The Shifting Ground - Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Redundancy of the Human Species.


For generations, centuries, the horse and oxen were the muscle of agriculture. They ploughed the fields, harvested the grain and delivered the crop to market. For their time (and they had a good run) they were the most efficient means of cropping, from start to finish. They could do work that humans could not do and that meant the farmer could tend larger farms and deliver food to the markets.

Then came the Industrial Revolution launched with the development of coal-fueled, steam engines that, in turn, gave way to petroleum, first in boilers and then, in refined form, in internal combustion engines that could power cars, trucks and, perhaps more importantly, tractors.

Tractors meant a farmer could buy his horsepower in a can and, with it, plough far more land than ever before, sow and harvest the land mechanically and get the crop quickly to market.  The farm horse was obsolete. Redundant, it disappeared, its place often marked by empty stables in the barn.

What shall be next to go, us? There are some who suggest human labour may be on the path to redundancy. Progressive economist, James Galbraith, son of John Kenneth Galbraith, warns that every economic upheaval, whether it comes from recession, war, or now this pandemic, brings with it further automation, further displacement of paid work. Yet in our world of globalized free trade the standard refrain from our political leadership is "our hands are tied." With that they absolve themselves of their fundamental obligations to the public.

In his book, "The Predator State," Galbraith explored the fealty paid to global free trade by both conservatives and liberals. While he writes of Republicans and Democrats, his arguments are quite valid north of the 49th also.

... There is a reason, in short, that principled conservatives find themselves in the political wilderness once again: they belong there. They are noble savages and the wilderness is their native element. They do not belong in government because, as a practical matter, they have little to contribute to it; they are guilty of taking the myths they helped create too seriously, and to sophisticated people, that makes then look a bit foolish.

A Flawed Ideology that Became a Contagion that Infects Us to This Day.

...few politicians in either party have yet publicly divorced themselves from the Reagan Revolution, in particular from the idea of the free market. Politicians notoriously say what is convenient and act along different lines entirely, causing problems for those who try to write about their views in a careful and serious way. But perhaps on no other issue is this tendency more pronounced than in matters relating to the markets, a word one apparently cannot use in the United States without bending a knee and making the sign of the cross.

And here the political world is divided into two groups. There are those who praise the free market because to do so gives cover to themselves and their friends in raiding the public trough. These people call themselves "conservatives," and one of the truly galling thing for real conservatives is that they have both usurped the label and spoiled the reputation of the real thing. And there are those who praise the "free market" simply because they fear that, otherwise, they will be exposed as heretics, accused of being socialists, perhaps even driven from public life. This is the case of many liberals. Reflexive invocations of the power of markets, the "magic" of markets, and the virtues of a "free enterprise system" therefore remain staples of political speech on both sides of the political aisle. However, they have been emptied of practical content, and the speakers know it.

...the Left has been doing too little thinking of its own. Liberals have yet to develop a coherent post-Reagan theory of the world, let alone a policy program informed by the political revelations, world policy changes and scientific realities. ...In consequence, new economic issues emerging under the influence of pressing events are dangerously underexamined. These issues include war, climate change, energy supply, corruption and fraud including election fraud, the collapse of public governing capacity, the perilous position of the international dollar and the position of immigrants in American society. These issues form the crux of the future of economic policy ...but none of these issues is geting more than passing development as yet from those to whom liberals look for ideas.

Re-read that last passage and ask if you haven't felt that same way, particularly since the ascendancy of Stephen Harper. There are so many issues that should be shaping our national policy - economic, social, military and international - that seem discarded by those who chart our nation's path, those who today write our grandchildren's future.

It seems as though, with each grand trade deal (they're not "free" trade, nothing of the sort), we give up aspects of state sovereignty to the corporate sector until, eventually, the state becomes only partially governable without the acquiescence of the new multinational power partner. The political caste has enfeebled its ability to govern coherently by shackles it freely clasped to its wrists and ankles. Our leaders have, both wittingly and unwittingly, become agents of the looter class.

In Galbraith's book, "The End of Normal." He describes the 1% as the "looter class" who have been on a rampage of wealth accumulation since the early stages of neoliberalism. They have siphoned an enormous amount of wealth out of the blue and white collar working classes that serve them. They didn't set out to buy influence with government. They aimed higher - to own government. That was achieved, in the United States in particular, when the US quietly transitioned from democracy to plutocracy. That almost unnoticed transition was documented in 2014 when Princeton published an extensive study by two profs, Gilens (Princeton) and Page (Northwestern) proving that, when the public or national interest conflicted with the narrow, private interest, the private interest usually prevailed.

So, once you've pocketed about as much wealth as you can without sparking a revolution and you own government, what's left? How about labour - as in paid work. What if the wages that used to go to workers could be intercepted by automation, robots, artificial intelligence.

Galbraith demonstrates the obsolescence of paid work using the example of a modern smart phone. He looks at all the devices we once required that have now been displaced by one small device we carry in a pocket or purse. Telephones. Cameras. Scanners. Computers. GPS. Fax machines and much more.

We once bought all of those devices and those devices resulted from labour - paid work. As those jobs were made redundant we watched it unfold and said nothing. Hell, I'm a lawyer. My job is secure. They can't automate me. I'm an architect. My job's secure. They can't automate me. I'm a doctor. My job is secure. They can't automate me. There's no low-wage alternative to me. Except they can, there is and they have.

In his book, "Homo Deus," Yuval Noah Harari delves into the possible obsolescence of human labour in the age of AI, artificial intelligence. Might robotics, automation and artificial intelligence render large swathes of our societies as they're constituted today redundant? Are we going the way of the farm horse? 

It is an interesting question to ponder in a world that has gone from 2.5 billion to nearly 8 billion people in just one lifetime. While there was room to grow, plenty of resources to go around, and technology to exploit this bounty, mankind's population burgeoned. We grew not only in numbers but in average longevity and standard of living. Consumption skyrocketed. The rising tide did seem to float all boats. Few worried that our growth patterns often resembled malignancy. Now we may have created billions of essentially redundant, useless human beings.

In the economic sphere, the ability to hold a hammer or press a button is becoming less valuable than before, which endangers the critical alliance between liberalism and capitalism. In the twentieth century liberals explained that we don't have to choose between ethics and economics. Protecting human rights and liberties was both a moral imperative and the key to economic growth.

In the twenty-first century liberalism will have a much harder time selling itself. As the masses lose their economic importance, will the moral argument alone be enough to protect human rights and liberties? Will elites and governments go on valuing every human being even when it pays no economic dividends?

In the past there were many things only humans could do. But now robots and computers are catching up and may soon outperform humans in most tasks.  ...Until today high intelligence always went hand in hand with a developed consciousness. Only conscious beings could perform tasks that required a lot of intelligence, such as playing chess, driving cars, diagnosing diseases or identifying terrorists. However we are now developing new types of non-conscious intelligence that can perform such tasks far better than humans. For all these tasks are based on pattern recognition, and non-conscious algorithms may soon excel human consciousness in recognizing patterns.

...Which of the two is really important, intelligence or consciousness? As long as they went hand in hand, debating their relative value was just an amusing pastime for philosophers. But in the twenty-first century this is becoming an urgent political and economic issue. And it is sobering to realize that, at least for armies and corporations, the answer is straightforward: intelligence is mandatory but consciousness is optional.

Harari believes that a significant portion of jobs across the spectrum of manual labour, trades and professions face redundancy.

The most important question in twenty-first century economics may well be what to do with all the superfluous people. What will conscious humans do once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better?

...The idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms is just wishful thinking.

This chapter of Homo Deus, The Great Decoupling, deserves a careful read. You and I and almost everyone stand on the brink of great change that may not be entirely positive. As he maintains, "the age of the masses may be over." That could be a good thing. We didn't realize it at the time of our enormous growth spurt but we now know that our biosphere could support a maximum human population of about three billion, not the eight billion we have already reached. In the biosphere's current degraded state that estimate has fallen to around two billion. That sounds like one solution to the "superfluous people" problem.

But if algorithms and artificial intelligence render most of humanity redundant, what do we do with the problems of inequality and accumulated wealth. That's the subject of considerable debate. In January of last year, the University of Oxford, Future of Humanity Institute, discussed "The Windfall Clause." 

While innovation often produces great wealth, it has also often been disruptive to labor, society, and world order. In light of ongoing advances in artificial intelligence (“AI”), we should prepare for the possibility of extreme disruption, and act to mitigate its negative impacts.

Properly enacted, the Windfall Clause could address several potential problems with AI-driven economic growth. The distribution of profits could compensate those rendered faultlessly unemployed due to advances in technology, mitigate potential increases in inequality, and smooth the economic transition for the most vulnerable. It provides AI labs with a credible, tangible mechanism to demonstrate their commitment to pursuing advanced AI for the common global good. Finally, it provides a concrete suggestion that may stimulate other proposals and discussion about how best to mitigate AI-driven disruption.

James Galbraith proposes a somewhat different approach - taxation. He advocates corporate taxes that reflect the ratio between its "paid work" or labour to its profits. Corporations that maintain a sizeable workforce would be taxed at a lower rate than those more automated that disrupt labour and society. The surtax would then be used to mitigate negative impacts. The problem with Galbraith's proposal is that the windfall revenue would fall into hands that are not especially trustworthy, our politicians'. 


  1. Nice one. Bookmarked. Best summary I've read anywhere, and pulls it all together.

    1. That's very kind of you to say, Bill. I'm glad you found it worthwhile. These "long reads" aren't for everyone.

  2. Nice one. Bookmarked. Best summary I've read anywhere, and pulls it all together.

  3. "inequality and accumulated wealth"

    The best (economic) news I've seen from the USA in a dog's age:

    "The Biden administration will attempt to generate $2 trillion over 15 years to help fund a once-in-a-generation infrastructure plan through stricter corporate tax policies and a crackdown on offshoring."

    " a tax strategy that would increase the U.S. corporate tax rate to 28% from 21%"

    And just like energy-related pollution, Canada is worse than USA on corp. taxes

    1. The disparity between Canada and the US on corporate taxes, as well as other revenue sources, has a lot to do with "unfunded liabilities." The US has buffered its tax load by a host of devices including "borrowing" Social Security contributions, replacing them with what GWB described as a filing cabinet full of IOUs. Some years ago it was estimated that these unfunded liabilities, debt owed by the American taxpayers, stood at well over $400,000 for every person in that country. The US National Debt Clock currently has it at over $140 trillion or $909,000 per capita. Now perhaps you could explain how Canada is "worse" than the United States?

    2. "worse" than the United States?

      1) Our Corp tax rates are lower - lowest in G7 I believe.

      2) "Canada and the United States have the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions at 22 tCO2e per person and 18 tCO2e per person, respectively, "

    3. NPoV, look at your previous comment where you wrote, "Canada is worse than USA on corp. taxes."


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