Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Real problems

Let's talk about real problems.

Not Benghazi. Not the IRS. Not even the deficit.

Lets talk about the future.

You see, the mainstream media is just beginning to awaken to the fact that something has changed over the past decade. There are no longer enough jobs for everyone and the number of employed people keeps decreasing a little bit each year. This has been happening since the turn of the century and it promises to accelerate.

Partly this stems from the nature of the workforce. Demographically, we're getting older. As people live longer, a greater percentage of the population is retired or on disability. But a share of the blame goes to technology.

At the dawn of the industrial revolution, the introduction of automation and mass production still required labor. Someone had to operate the increasingly sophisticated machines or design future machines. But we are reaching the cusp of a great wave of change. Machines are beginning to design other machines and smarter technologies are taking over jobs traditionally thought safe from automation. I've already talked about this a little bit and at the time I mostly used it to meditate upon the value of work. I offered up some suggestions to address the issue but put no stock in any of them because that wasn't really point of my essay.

However, I've noticed a subterranean movement towards one of the suggestions: Guaranteed Minimum Income. The basic idea is that society guarantees all citizens or residents of a country a certain basic income regardless of employment status or education. In the United States the idea is often referred to as 'negative income tax:' earn less than the poverty line and then receive $10,000 (or some other amount) every year.

Whatever you call it, let's be clear about what we're talking about: redistribution of wealth. When wealth from one set of the population is taken (through taxes or penalties) and then an equivalent amount of wealth is given to another set of the population, redistribution is taking place. Now I'm fine with that but in the spirit of candor, let's be clear: redistribution in any form is not exactly universally popular. When half of the population still can't see the benefit of universal health care, and makes noises about 'makers and takers,' codifying basic income is not going to be easy.

Is it worth the fight?

I was ambivalent about the proposal for a guaranteed minimum income when I first heard about it but couldn't put my finger on precisely why. I think I have it now, though. My brother passed along an article that you might have seen about the first field trials for memory implants being ready in two years. This is exciting stuff, technology like this may begin to bridge the gap between the black box between our ears and the technology we rely upon. Is it much of a leap to go from reconstructing existing memory to developing external memory. And once the idea of human memory, human experience, can be stored and replicated, could we not have increasingly accurate simulations of digital people? Simulations so perfect that it is no longer possible to dismiss 'bots,' as annoying distractions.

Let's say in the future, fifty years or even seventy five years (I don't think for a moment it will take that long, but for the sake of argument...) it is no longer possible to detect artificial personalities on the basis of conversation alone. How then would we know who was 'real' and who was digital? How would we know then who deserves that $10,000 guaranteed income and who doesn't? One could imagine swarms of 'just-good-enough' fraud bots springing into existence to claim their salary and then donating everything they own to their favorite charity, or political action group, or foreign country.

I don't think these are insurmountable problems but I am saying these are problems. As long as the media wants to start having conversations about how you continue to have a society once the jobs disappear perhaps we should make the conversation as broad as possible.
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