't have to do anything.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a very good primase, but could use some elaboration. What kind of jobs would you propose do/don't require dangerous levels of intelligence. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 14:34


There may be a number of different reasons why this is so.

  • "Because it's always been done this way." People own and use slaves because, in whatever culture you define, "it's always been done this way." In a situation, such as this, people (both slaves and masters) may be so acculturated to the concept that they don't even think about it.

  • It emphasizes the stratification between socioeconomic classes.

    • Other answers allude to this, but it may simply be to show, "look at everything I have the wealth to afford."

    • In a society such as you describe, it is likely that there will be a high level of automation and, possibly, corresponding unemployment. The basic socioeconomic classes might well be the aristocracy, a microscopic middle class, and the people on the dole. In such a society, servitude may even be seen as a step up from being on the dole. Slaves may have a better lifestyle than those who are merely subsisting on government assistance. I.e., better food, clothing, and medical care, as the owner is likely to want to protect his investment and have their appearance reflect his wealth.


I'll start with describing "an advanced society". Imagine a society in which the cost to build and maintain a robot is less than the cost to grow and feed a human.

Growing and feeding a human requires food, and food requires energy. Land growing crops has a cost; if that same land (or same crops) converted into energy is sufficient to makes and maintains a robot that is more capable than a human at a given task, that human isn't efficient at that task (in the medium term; in the short term, you could have excess humans).

In a sufficiently advanced society, robots and AI are more efficient than humans at every task. This would include everything from mining to developing new technology.

Such robots/AI do not have to be sentient. It might just turn out that describing a problem domain from natural language isn't "AI hard", and solving that problem domain through experimentation isn't that hard either. So you literally say "I want a better hand computer", and the non-sentient AI looks at human behavior, works out what you mean, and solves that problem.

In this society, a given human has no natural economic need for another human; there is nothing the other human can sell them that they couldn't get cheaper from an AI.

As you transition to such a society, wealth is going to be held by various humans. They are quickly going to pass on the management of their wealth to AIs (as, again, AIs do a better job), harvesting a small amount of it to enjoy themselves (if they harvest too much, their wealth will erode).

Those without wealth will find themselves without economic purpose. Initially governments will support said economically worthless people with stuff like basic income. Almost all services, from police to military to legislation, ends up being taken over by AI and robots; areas where this doesn't happen will experience a constant drain on their relative competitiveness compared to areas that do. Vanity jobs, like "President" or "Sherriff" can exist, but they (economically) are little different than providing humans with toys to amuse themselves. Sometimes the toys can shoot out someone's eye, but they aren't important.

It has been said that power flows from the barrel of a gun; but really, it flows from economic usefulness. The greatest power the populace has ever had is the power to die and deprive the ruling class of their productive surplus. In modern times, the non-ruling class's productivity in first world nations is immense, and huge amounts of wealth are harvested by providing the non-ruling class with economic and political distractions, like democracy, human rights, salaries and home ownership.

With the collapse of the economic usefulness of humanity, and a ruling class still existing, the non-ruling class becomes useless to the ruling class. Democracy and the like will be dismantled over time, and things like universal basic income and human rights will fade.

As this happens, enslaving otherwise useless humans could become something a "soft-hearted" rulership caste could do. Rather than let those purposeless drones starve, they are given economically useless "jobs" that amuse the ruling caste member.

So long as this all falls within the "harvested excess" play money of the ruling caste member, where the vast majority of their wealth goes towards shoring up their power, this is economically feasible.

Now, over time, the rulership caste themselves is worthless. A self-perpetuating non-self aware AI+robot engine that seeks to maximize its own power would be more efficient than one with a parasite ruler attached to it, simply due to the drain of resources and possible executive power errors of said ruler. So this phase, where a cruel sociopathic rulership caste enslaves the remnants of humanity for amusement, would only be a passing one.


When people demand a higher degree of freedom, they are actually demanding a very specific right or set of rights, because its absence became noticeably to them (physical or psychological pain). On wealth nobody asks questions.

Scenario 1: Unnoticed slavery. And I mean nobody, not the slave, not the master (that in turn may be slaves too). I recommend British movie "Moon" from 2009.

Also, when you say slave in what are you thinking exactly? Unpaid labor? Because, I myself, ultimately am an slave of my biology. I will die someday, for example, and nobody asked me if I agree to that design.

Slavery as legally considering some people as property of other people is the more classical and direct meaning.

Scenario 2: direct slavery, with laws supporting it and everything.

Good this is not required, because this scenario sounds unbelievable. Our own world requires people to do certain things, it was never a matter of if you are in mood at the time. There are ways to motivate people to cumply. We are just becoming better at it. You learn to properly use your tools to avoid damaging them before the job is done, right? With people is the same.

Slave longevity is as cheap as is longevity of the life form being enslaved. But the slave system is expensive and inefficient if the enslaved life form is self conscious. Cows doesn't asks questions (as far as we are aware), while humans don't like the word "slave", or anything that may imply that they cannot do X or go to Y, while other humans can. In the end, humans will challenge any system and see by themselves what they can or cannot do.

Slavery failed historically because it became evident that it is not viable. Maybe some people prefer to remember it as "good group of people killed bad group of people". With cultural evolution is never as simple as that. In the end slave system isn't maintainable. If it were maintainable, it would have lasted to today.

Why an "evil" company, people or single person may choose to have slaves?

You can play with the possibilities here. Maybe a space colony was cut out of technological solutions. Due to natural disaster or whatever. People not used to hardships refuse to do their jobs and specially to take the ones traditionally done by machines. Then, in desperation, the managers of the colony decide to implement a system that lets them force people to cumply.

Make that believable is the challenge.

The endless loop of rediscovering or reborn of slavery at certain places.

This is a different problem. Our civilization has a certain level. But for varying reasons, some people may loss access to certain things. If the situation remains through the generations, you have a disconnected community.

This is also a symptom of going backward in cultural evolution.

While I don't believe this can happen at planetary scale, it sure happens in specific places or even to specific individuals. I cannot speak of the possible reasons for that, but a trick to make it sound believable is to restrict the phenomenon to specific districts, cities, companies or even individuals.

One thing I never bought from science fiction, is when you have space ships but everything else resembles middle ages or roman empire. It's lazy.


I think that slavery is useful. Immoral, but useful. Somebody has to do the hard work, right? I think sometimes it can be about power, because it's generally fun to dominate someone and even use them for your own personal devise. With that said, I think slavery existed because people wanted to make profit off of them.

Is it not a big boy business move to make people pick your cotton, or work in your factories? I mean slavery isn't much different than paying people 40 cents an hour. It'd probably cost you more to feed your slaves today than 0.40 cents an hour, let alone house them and them not die.

The biggest thing wrong with slavery in the 1800s was the fact that they legitimately beat them to death if they didn't work. The slave owners actually enjoyed this, often times believing they deserved it because they were slaves and eventually turned that into being black. I believe it's a great example of what happens when we view people as identities instead of individuals.

But yeah, slaves = no work + profit, and I'm not against the concept....I'm just against doing it to people, especially targeting a people by identity. If we could get to a part in society where machines did all of the work and required little maintenance we would either eliminate some of the unenjoyable things to do in life and create other jobs doing other, more important jobs or the economy capsizes due to unemployment -> lack of spending.

Though, that's been a fear for a while. Technology is not an enemy, it's the people who weaponize it.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Slavery isn't really about paying little or nothing, it's about literally owning other sentient beings. Slave ownership involves ensuring your slaves can't pack up their bags one day and decide to not be your slave anymore- and usually this is enforced by violence and brutality. Keep in mind that nobody would consider volunteering at a soup kitchen for no pay to be slavery, and the key distinguishing factor is that it's a voluntary arrangement that can be left at any time. $\endgroup$
    – Beefster
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 21:40
  • $\begingroup$ What about sweatshops? What if you convinced your slaves you were paying them a fair wage? Trick them that their jobs made them free when in all actuality it's slavery without the bill of housekeeping and feeding? $\endgroup$
    – tblev
    Commented Aug 10, 2020 at 17:51
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Sweatshops generally don't represent involuntary labor or inescapable arrangements. I think there's still an ethical question worth discussing there, but to call it slavery isn't very accurate, especially when there's no actual ownership of other sentient beings. I could go more in depth, but I'll save that for a proper debate forum. $\endgroup$
    – Beefster
    Commented Aug 10, 2020 at 17:57

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