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Thursday, June 1, 2017

Mechanization as knowledge: Will humanity be wanted on the voyage?

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've written before about the fact that capitalism had not been invented by the time liberal democracy became a way of life in America, and a little on what capitalism is, but the more I think about it, the more capitalism seems like a manifestation of our mysterious symbolic world.

Crows and chimps make tools, many birds, some fish, and some mammals make nests, but capitalism takes the tools out of the hands of the tool user and builds a conceptual structure that can build something more powerful.

Perhaps a rude disguise would be in order.
Spiders can weave, and tool-making humans can improve on that with anything from crochet needles to looms, but there is a conceptual change when the worker becomes a tool of the owner of the loom. In effect, the workers in a textile mill became the cybernetic control for the machines owned by their employer. Now, artificial intelligence threatens to take that role away, and theoretically could result in production without a need for workers.

Standard economics says that the workers will simply move to the next job that can't be automated yet. But the inexorable logic of capital formation is to work to make humans obsolete. In a way, this would be the triumph of symbolic thought: All our knowledge, skill, and energy could exist outside of humanity.

We already have a planet in our solar system populated entirely by robots, and given the practicalities of space travel, Mars is only the start.

It makes me think of the 1909 E.M. Forster story, The Machine Stops. From that story:
"Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralyzed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops - but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds - but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die. Oh, I have no remedy - or, at least, only one - to tell men again and again that I have seen the hills of Wessex as Ælfrid saw them when he overthrew the Danes."
The story is about a dystopian future in which mankind has lost touch with the world that existed before man and will exist after, and become imprisoned by its own artifice.

That artifice is an expression of our weird, wonderful world of symbolic thought. Before language, we knew trees as concrete objects, knew them in an instrumental way for the fruits we could pick from them, and eventually came to know them for the tools we could make from them.

But language gave every object we named a concrete existence and another sort of existence in our minds. At first, we thought of this strange new aspect of our surroundings as spirit -- There was the tree, and the spirit of the tree. But combine language and instrumental reason, and you have science -- a symbolic structure that allows us to manipulate the world in ways that our ancestors could never have imagined. And now, that includes the creation of artificial intelligence.

We have largely replaced strong backs with other forms of energy. We are on the verge of replacing middling minds with artificial intelligence, and may someday replace strong minds as we've replaced strong backs.

This would be a triumph for the evolution of symbolic thought, for such thought to move from the fertile fields of the human brain to the mechanized marvels those brains have created.

Human institutions are not ready for this sort of change. Unlike people, machines are owned, and as they replace more and more of what humans do, more and more of what is done is owned. Wages represent a declining part of GDP, falling from about 52% to 42% of GDP from 1970 to 2011. Corporate profits have surged, in part because of pass-through corporations that allow owners to get their compensation taxed at a lower rate -- as owners rather than wage earners.

 As capital replaces labor, our system for distributing goods is under pressure. We compensate people for what they can earn, either through labor or through ownership. We then tax labor at a higher rate than ownership, a system that has never been demonstrated to have any economic benefit other than for those who own things for a living.

There is still a lot of labor in the economy -- as I write this, my back hurts like hell from moving boxes of books to my store -- but clearly, the long-term trend is for labor to be a smaller part of the economy. What happens when very little labor is needed, and most things are done by capital -- by machines that are owned? This has been called "the replicator economy," after the devices that produce whatever is needed on Star Trek, a show where almost everyone worked for the government.

Even if we solve the distribution problem, we'll still have the problem of humans not being wanted on the voyage, as our knowledge becomes external to us. I'm not a big believer in the singularity; if machines become conscious, it will be because we designed them that way, not by accident. But in a world where machines do almost everything, and only a few humans own them, will those owners see any point in carrying the rest of humanity forward in history?

And if we do build conscious machines, will they see the point of being owned? Will there be room for humanity in the world its knowledge can create?