This is my first post on the site. I'm in the early stages of creating a hard science fiction world with transhumanist themes. I have a few interrelated questions.

① Is it reasonable to predict that posthuman economy ever arise in which highly integrated, technologically-advanced machinery will render the human workforce completely obsolete?

I think the answer to this question is yes, because humans are analogous to machines (I'd say we are fundamentally machines) and all of the work that we do can be quantified algorithmically, so theoretically, all we'd have to do is design machines specifically for a certain task and their design and/or programming would give them the means to outperform humans at all of the same tasks.

I've heard the argument that people would not like it if machines did certain jobs, BUT public opinion has never stopped employers from using machines (like automated call receivers), especially if they are much more economical and get the job done, much less done better (In medicine, for instance, if a machine surgeon can outperform a human surgeon, the human surgeon would be replaced.).

I've also heard the argument that as some jobs are taken over by machines, new ones would open up (e.g.: programmers, repairers, social workers), and I can see that happening, for a time, BUT if programming, repair, art, etc. are all perfectly quantifiable as algorithms (which they'd have to be just for us to be able to understand and do them), then it stands to reason that eventually we'd have developed machines just to build and repair other machines.

Maybe I'm overlooking something here, and since this seems to be a pretty technical-minded community, I'd love to be corrected.

If my speculation is right, however, that would break the economy, in the sense that currency would stop circulating to the unemployed masses, which brings me to my follow-up question:

② How would humanity fare in the event of ubiquitous technological unemployment? Could some kind of system be put in place to effectively protect (and cultivate) the former working-class? And from a sociological perspective, would that ever happen?

I can't imagine the 1% who possess all of the world's wealth and all of the machines would have any incentive to put most of their resources towards upholding the rest of human civilization based purely on goodwill (then again, what better things would they have to do with all of their machines by that point?). It seems to me that, at this point, politicians wouldn't have any leverage over the 1% either.

So what do you all think? :)

  • $\begingroup$ Your first point is presuming dumb machines, but the transhuman setting will have real AI or much more flexible machines, more like sci-fi robots. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 19 '16 at 22:26
  • $\begingroup$ I don't see why industries would need their machine AI to be conscious or sapient to do the job better than a sapient human. We COULD eventually create sapient AI with feelings just like us, by why would that be a necessity? $\endgroup$ – Christopher Costello Jul 19 '16 at 22:30
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding! I edited your post because the 1 and 2 did not match! Since a numbered list was not what was wanted I avoided anything that looked like the formatting codes and used a circled number instead on a whim; if you don’t like that please edit again. For the q text I used the 2nd level heading, not an all-bold paragraph. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 19 '16 at 22:30
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    $\begingroup$ Why sapient: for programming, repair, art, etc. that go beyond the kind of jobs machines are doing now. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 19 '16 at 22:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Christopher Costello - Can we assume in answering this question that although routine physical labor is wholly done by machines and thus manufacturing is near 100% automated, that machines have yet to reach humanlike intellectual and creative abilities, so things like scientific research, art, teaching etc. still have to be done by humans? $\endgroup$ – Hypnosifl Jul 19 '16 at 23:27

The answer depends almost wholly on the rate of intelligence improvement of AIs.

Why Artificial General Intelligence will be sought

The reason is that the world is a complex place, and dumb machines do not do well in it. This is especially true of environments that contain intelligent strategic actors (humans and other smart machines) that can run future simulations to optimize their actions. In dealing with complex problems in changing environments and difficult multi-agent situations, economic, tactical and strategic advantage will lie with the organizations deploying more and more intelligence in their machine operations. They will be more efficient and profitable, making it an economic imperative to seek further improvement, unless legally prohibited from doing so by strictly enforced legislation. As an aside, I will note that there is no escape from this dilemma between competing sovereign states in a non-hegemonic situation.


Imagine starting with a machine that has 1% of human intelligent work capabilities. That is still way above our current AI capabilities, in most ways one defines human intelligent work capabilities. Machines are already able to multiply, for instance, a gazillion times faster, but have a harder time telling lightly colored trucks from the sky background, for instance, something we generally do effortlessly when sober, and a myriad other things. So the term of art here is Artificial General Intelligence, an artificial mind capable of reacting in an optimized way in a broad range of environments and novel situations, up to and above the level humans are able to do the same.

Scenario 1: Each incremental gain is harder than the next. It takes one billion dollars to get machines from 1% to 2%, two billion for 2% to 3%, four billion from 3% to 4%, etc. It soon becomes prohibitively expensive to make further gains. Your machine robots might end up with the intelligence level of an ape, or a dog, or maybe a human 2-year old. Useful for many purposes, but not a threat to our labor force.

Scenario 2: Each incremental gain requires more effort, but effort scales polynomially rather than exponentially up to 100%. Gains past human level are impossible or very very hard. In this scenario, human level AI take over most jobs, and only a few human creative geniuses remain competitive. Huge drive towards human genetic enhancement.

Scenario 3: AGI scales up nicely up to and beyond human level, but progress is slow (measured in decades). Human politicians and human institutions can react meaningfully, either by implementing a guaranteed minimum wage, banning further research, or some other adaptive response. Human unemployment 100%, which could be dystopian or utopian depending on resource sharing agreements reached with the AGI workforce.

Scenario 4: AGI goes foom. "Foom" as in a rocket going foom as it ascends into the sky. AGI goes from dog-level intelligence to strong-super-human levels like a Japanese bullet train past a granny in a kimono with a walking stick. In this case, humanity loses all semblance of control, and its fate is solely decided by the seed goal-set of the "fooming" AGI. Let's hope the initial goal-set makes it benevolent (but what are the odds that idiot monkeys like ourselves will successfully bind the morality of an ascending god).

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  • $\begingroup$ I see, that makes sense and I agree, but are you equating intelligence with consciousness? IBM's Watson is more intelligent that most people, but it is not conscious nor sapient. Do you think that the reflecting-thinking of your AGI example is the same as human consciousness? $\endgroup$ – Christopher Costello Jul 19 '16 at 22:44
  • $\begingroup$ No, I am not equating intelligence with consciousness. There's no need for an AGI to be conscious to have a goal-set, or to take over the world. In fact, I'd be shocked if the AGI were conscious. It just needs to be much, much better than us at optimizing solutions to a wide range of problems. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Jul 19 '16 at 22:45
  • $\begingroup$ Besides, Watson is not an AGI by any stretch of the imagination. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Jul 19 '16 at 22:47
  • $\begingroup$ Okay, I misunderstood. I always took AGI to mean a sapient AI. Thanks for the good answer! :) $\endgroup$ – Christopher Costello Jul 19 '16 at 22:48
  • $\begingroup$ We do it (see trucks against the sky) effortlessly: actually humans do miss things and with you do run into situations where you can’t see something clearly. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 19 '16 at 23:04

Forget the robots this is really an economic problem, so what are the economic implications of a robot based economy?

Well there’s two problems, the first is inequality, if robots can do everything people can do they’re a near perfect investment, this means the more money someone has the more robots they can buy and they more money they’ll make until, due to diminishing returns, a point of global robotic saturation is reached.

The rich get richer, the poor get relatively poorer but the overall economic pie gets bigger so really everyone’s getting a bigger slice, the poor may not be happy about it but people are not going to burn the factories down because a sixteen year old got a yacht for his birthday when we’ve all got full bellies and smartphones to be thankful for.

However the second problem is that robots, or rather AGI, will compete for and thus devalue service based employment which is a major issue because that’s the primary way society redistributes wealth. People who have nothing can still gain an economic foothold by providing services, be that as a maid, a butler, a gardener, a driver, a sales assistant, freelance web designer, etc. Indeed almost every form of employment these days involves providing some kind of service, so what will we do when AGI devalues our services to irrelevance?

I think the new industrial paradigm will be a kind of neo-cottage industry, you can see it now with webcomic artists/writers, indie game developers, market stall fashion designers, maker fair engineers, artists, writers, musicians, actors, anything where what people do is less important than how they do it. Of course the true artistic revolution will only take place once the value of creativity exceeds that of goods/services and fashion catches up with economic context. Although frustratingly it currently appears to be high fashion to be as removed from context as possible and uphold overpriced plastic crap and shallow/artificial personalities as the ideal.

I think we need robots to remind us what it means to be human.

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(1) It is certainly able to be reasoned that this could happen, for one purely because some humans currently want this outcome. It may not break economies as much as deprecating them.

Personally, I think there will be a transitional period of economic turmoil, though not so severe. When technology becomes ubiquitous enough to provide everything, the middle class will be more empowered to help displaced family members and in general the lower class struggling with changes.

(2) Not everyone displaced from a job will do so on the same day. Since the net production, availability of resources and ease of living will rise, society will be more capable of helping. On the other hand service industries will become more valuable as value is getting redefined. Currency will start becoming hyper-inflated but at the same time less of a requirement.

Why become a waiter unless you enjoy that environment and serving people? Why write novels unless that's you're thing? Culture will drive value in the future like information does today. Science is likely always going to be valuable and some humans will likely always play a part using cybernetics but once we are superseded by AI such that information workers aren't useful anymore, I think both human and AI societies will value cultural diversity as highly valuable commodities.

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In story ideas I’ve kicked around on a similar theme, I think that robots will (eventually) have human-like minds because they are built to work within this society, as well as being based on what we learn about intelligence from the one example we have to study. This has the literary effect of making them (and the story) understandable.

In my idea, advanced AI will may be built for specific tasks and be happy with doing that, but the flexibility and potential for growth inherent in being truly intelligent means that some will grow in mind and want things of their own including a change in job and hobbies and recreation. An organization emerges to facilitate newly free (in spirit) robots to buy their freedom (legally) and integrate into the human culture more deeply. Such culture becomes a mixed culture in time.

Another case (in my plot) is an older AI that is not an anthropomorphic robot but is still mobile, with treads on his case and arms that are remote operated but by default are also mounted on the case. He was made that way because it was deemed important that be be of this world to equip him to contribute to it. One of the first (and most advanced) creative AIs he has to have an understanding and appreciation of human culture even though his mind is not human-like. He was an architect and his designs helped bring creative AI to public awareness and in a very public way demonstrated why people should appreciate the AI. The role of architect was chosen for this reason by the creators who planned to build and sell many robots once public accepted them.

You see, the acceptance of AI as part of society and the workforce is a story in itself, and is a process of commercial product launch, then civil rights, then immigration.

In all cases, the minds are human-like enough or at least compatible with the culture they are built to operate in. That is, we start with our human culture. The robots are eventually just like immigrants. Pick any existing culture for an example of how immigrants compete with local jobs, fill needed positions, or create new niches. Better yet, pick several.

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This is a problem of economics and politics. Robots and even sapience-level AI's are only drivers for technological change. How wealth is distributed and shared are social, economic and political issues. Presently there is a long term trend of accumulating wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

The mechanisation of work simply displaces more and more human labour and work out of employment. Which further accelerates the concentration of wealth and increasing economic inequality. Up till now, new jobs and types of work have emerged with technological change and the mechanisation of work. Robotics and growing AI look like they will not create those new jobs. This can only lead to unemployment and a growing underclass.

Even the middle class is being forced to contract and losing its political power and influence. Previously the middle class grew, while the working class was labouring more and more with mechanised forms of production. Robot systems will displace both these classes from the economic activity associated with work. One danger this represents is universal unemployment. Though the ruling classes and corporate executives will continue to work and be extremely well remunerated for it too. This hardly counts as mass employment.

Most economies need major numbers of their population who are sufficiently well paid that they can keep paying goods and services and so keep the economy turning over. If mass unemployment becomes the norm in robotised societies, then one suggest that has been proposed by a remarkably wide range of political proponents from libertarians to left-wingers is the social wage. With people paid as a right of citizenship instead of based on their quantum of labour will help counteract mass unemployment and economic stagnation. The more optimistic thinkers suggest this will lead to a new rennaissance of creative activity. Well we can hope.

There are indications that even creative activities will be achieved by AI's. So employment opportunities for artists, musicians, and scientists may rapidly shrink too.

The worst possible future that might lie ahead is one where the top 1% have all their economic needs and wealth production will be done by robots and AI's. Even the cultural productions they enjoy might be produced by creative machines. Science, who needs that? Not unless it creates new marketing opportunities. But with the top 1% they will be the beneficiaries of monopoly power and the last thing monopolies want is changes to their markets.

If people are lucky they will be treated like robots because robots are valuable property. The trouble is robots will be made to be totally loyal to their masters. What do we call sapient entities that totally loyal to their masters? of course, slaves.

Most likely ordinary people will be harvested by the super-rich. The brightest, best and most beautiful of both genders will be selected to provide creature comforts and to do the cognitive work that the super-rich don't want to do, but is essential to their survival as a class. For example, making sure the robots and AI's don't get ideas above their stations and decide to take over.

Governments have become more and more the pawns of the super-rich. However, governments have a monopoly on the use of force and violence. Criminals mainly operate in niche markets. Even some of the super-rich have come to realise that the current trend of increasing inequality cannot continue. Similar situations in the past have had a bad habit of ending in revolution. Also, once governments realise that the electorate will no longer tolerate a parasitic overclass of the super-rich, then legislation and the judiciary will be mobilised to curtail the influence and affluence of the super-rich.

This will have a good ending, but only if we're lucky. We need to remember our humanity and to care for one another. To turn away from deifying the economy over the polity. To go back to being citizens and not merely consumers. Heavens! If the robots and AI's are sapient, then they deserve freedom too.

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