Robots can help humanity, but rarely under capitalism

robot working with carton boxes


Humans are making rapid strides in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). Both have the potential to reduce working hours, make jobs safer, increase energy efficiency, etc. But there are many potential problems—chief among them being unemployment and the use of AI to control human destiny in ways we may not want.

While the capitalist system has developed these technologies to their current state, it can never truly free human beings from work using robotics, nor allow AI to alleviate, rather than enslave, the human species. If we want more advanced machines to help us, we must ditch the profit motive in exchange for rational economic planning carried out by a government of the working people.

Capitalism and technology

Capitalists develop the productive forces, including robots and AI, to compete profitably with their peers. New technology is introduced to the workplace to facilitate competition.

All economic activity requires human labor time, and the time can be used more efficiently if the work is mechanized. Although not all companies will introduce new technologies immediately, and will often focus first on disciplining or training their workers, if a company has the spare cash to automate an aspect of production, they will. This necessarily results in layoffs, as capitalists will cut costs by replacing the laborer where they can.

For example, a single industrial forklift can perform the same amount of work with one laborer that once took 20 or more laborers in the same time. Time is how labor is measured under capitalism and how the majority of workers are paid. If one worker can be as efficient as 20 used to be, then that will be more profitable, and thus, capitalists will gravitate towards technological development.

Competing capitalists are able to stay in competition only by providing ever-cheaper commodities at greater scales of production (to capture more market share). This is the capitalist’s incentive to exploit labor in a more efficient way, resulting in tighter control of workers’ time (more stressful work), and new technologies on the job (layoffs).

The expansion of technology in capitalist industrial processes is mirrored by the expansion of consumer-side technology, with the introduction of new products like microwaves and smart phones. A side effect of this process, however, is that workers’ personal lives can be overburdened, rather than liberated, with technology.

For example, although the introduction of motor vehicles was an improvement in personal mobility, it also resulted in workers being capable of working further and further way from home than before their introduction, which is good for capitalists. Cars become simply the machine that takes you to work, and workers are never compensated for their commute. Never mind the financial burden this often generates, or the many fatal accidents. Motor vehicles also resulted in a society dependent on fossil fuels, perpetuating the wars that the ruling class has led us into, and the climate crisis that the ruling class tries to obfuscate.

The introduction of new technology will always present potential challenges, but capitalism as a social system is unconcerned with fixing problems unless they are problems of profitability (for example, stopping striking workers). All cars that run on fossil fuels could easily be replaced with electric cars, but such a large project would not be profitable for oil companies. And as an even better solution, cars could be replaced with cleaner, safer mass transit (giving new employment to autoworkers) that would most benefit the poorest and help mitigate climate change. But this would upset the very profitable automobile industry.

Technology and labor

As technology replaces the laborer, in principle, this can mean the reduction of work—more free time, more productivity—or different, better work. Yet under the competitive market system of capitalism, more productivity has meant the same working hours, and sometimes more intense work for fewer laborers.

In our forklift example, the displacement of 19 workers means the one now has to do the same work as 20, whereas the 19 others now have no work. The total workload could be reduced for all persons while still offering meaningful employment to all. Again hypothetically, the forklift should reduce a 10-hour day of labor for 20 persons, into a three-hour day for 20 persons.

While there is a certain truth to the notion that technological development creates more jobs, since new industries (or branches of industry) offer new labor needs, the interim between employment and re-employment in a capitalist system is dehumanizing. All human needs are marketized under capitalism, and if you don’t have the money then you are going to starve (or otherwise be depraved of needs like housing, health care, entertainment, a car to get to work, etc). Meanwhile, the unemployed part of the population serves as a pressure on employed workers to accept lower standards of work and compensation. Unless there is a revolution, the same cycle of needless unemployment will repeat itself.

However, if all industries had a system of democratic planning based on fair compensation to displaced workers, useless jobs could be eliminated but employment (or livelihood) still guaranteed. There is no real reason why new technologies, including completely automated processes, should result in unemployment or money problems.

Take for example, truck drivers. This is a demographic that is particularly vulnerable to automation, considering the recent inroads that car companies are making towards self-driving vehicles. Consider that under modern capitalism, should a company decide to save on wages by automating some or all of its fleets, there could be hundreds, even thousands out of work. These workers would have to peddle their skills at another company, possibly for lower wages (this new employer now has to compete with the company that has automated trucks, and will drive a hard bargain).

But with socially planned production, this problem disappears. If the workers had direct ownership and control of their company, the drivers might decide to introduce the new machines in order to significantly cut their time on the job while earning the same pay. That could grant them more time with the family, with a hobby, or on self-improvement. Or, the extra manpower could be turned into extra construction vehicle operators for whatever public works the community deems best for its benefit, since this is an easily transferable skill.

Working times for all can be reduced drastically in this way. If workers in a given industry are automated away, it can be done gradually and with a mind to re-organize the work towards those industries that cannot so easily be automated. If a forklift can perform the same work with one laborer that once took 20, perhaps 10 workers could proceed to a job that does not yet have that forklift, reducing two shifts lasting 10 hours to two shifts lasting five. Under a socially planned economy, all of these workers would be paid the same as if the forklift never existed.

The control of the robots by the working class can free all of us from the constraints of the jobs we are accustomed too, giving us more freedom both in spare time and also to decide how to use our commonly produced wealth. This is the combination of socialism and automation, and can only be accomplished once the capitalist class is overthrown by a revolution and the workers take power over the state and society.

Artificial intelligence and the internet

As numerous privacy scandals with social media sites such as Facebook show, human data is both vulnerable and profitable. Our personalities, likes, wants, and interests are up for sale. The more dependent we become on the internet, the less privacy we collectively have.

Worse still, this data can be used against us to serve us ads or other online content specifically catered to our biases and blind spots. Thus politically powerful people can use these tools to manipulate our worldview. The ill effects of disinformation during an election year should be obvious. This includes the millions spent on digital campaigning that only sets the bar for candidacy higher and higher in monetary terms, obliterating democracy.

This becomes even more problematic when algorithms decide for us what we see and hear online, and corporations like YouTube (owned by Google) keep their inner workings a secret to the public. Of course, algorithms and also artificial intelligence are not spontaneous things; they are created by humans with human biases. What values are algorithms promoting? The values of its creators! How can an AI know racism is wrong if its not programmed to know? Can you imagine the nightmare that policing would become if they started using AI to “track criminals”?

Like automobiles, microwaves, and cell phones, the internet is a technological outgrowth of capitalist technological development. Naturally, under capitalism, it will be used to exploit and track working people, rather than free them from the constraints of work. Often, the internet can be used to speed up or facilitate the movement of commodities, and corporations like Amazon have succeeded because of this. As discussed above, Amazon is like any corporation and uses human labor power, measured in time. Online ordering of products reflects Amazon’s use of technology to increase efficiency and profits. They will use data-mining and other privacy breaking methods wherever they can.

The scientific potential that humans could gain from the data that is collected online is immense. But great power requires great oversight. Data, if democratically controlled and given with consent could offer ways to understand ourselves better, rather than control us.

The collection of data is a class issue. Why on Earth it is okay for the capitalist to trawl a catalog of our habits for their benefit, and yet the capitalist has complete right to privacy of their transactions and meetings? Why should a politician in the pocket of Wall St. be allowed privacy in their campaign meetings while using our personal data to decide whom to profile? Our personal data is collected and sold like a commodity—why should this information be behind a pay wall only the dictatorship of the rich can overcome?

We should be mindful of the sheer power of AI. Imagine if advanced general AI were under the control of persons only interested in making a profit? Imagine if it were under the control of the police! Real AI (not a “non-player-character” in a video-game, which has very weak AI) would think far too fast for humans, in ways we couldn’t easily predict.

The danger of AI is not its potential for malevolence, but rather its effectiveness. The introduction of AI to the algorithms that decide what we see online, and also predict our behavior for better marketing of products, is wildly dangerous. The only reason it is used like this is because we live under capitalism, and not because it is the only way to use the technology. Working people deserve to control how this information comes to their screens and why.

As we live under capitalism, capitalists, new and old, will seek to use the space of the internet as a new vector for profitability. This is done primarily in two ways: first, by predicting consumer behavior (and advertising to us), and also by turning information into a commodity, making it profitable to sell data to companies, political campaigns, or even governments. While the surveillance state and the creation of the internet are not solely the responsibility of corporations, state-funded RnD has a large role to play in its creation; there is a great deal of permeability between the capitalist usage of the internet and the police-state.

Our robot friends under socialism

The historical task of the capitalist was to develop the technology that we now possess. The time of their proper rule is over. The historical task of the worker is to seize the technology for human benefit and abolish class distinctions. The market is an obsolete social tool, and robots and humanity will only reach their full collective potential in a planned economic model.

AI and the internet show us the potential to use collective human and robot intelligence to solve our problems, enhance our scientific understandings, and make life better. We must not squander this potential..

Robots entering the workforce can be combined with the elimination of useless or outdated jobs and a guarantee of work to all persons, including fulfilling people’s needs in the intervals between work. This will reduce working times for all and free up most of our weeks for activities of our choosing.

AI and mass data collection should be controlled by the working class. People must trust that they can access information without being watched. With full consent of data use, and full transparency of all activities of data science, human intelligence will explode by both increasing general knowledge and by mixing computational speed and precision with human flexibility and creativity. This can only be accomplished with the abolition of market anarchy and class society by establishing socialism, and this can only be done with a revolution led by the working class.

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