On Monday, I was on Reddit and came across an article from CNBC titled “AI will eliminate 6% of jobs in five years, says report” and it got me thinking, about a few things. The first thing that came to mind was an episode of Star Trek TNG called “When the Bough Breaks”. The basic gist of the episode centers around a world which until that episode, was cloaked in an invisibility shield. The inhabitants of this world are cared for by an advanced form of AI that handles all of their basic needs. From food, water, to even the need of power, and housing, all is taken care of by this machine. As you might have guessed not everything was going well for the residents of Aldea. But the question that sticks out is, as machines slowly take over more and more jobs, and as our technology every year gets closer to what is seen on Star Trek, are we heading in the direction of Aldea or, can we look elsewhere within the Star Trek universe for a hint of our own economic future?
Post Scarcity and You!
The basic idea of economics deals with the idea of Scarcity. How do you manage a world with limited resources, and unlimited desires. Since the days of Adam Smith, that question was answered in the West by the birth of Classical Liberal economics. Before then resources were mostly managed by whoever had the biggest army. With Classical Liberal economics, prices are determined by supply and demand as more and less of said product is available to the consumer. When something becomes more scarce then the price rises. When it becomes more abundant, then the price falls. In the Classical Liberal Capitalist system, the price mechanism is vital, because it is that signal which goes into the economy and tells people within the marketplace how to behave with resources. Price of corn went up? Then time to plant more, which in turn brings the price back down over time. This concept is important because in just about every economic system, the problem of scarcity is something that has to be dealt with. An example of this is seen in some socialist/communist systems, here you see the removal of prices of products in favor of massive central management. So that the planners of those economies could, in their minds, more fairly divide the fruits of societies labor. No matter the system, the problem of scarce resources is alive, the real difference is how that problem is dealt with. Even though these two systems don’t work alike, they have to deal with the same issue, which is scarcity.
As many fans of Star Trek might know, scarcity isn’t something the common person within the universe of the Federation, has to worry about. No one goes hungry, no one is left out in the cold, and want is gone. What is interesting though about “When the Bough Breaks” is the drastically different direction each civilization goes. In one, the people of Aldea after achieving a post scarcity environment, allow their wants to be taken care of by an AI which sees to all of their needs; that way they free up their lives away from labor to minimal tasks of leadership and the arts. In contrast, the Federation on the other hand, people are freed to the idea of constant self improvement. They don’t just stay home, and play the violin, they go out and explore their passions. In the case of Captain Benjamin Sisko’s father, he runs his own restaurant in Louisiana. Or with Captain Jean Luc Picard, he becomes a Starship Captain. The common thread is between both civilizations is the lack of scarcity.
As AI takes over, what does it mean for us?
If we look to our past, and forward to our possible future, it’s hard to say where we will end up. When the industrial revolution began, the alarm bells were ringing about how machines would take over the jobs of the common lot, and there would be huge populations of displaced workers. However, that didn’t happen, instead there was a shift in labor, when one job became obsolete, new ones sprung up, and labor followed those new jobs. The same thing could happen again, but there is a new variable, that before has never been around, Artificial Intelligence. With AI, many jobs are already going the way of the dodo including call centers, trucking, and other customer services positions. This rapid expansion of AI could lead to a complete facelift of the job market in less than a generation.
And if we take it a step further, AI could be employed to manage much more than a few sectors of the economy. For example we could see tireless robots managing 24/7 greenhouses producing huge amounts of food. They could even take care of repairs of infrastructure, etc… As technology becomes both more powerful and mobile, we could also see AI being used as your own personal assist.
So, where could this lead us? For the first time, mankind might enter the early phases of post-scarcity economics. As technology improves, more resources become available. From there we could again look at my favorite television show for answers. With less disputed resources, the need for conflict might lessen to a great degree. With more available resources, the ability of people to grow to their maximum potential might become more of a reality. But, also looking at how the people of Aldea had taken their post scarcity economy, there might be a scarier, less promising future. One thing I left out in the beginning of this article was a major fact of the episode. The people of Aldea forgot how to maintain their own technology. After so many generations of living without need, or want, they lost any interest in self improvement in some of the most difficult fields, such as math, science, and engineering. They were left unable to take care of themselves when that technology finally had become a major liability. Now looking at our own world, could that be a possibility?
Lessons From Star Trek
I believe we can learn many lessons from science fiction; more than we give it credit in our society. Star Trek’s “When the Bough Breaks” provides questions about how our technology can affect the way we live our lives.
As technology continues to improve the dreams of science fiction storytellers are brought to life. While scientists take their ideas and turn them into reality, we can also take in some lessons from their work. We can learn how to cope with an ever changing world, and instill that value within our own children. This way, they will be prepared to tackle an environment that doesn’t slow down. But, the real lesson we should learn is in the end, we’re the makers or our own fate. How the world is shaped is a matter or our own interest and involvement. If we want to see a post scarcity society that is more like the Federation, and less like that of Planet Aldea, then it’s up to each person to make that possible. We should take that hint, and also prepare for a time when we might enter a post scarcity society. Will we end up like the people of Aldea, unable to take care of themselves? Or, will we take note of our fullest potential and follow Gene Roddenberry’s vision of what Earth could become? What do you think?