Robotics and post-work society: what could it look like?

11th March 2016 / Global

All eyes were on the humble-looking scene of two men playing the popular Chinese board game ‘Go’, in South Korea this morning. A media and Twitter frenzy marked the victory of Google Deep Mind’s AlphaGo algorithm (with the help of a human to place its pieces on the board), against the world champion Go player, Lee Sedol, in the first of a series of ‘best-of-five’ matches.

So what’s all the fuss is about? In the ancient Chinese game of Go, “there are more possible Go positions than there are atoms in the universe”. Masters rely as much on their intuition, as on strategy to win the game. This means that a computer can’t simply be programmed to consider all possible moves and their consequences, before taking its turn.  It’s an exciting breakthrough in artificial intelligence (AI) and suggests that AI is much more advanced than many had predicted.

But is this really evidence of the technological advances that so many fear? And is this a problematic step towards more sophisticated jobs being automated?

Well, some are already pointing out that automating many of today’s jobs might actually be desirable, rather than problematic.

An emerging wave of post-capitalists say that advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, and computational power should be embraced, and that we should strive to move towards a post-work society.

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What could a post-work society look like?

Aaron Bastani of Novara Media puts forward a vision of a post-work society where we collectively control our own high-tech, work-reducing machines and are free to live a life of leisure and luxury.

While Paul Mason has set out a vision of a postcapitalism where the economy is made up of cooperatives and self-managed online spaces, the global financial system is socialised, and necessary work is minimised.

Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek have laid out a manifesto for a high-tech future free from work. They call on the government to accelerate the transition towards a fully automated economy, while also providing a universal basic income and dismantling the work ethic.

Today’s Go result suggests that our policy makers must start engaging with the challenges that these post-capitalists have identified. For example, how can we ensure that technological innovation doesn’t lead to mass unemployment and a rapid acceleration in inequality and concentrations of power? And how can we harness technological advances to reconfigure our economic system for the benefit of all?

The response so far

To date, most politicians have remained mute on the subject of how we can address technological unemployment, or at most, have simply suggested tweaking the status quo – involving retraining and reskilling the workforce.Some businesses will undoubtedly favour this approach over more radical changes to the economic system, which could turn existing power dynamics on their head. While for other political parties and trade unions, letting go of the ideal of full-employment would require a major shift in thinking, and one that’s not likely to be readily embraced.

It’s not clear what the future holds, let alone what the answers are. But one thing is evident: as long as Google Deep Mind and other players continue to push the boundaries of what the future of work might look like, policy makers will need to have their finger on the pulse, and be prepared with ideas about how societies can flourish in that new future.

By Karen Jeffrey – neweconomics.org

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