Special Series: What If the Rapture of the Nerds Brings Marx's Revolution?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because redistribution of wealth can come in all shapes and sizes.
By Sanjena Sathian
Life at Jerry Kaplan’s home in Hillsborough, California, looks enviably comfortable: an automated gate, a stone fountain out front, a giant, Harry Potter–size chessboard in the side yard.
But this? It’s nothing. Nothing compared to the kajillionare colleagues who surround him in the Valley, and nothing compared to the kind of extravagance he says is coming down the line. These days, the self-proclaimed Silicon Valley “fossil” and erstwhile serial entrepreneur spends his days looking into the future. The clearest image he sees features techno-oligarch parents throwing $100 million birthday parties for their 10-year-olds, fetes staffed by low-wage minions desperate for work that robots can’t do. (“Your kid’s a Civil War buff?” he quips. “Bring on a thousand-person cast of reenactors for the front yard!”) This vision of extreme inequality doesn’t depress him, per se. Kaplan’s m.o. is more about solving problems than lamenting their existence. “The future is bright,” he tells me. “We just have to get there.”
By which he means: We’re about to live through a seismic shift in how we work, and whether we work, courtesy of artificial intelligence, or, in less dramatic terms, automation. His new, forebodingly titled book, Humans Need Not Apply, is all about this future — what it might look like, and what we should do about it. He is, these days, one of no shortage of Thought Leaders examining and pontificating on labor far beyond the conversation we see playing out every day from Lean In to $15-minimum-wage battles.
The hype’s been building for decades now: The robots will be like legions of outsourced Indian workers — smarter than you, cheaper and with kickass work ethics too. An Oxford University study in 2013 suggested that the automation of more and more work, from accounting clerks to the C-suite, could wreak havoc on nearly half of all American jobs in the coming decades. Some would tell you that’s good in the long run: More computing power in our hands gets rid of all the menial work and hairy computations that humans dread and frees them up to do what they are best at — work requiring judgment, eye contact and a pulse. “We’re talking about a world in which there’s more wealth and less work,” says Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. “Shame on us if we mess it up and turn it into bad news.”
Others see plenty of bad news, worrying that the machines will displace us, leaving most of us pathetic, unemployed sacks and a few of us — the ones who own the computing power — extraordinarily rich. If we think inequality’s bad now, they say, then we’ve got a lot more coming to us.
Nobody yet knows the contours of the looming labor upheaval. Experts debate how long it will take for automation to hit its stride and really start kicking us all in the nuts, the scope of its impact, even how many jobs will be lost and how many might be gained. But some among them argue that it’s not too early to think about what exactly the world will need to do when the great hiccup does come around. “There are a host of policy responses” that could address the looming transition, says Benjamin Sachs, professor of labor law at Harvard Law School, “none of which are easy — or modest.”
And many of them, it turns out, aren’t exactly what you might expect from Silicon Valley, this shimmering capitalist utopia, home to some of the highest per capita concentrations of wealth in the world. Few would associate this place with socialism; when the word is uttered in the same breath as inequality, we might expect to hear a rant about Google buses pushing longtime San Francisco residents out of house and home. And yet in this land of libertarian opportunity, some of the newest ideas about political economy sound like they could be planks of Bernie Sanders’ platform: a universal basic income, shifts in how we pass on generational wealth, rethinking corporate ownership. The workers of the world may be uniting — and a few VCs are along for the ride.
So, as Lenin might have said: What is to be done? Brynjolfsson, one of the best-known economists writing on the topic, has a thoroughly uncontroversial platform: education, more entrepreneurship, freer immigration, etc. “I don’t think it’s rocket science,” he says, cautioning against imagining up a “science-fiction economy.” “There is a playbook that will work,” he says. “We don’t need anything bizarre or radical.” Of course, the methods by which we get to Brynjolfsson’s easy-breezy world will entail some controversy.
Like Brynjolfsson, Kaplan, who describes himself as a Keynesian-Marxist futurist, draws on the past for some suggestions about the future: He tells me that at various times in history, “we’ve decided what we think is important” for the American Dream — say, a basic right to health care or the right to own a home or to not go to debtors’ prison — and the government has then gone about its business making it easier for us to achieve it. He figures we’ll see something like that all over again. We’ll have to define our American Dream, he says, and then break a sweat to nudge it into existence.
Of course, defining the American Dream for a new era is a contentious act. Some would argue that the dream is merely … employment, jobs for all. Getting there in an age of robots would be tough: Sachs, of Harvard Law, guesses at a kind of Works Progress Administration to provide jobs, à la the New Deal. Not exactly politically feasible.
But at least as radical is the idea of providing a “universal basic income” to every citizen, say 10 or 15 grand a year, a simple check, no questions asked. It’d be expensive, sure, but this idea isn’t just coming from the left — it has a hint of the right in it too, because it’d involve cutting entitlements like welfare and food stamps. And entrepreneurs see gold in the idea; it’s not just about ensuring a decent standard of living but about enabling human flourishing and progress. “If everyone knew they had a safety net, we’d get more startups or more new research or more novels,” wrote Sam Altman, president of the wildly successful seed accelerator fund Y Combinator, in a 2014 blog post that described basic income as one “obvious conclusion.” For others, a universal basic income would let us live in true liberty: “Humans could be theoretically free to turn their attention toward whatever they wanted to turn their attention toward,” with friendly automation by their side, says Albert Wenger, managing partner at Union Square Ventures.
And yet, despite all the talk about flourishing and self-realization, a genuine anxiety lurks, one that has lately reared its head all over the mainstream, from #occupy protests and the popularity of French economist Thomas Piketty’s tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century to the Draft Warren movement and the candidacy of Sanders: Labor, or the work individuals do in the economy, has over decades become worth far less than capital, or financial wealth. Automation will, naturally, make most of that labor worth even less.
Which has people thinking about other solutions too, like more widespread corporate ownership, something Kaplan alludes to in Humans — the idea being, reward people with assets, not wages. Once upon a while ago, during our farming days, land was the ultimate asset; today, think stock options. Speaking of that governmental nudge Kaplan is fond of — why not take a leaf out of the Homestead Act’s book, the one that gave land to Americans to suggest they move westward ho? The equivalent today: “seed capital,” as Kaplan puts it, meaning a little government tidbit for anyone who wants to “give some project a try.” Or the government might provide tax incentives for companies to offer more widespread stock options; contract drivers might get shares in Uber, suggests Sachs, as a nice little hedge against the day the driverless cars put them out of work.
Still, no shortage of people dispute that the coming labor disruption should be an urgent priority at all: We’re talking long-term conjecture here! Robin Hanson, a former A.I. researcher turned economist at George Mason University, tells me: “In the short run, nothing’s going to happen that’s of note — so all the usual things we’ve done for the last few centuries will be fine.” Beat. But give it about a century, he says, and all of a sudden, bang: “Humans will basically lose the ability to work for money — they’ll basically just retire.” Hanson’s prognostication comes from his faith in something called “whole brain emulation,” or the idea that one day we’ll figure out how to put a brain onto a computer, wham, bam. It either works or it doesn’t; none of this slowly putting people out of work, improving along the way. In Hanson’s vision — far from the standard one — a switch will flip one day, a brain will suddenly live on a computer, and that’s when the shit will hit the fan.
Hanson figures we should plan for the retirement of humanity mostly the way we plan for our own. We’ll need a little nest egg. And especially because the economy will likely grow far faster with the benefit of A.I., he says, a “little something” from the government. Something to cover you for just about three months, “until your nest egg grows big enough.” That’s just one idea, though; in the end, he says, trying to guarantee stability of the job market between now and the massive disruption to come is a little fruitless. And once we enter the “new robot civilization,” we will be sidelined, and saving our jobs will likely be the last things on our minds. “Whatever this new civilization’s going to do, if you’re on the margin, well, humans will be vulnerable. That’s the nature of being out of control.”
What we can control, however, are our skills. And that doesn’t necessarily mean learning to code or getting superb at the whole EQ thing so we can out-feel the robots. New work out of the McKinsey Global Institute suggests automation doesn’t imperil half of all jobs in question; rather, half of all tasks that we do every day could be automated already. But surprisingly, the report predicts, fewer than 5 percent of entire jobs are replaceable. If that’s the case, the future might be more about the changing nature of work — and of its rewards — and less about the radical departure of work altogether.
Still, you can cue the big dreaming: Any time work changes, it’s a chance for us to pray, dream and swear this time will be different. Maybe this time we can incarnate a future in which we really only do stuff we want to do. Maybe this time we can do everything we want to do. It was Marx who dreamed of a world where we could “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening and criticize after dinner,” all without the burden of writing Hunter/Fisher/Cattle Rearer/Critic on our LinkedIn profiles. And now? It’s the Silicon Valley prophets who dream of a world where we’re free to make stuff, to be developers in the morning, TaskRabbits in the afternoon, novelists in the evening and Lyft drivers at night.
“We have a lot of psychological hang-ups coming out of industrial society,” USV’s Wenger tells me when we talk about basic income guarantees. One such hang-up is “that you have to have a job, because that somehow provides meaning in people’s lives. And it’s questionable that flipping burgers does that.”