What If the Robot Utopia Leads to an Existential Crisis for Humans?
Welcome to the automated ennui apocalypse.
Illustrations by Shaye Anderson
Imagine a human being born on the cusp of a robotic revolution. Let's call him Bill.
At first, when the machines take over the economy, Bill is stoked. He wakes up late every morning, smokes some 22nd century weed and then watches TV. Eventually, he gets bored. His degree in accounting has become worthless, because there is nothing he could do that couldn't be done better by a machine. Bill plugs his brain into a virtual world, becomes obsessed with killing dragons and winning digital gold, and dies shriveled and alone as a level 900 paladin.
The end of the world? No.
Kind of lame? Yes.
Welcome to the robot ennui apocalypse.
Pop culture has spent plenty of time pondering the robot uprising, usually involving hordes of mechanized warriors marching over smoldering rubble and human skulls.
But what if machines take over the world in a good way? No more punching the clock; instead, artificial intelligence would do the dirty work, and people would be free to paint and climb mountains and perform one-man shows about being raised by robots.
To many people, that sounds like utopia. Yet that scenario isn't without its drawbacks.
"For better or worse, a lot of our self-worth is connected to our work," John Danaher, a law professor at NUI Galway who specializes in the ethics of emerging technology, told Motherboard. "So what would happen if traditional forms of labor were no longer available?"
In his recently published paper, "Will Life Be Worth Living in a World Without Work? Technological Unemployment and the Meaning of Life," Danaher imagines a future where robots can fill pretty much any job on the planet.
We decided to contact some of the leading experts in economics and technology to ask what could go wrong in robot paradise.
How It Could Work
There is no scarcity in any of these scenarios. It's not the "new disease" predicted by economist John Maynard Keynes, who warned of "technological unemployment" in an economy where starving people scramble for scraps left by capitalists and their super-efficient machines.
Not that this bleak future isn't possible, of course. When WhatsApp was purchased by Facebook in 2014 for $16 billion, the company only had 55 employees. Extrapolate that trend into the future and it's not hard to imagine a few Mark Zuckerbergs controlling most of the world's wealth with just a few underlings and servers.
For the purposes of this article, however, let's say civilization has decided to distribute the world's wealth so that everyone can live a comfortable life without ever working a day in their lives. How on Earth could that go wrong?
The WALL-E Scenario
Most people remember the Pixar film WALL-E for the adorable robot love story, but it also contains a dystopian vision of humanity. Human beings suck down soft drinks while sitting in hovering recliners, from which they chat on video screens and watch ads for products from a company called Buy n Large.
It's what Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu dubbed the "sofalarity." The threat isn't that the Cylons will destroy humanity; it's that we won't be able to pry ourselves off the couch, Portlandia-style, while watching the Cylons on Battlestar Galactica.
Silicon Valley evangelists want us to believe that technology will lead us to become fitter, happier, more productive citizens. And that could happen! But it also delivers plenty of ways to become lazy.
If Bill, our hypothetical human born on the cusp of a robot revolution, wanted to be a poet or classical violinist, he would be set. Like a lot of people, however, he doesn't really have a burning passion. In a previous life, he might have climbed the corporate ladder, which would have given himself a sense of purpose and something to focus on.
People in previous studies, according to Danaher's paper, reported "feeling anxious and bored outside of work when they are presumably free to engage in their preferred activities" even though "they still claim, when asked, to prefer play to work."
So even though Bill says he is happier without a job, he is actually feeling pretty anxious and unengaged. He also has streaming video, internet porn, food delivery apps, and shopping sites to instantly cater to his every desire. Put those factors together and you could see why he would never leave his house, let alone pursue great feats of scientific or artistic discovery.
Kate Darling, a research specialist at the MIT Media Lab, gives human beings a little more credit.
"I have a lot of faith in humanity and what drives us," she told Motherboard. The WALL-E scenario doesn't ring true to her because human beings are motivated by things other than money: altruism, creativity, pride, etc. There is no reason Bill couldn't become the senior vice president of a company simply to prove he can, regardless of whether or not he needs the money.
"We love to create systems," Darling said. "If robots can do of all the jobs we have now, we will think of new jobs. We could see the rise of industries we can't even anticipate yet."
And what if WALL-E was right? Who are we to judge the people in that movie? They seemed happy enough, smiling and laughing with their friends over their screens. For all we know, Darling noted, they could be gaining a sense of purpose by gamifying their leisurely lives.
It's a possibility that Danaher recognized as well. People could be satisfied playing elaborate games, he said. The social and mental challenges of leveling up in some advanced version of World of Warcraft might not be that different than those of corporate life; couldn't some of the benefits be the same as well?
Live Fast, Die Young
Bill has a nice apartment, plenty of cash and no responsibilities. He could commit himself to a life of philosophical inquiry, but in the new robot utopia, the world is rife with DJs. He hits endless club nights until he has gone full Charlie Sheen. Robots keep the economy humming and food growing while Bill and his friends Instagram themselves doing shots of tequila and FutureCocaine.
He wants to stop, but there isn't a pressing need. Machines have mastered medical science, so he can keep the party going forever, or until he jumps off the balcony of his subsidized condo. He isn't the only one. The human race becomes one giant orgy of drugs and sadness.
"If you go back into history, we find wealthy aristocrats who weren't all committing suicide and drowning in misery and drugs and drink"
Certainly, substance abuse could be a problem, said Danaher and James Hughes, executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. But they aren't too worried about it.
"If you go back into history, we find wealthy aristocrats who weren't all committing suicide and drowning in misery and drugs and drink," Hughes told Motherboard. "They found occupations, even if it was just throwing dinner parties. They found things to do that they found meaningful."
A world where we're all basically Lord Grantham? Yeah, that sounds OK. Plus, there is no guarantee drug use wouldn't go down, Hughes said, once you eliminate the stress of poverty and give people ample resources to spend on recovery services.
The Vegetable Scenario
Sure, Bill spends all of his time watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on a levitating chair while getting high, but sometimes he still gets sad. So he hooks into a system that continuously keeps him happy. He never gets bored or anxious because he is plugged into something akin to a Matrix-style fantasy, although this is worse, because in the Matrix people still went to jobs and believed they were living their lives.
In this scenario, robots would run the world while Bill laid in a tube, oblivious and blissed out until he died.
"We would experience a highly pleasurable state, indefinitely," Danaher said.
It's hard to put a positive spin on this scenario, but it's also not clear how feasible it is. When machines were replacing agricultural labor in the early 20th century, people weren't debating the costs and benefits to society of becoming a social media manager. It was a job that was impossible to conceive without computers and the internet.
"The difficulty with far-off predictions is that we don't know what kind of society we will be living in," Darling said.
Recently, robot waiters in China were replaced after they couldn't even serve food properly. The DARPA Robotics Challenge in Pomona last year was famous for a blooper reel of (by our standards) incredibly advanced machines falling over like drunk 3-year-olds. And those are just mechanical issues. As MIT economist David Autor said in a paper released last year, "the challenges to substituting machines for workers in tasks requiring flexibility, judgment, and common sense remain immense."
The robots might take over most jobs one day. That day, however, isn't soon, and who knows what the world will look like at that point. We could incorporate our computers into our bodies and become cyborgs, theorized Danaher's paper, giving us "the best of both worlds" by utilizing machines to advance our civilization while at the same time letting us feel a sense of accomplishment with every new discovery.
Everything Is the Same
Bill has a great standard of living, economic stability and a sassy robot butler. But the person who owns the automated factory that built his sassy robot butler is richer than God.
That could make Bill unhappy. Why? It's called the relative income hypothesis, developed by Harvard economist James Duesenberry in 1949. It basically says that we feel rich when we make lots of money relative to our peers, not compared to some historical standard of living. That is why people who reported making $100,000 or more in a 2013 Washington Post survey said they wouldn't feel "rich" unless they made at least half a million dollars a year.
When the CEO of the company that makes all of the robots flashes her cash on TV, the masses, while doing well by modern standards, could still get jealous.
"You could still see income inequality rise," Darling said. "Basically, you would still have a lot today's problems in that system."
Another issue? Robots can't manufacture everything that people want, like Malibu mansions.
"There is a finite amount of real estate on beaches," Hughes said, "and we're going to have to figure who gets what."
Counterpoint: Doing Nothing Will Be Awesome!
Even if a world run by robots isn't perfect, it's hard to argue that most people would choose minimum wage jobs over a life of leisure. The list of self-help books dedicated to helping workers quit the rat race is long. It's clear that many people would welcome having the freedom to choose what they want do with their time.
"Work is simply translating input into output," Michael Jones, an assistant professor in economics at the University of Cincinnati, told Motherboard.
"Before the technological revolution, the output was used to meet our economic needs," he said. "When our economic needs are solved in a robot utopia, our work output will be used to satisfy our spiritual, creative and intellectual needs."
Yes, it will be a golden age for artisanal chocolate makers, yoga teachers, and slam poets. And unlike today, it won't be a dream available only to the upper-middle class or those willing to eat ramen and live with seven roommates—provided that everyone gets a piece of the utopian pie.
Darling, Hughes, and Danaher mentioned the universal basic income (UBI) as a model for how the world's economy might be divvied up. Basically, the idea is that everyone gets enough money to cover their basic expenses, so that nobody is worried about paying for groceries or rent or medical bills.
You could spend years debating the finer points of this idea: How much do people get? Is there some basic requirement, such as military service or regular voting? But, in general, it seems like some form of UBI could make mass technological unemployment easier to swallow. Of course, the wealthy could still resent "welfare" recipients siphoning away their cash.
"The idea that everyone should be working for their fair share, that's part of a general moral intuition," Hughes said. "If somebody is living off the fruits of everyone else's labor and didn't help dig out the roots and berries, they aren't a good member of the tribe."
Getting over that instinct wouldn't be easy. Sharing, however, might be easier if it means robots were making plenty of money for everyone. And if the robots feel cheated? Well then, that is a much bigger problem.