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Automation, Artificial Intelligence, and the God/Useless Divide

In: Perspectives on Global Development and Technology
Author: Alec Stubbs1
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  • 1 Loyola University Chicago
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Abstract

Automation, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology have become topics of increasing interest in both academia as well as in popular media. The goal of this article is to establish which issues are the most pressing, and what are the underlying causes of the rise of robots. I demonstrate that fears of automation are well supported by current trends of automation as well as the inherent tendency within a capitalist system to automate at the expense of workers and working wages. Additionally, I point to what appears to be a potential evolutionary divide between what Yuval Noah Harari calls the “god” class and the “useless” class. Finally, I discuss how the new role of information as the world’s most valued commodity can either exacerbate this coming divide or liberate society. I present the case that in order to diminish the negative effects we must move beyond the present capitalist economic system, towards one in which economic democracy and the free flow of information thrives.

Abstract

Automation, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology have become topics of increasing interest in both academia as well as in popular media. The goal of this article is to establish which issues are the most pressing, and what are the underlying causes of the rise of robots. I demonstrate that fears of automation are well supported by current trends of automation as well as the inherent tendency within a capitalist system to automate at the expense of workers and working wages. Additionally, I point to what appears to be a potential evolutionary divide between what Yuval Noah Harari calls the “god” class and the “useless” class. Finally, I discuss how the new role of information as the world’s most valued commodity can either exacerbate this coming divide or liberate society. I present the case that in order to diminish the negative effects we must move beyond the present capitalist economic system, towards one in which economic democracy and the free flow of information thrives.

1 Introduction

Automation, artificial intelligence, and human integration with biotechnology are quickly on the rise. Because of this, we are presented with two diametrically opposed future scenarios—one in which we can maximize our cognitive capacities while enjoying a minimized working life, and one in which economic, cognitive, and information inequality escalates. This article analyzes the development of automation, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology with respect to capitalism. I begin by analyzing the role of technology in capitalism, and propose how capitalism has failed to adequately make use of emerging technology. Next, I demonstrate the potentially detrimental development of automation and artificial intelligence within a capitalist framework. I then take up Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow in relation to human integration with biotechnology and his contention that future humans will develop into two classes: the “gods” and the “useless”. Last, I consider how information has become the most valuable commodity in modern society. I contend that we must move beyond capitalism, develop a robust framework for the democratic sharing of information, and provide a strong safety net in order to prevent the exacerbation of inequality.

2 Background on Automation, Artificial Intelligence, and Capitalism

Technological progression has been one of the cornerstones of capitalist development, creating abundant production of necessary goods and services over a rather minimal period of time. Thus, the value of technology in the development of human society cannot be understated. However, the last several decades have shown a stark increase in productivity without a rise in real wages, a reduction of the workweek, or the production and dissemination of an abundance of necessary resources to citizens of the world. Rising profit margins for the economic elite, glaring contrasts in economic inequality, and inexhaustible consumerism in the form of credit in order to feed exponential production levels has become the staple of modern capitalism. Technology, once thought of as labor saving and lifestyle improving devices, has been co-opted by the economic elite in favor of increasing profit margins.

Essentially, capitalism has failed to “deliver the goods,” in the sense that it has used its technological advancements to increase productivity to unsustainable levels. The first instance in which we see this is through the use of technology to promote and extend capital flight. Richard Wolff (2012), professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, contends that from the 1970s onward, the use technology by the capitalist class (large-scale international transportation, long-distance and overseas monitoring devices, robotic labor, etc.) opened the door to lower wage markets around the world. Because of this capital flight to “emerging markets,” the production of jobs was exported around the world, fleeing the us and creating a capacity for lower national wages and rising unemployment. Rather than using these cheaply produced goods to provide basic necessities for citizens, the economic elite has seized this opportunity to drive profit margins. The production of an enormous amount of cheap goods must be followed by a demand for the goods as well as a necessary supply of money in order to purchase these foreign goods. However, without rising real wages in the us, the average citizen has been largely forced into the use of credit for purchasing goods, thus driving an ever-increasing element of consumerism in the face of rising debt. From the point of view of the economic elite, this is a win-win scenario; they are able to pay workers less, but still have a market of individuals to purchase their goods, and they are able to charge interest on the credit necessary to purchase these goods. Clearly, this is an instance where capitalism has failed to use technology for qualitative change, and an increase in technological advancement can only serve to exacerbate these circumstances unless drastic structural changes are to occur.

Domestically, the rise of robotics led to a similar destruction of wages and rising unemployment. In his paper “Ricardo Was Right,” economist Paul Samuelson (1989) demonstrated that the rising unemployment of the 1970s onward was causally tied to the development of technology (Pp. 47-62). This in and of itself would not be a failure if it were the case that, as a society, we were willing to (a) look for a reduction in the workweek, (b) provide basic needs at an essentially cost-free rate, and (c) expand the ownership of information and technological assets. Unfortunately, this has not been the case, and economic inequality has reared its ugly head in the face of technological advancement. In fact, in terms of growing wealth inequality, the past two decades have proved to be drastically unequal. In terms of total wealth, according to Forbes 400, the inflation-adjusted net worth of America’s richest 400 individuals rose from $506 billion in 1995 to $1.6 trillion in 2007 and again to $2 trillion by 2013 (Kennickell 2009; Konrad 2013). Comparatively, in 2010, the top fifth of all Americans owned 88.9 percent of all us wealth—the top 1 percent owning 36.7 percent of total us wealth (E. Wolff 2014). These figures are clear demonstrations of growing economic inequality in the face of technological advancements that could easily provide basic necessities and curb economic inequality.

While the past use of technology for profit is certainly telling of our economic and resource disparities, the future is what is most frightening. In “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?” Oxford economists Carl Frey and Michael Osborne provide a detailed estimate of the number of jobs that will be systematically lost to computerization (i.e. robotics, artificial intelligence) in the near future. Frey and Osborne (2013) paint a rather grim future, predicting that nearly 47 percent of total us employment is at risk to computerization. Other, less conservative estimates push this number to 50 percent and beyond, such as Rice University professor Moshe Vardi, who contends that it is entirely possible that by 2045 human labor “may be obsolete” (Boyd 2016). What’s more, the World Economic Forum’s 2016 comprehensive work, “The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” unveils several key aspects of our emerging economy, including the loss of nearly 7.1 million jobs and the creation of only 2 million new jobs by 2020 due to robotics.

However, these considerations are primarily concerned with robotic replacement of productive labor. In an even more striking and progressive view of artificial intelligence, others have contended that with the correct appropriation of emotional development, artificially intelligent robots may be entirely capable of fulfilling even human resources roles. In a recent New York Times article, Zeynep Tufekci (2015) discusses the rise of machine technology and the eclectic types of jobs that artificial intelligence is beginning to be able to fulfill. For example, she notes the rise in emotional processing software, speech recognition and response, and the relatively low cost of replacing human labor with robot labor. There is a clear demonstration that machines are increasingly able to replace humans even in the so-called “human resources” sector. Dealing with emotional issues in a more pragmatic way may lead to the replacement of these kinds of jobs in favor of a more patient worker.

Some may object to the idea of cognitive dependent jobs being replaced by artificial intelligence, but in “Demystifying artificial intelligence: What business leaders need to know about cognitive technologies” David Schatsky, Craig Muraskin, and Ragu Gurumurthy (2014) outline the present and future prospects of cognitively advanced artificial intelligence as a means of replacing certain human jobs. For example, they demonstrate that in banking, robots “use machine learning to identify behavior patterns,” in health care, machines use “natural language processing to read and understand a vast medical literature,” and the technology sector is “using cognitive technologies such as computer vision and machine learning to enhance products or create entirely new product categories.”

This is vital information, as it demonstrates that adaptation in the face of increasing mechanization of our jobs is absolutely necessary unless we are willing to endure serious costs. From the view of the economic elite, such prospects are sizeable launch pads into the world of ever-increasing profit margins. From the view of the everyday citizen, such prospects are the hope for abundance and less work. However, unless the indelible structure of the capitalist system is systematically reformulated, the fear is that the past 40 years of capital flight, low wages, increased productivity, and continuous consumption will only be bolstered to levels unforeseen. Such fears are pushing popular scientists to make political and economic claims concerning the rise of automation and artificial intelligence. For instance, Stephen Hawking (2015) recently fielded an online question concerning what our biggest fear should be concerning artificial intelligence. Contrary to the rather popular science fiction notion of a robot uprising or the lethal consequences of an artificially intelligent race of non-human beings, his primary concern was with the rise of economic inequality and the proper distribution of resources.

Many public intellectuals and academics are beginning to concern themselves with the potential consequences of artificial intelligence, with one of the main concerns coming in the form of what is known as the “alignment problem,” viz., guaranteeing that the future development of artificial super intelligence is in “alignment” with a (perhaps nebulous) understanding of human values. However, Hawking and several others appear to recognize that one of more pressing issues in the field of artificial intelligence is the concentration of decision-making power and economic influence. This is not to downplay concerns with the alignment problem, but it should serve as a more pertinent warning. Our biggest fear, when considering the push towards artificial intelligence, is how the economic elite’s control over resources will cause artificial intelligence to become a tool for the wealthy, serving the elite and not the many, as robotics and technology have in the past. Fears of this sort demonstrate that we are in desperate need of a post-capitalist society if the common citizen is to survive and thrive.

3 Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Thus, the development of automation and artificial intelligence presents a growing dialectic—one in which the technological developments of the future can either assuage the tedium and complexity of daily life, or drive the inexorable growth of an already staggering level of economic inequality. As mentioned above, much lip service is being paid to the potentially pernicious replacement of jobs by automation. But, less conversation is being had concerning the actual human integration with technology.

Biotechnological integration and the future development of human cognitive enhancement present potential increases in economic inequality as well. Yuval Noah Harari’s (2017) book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow offers a way to conceptualize the future of class relations with respect to the rise of biotechnological innovation and automation. In it, Harari, as well as in his 2011 book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, outlines a rather plausible future in which humanity, integrated with technology, increasingly divides into two divergent classes: the “gods” and the “useless”. One of his central theses is that the division of Homo sapiens into two distinct classes opens the possibility for the economic elite to thrive, while the vast majority of humans (especially in the developing world) are replaced by automation and become “useless” in economic terms.

The concern here is that the economic elite will maintain the position necessary to direct the development of a posthuman future. Posthumanism, broadly defined, can be thought of as a stage of humanity in which self-enhancement is developed largely through continual integration with technology. This could include brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), silicon brains, cybernetics, etc. (Bostrom 2006). Much of this technology is already being developed and implemented in rats, monkeys, and even humans. For instance, Elon Musk recently announced the development of his new company Neuralink, a corporation slated to develop neuro-lace technology (Urban 2017). Neuro-lace technology will integrate silicon with neurons in such a way so as to add a “third layer” to the brain, allowing individuals to communicate with prosthetic limbs, operate previously paralyzed body parts, access the Internet, and even communicate with others via thought (Ibid.). Facebook has announced a similar project, as they look to merge the future of social media directly with the brain (Creighton 2017).

While integration with these technologies provides possibilities far beyond the typical capabilities as Homo sapiens, a sense of Orwellian (or Huxlean) technocracy seems to vitiate this entire market. The information capacity and potential of a human brain integrated with biotechnology reaches far beyond the common human being. As Harari (2017) maintains, the economic inequality that exists at present sets up a scenario in which this biotechnology is only available to the wealthy few.

In the early twenty-first century the train of progress is again pulling out of the station—and this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo sapiens … In the twenty-first century, those who ride the trains of progress will acquire divine abilities of creation and destruction, while those left behind will face extinction (Pg. 275).

Harari labels the class of future wealthy individuals that are able to accrue wealth and biotechnology the “god” class—Homo Deus. The evolutionary development into posthumanism may present valuable changes to the happiness and well being of humankind. However, the stark contrast between the economic elite and the rest of society creates a scenario in which not only economic, but information and evolutionary inequality exists. At present, economic inequality is dangerously high. But, with the advent of posthuman technologies, the ability to access information directly, store more memory, learn quicker, and evolve may become the advantage of a privileged few. Not only would the “god” class have access to the majority of economic resources, but their level of intelligence and evolutionary capacity could far exceed the potentiality of a basic citizen. The possibility of an informed and efficacious citizenry may move from a reasonable societal goal to a laughable pipedream.

In contrast to this “god” class, Harari also envisions the potential for a vast majority of world citizens to become a part of the “useless” class—a class whose labor has been effectively replaced by automated robots owned by the “god” class, and whose cognitive abilities are far outpaced by these economic elite. Harari does not refer to them as “useless” pejoratively. Rather, from the perspective of the “god” class, whose main function is to maintain a growing profit, a vast majority of citizens appear to be “useless” in the sense that their labor, both physical and cognitive, is a burden compared to their robotic counterparts.

But is this a legitimate concern, or are the future predictions of automation and the growing evolutionary inequality simply a reformulation of the Luddite fallacy? Harari (2017) asks us to consider the fate of the horse:

We should remind ourselves of the fate of the horses during the Industrial Revolution. An ordinary farm horse can smell, love, recognize faces, jump over fences and do a thousand other things far better than a Model T Ford or a million-dollar Lamborghini. But cars nevertheless replaced horses because they were superior in the handful of tasks that the system really needed (Pg. 315).

Automation and artificial intelligence are not only replacing the typical blue-collar jobs in manufacturing, truck driving, and manual labor. As Harari points out, a significant amount of research is currently being conducted to develop robots that will phase out white-collar jobs as well. Bank clerks, travel agents, lawyers, doctors, and even high profile hedge fund managers are at risk of job loss (Pp. 316-18). BlackRock, the world’s largest hedge fund managing corporation, announced recently that it will be replacing 13 percent of its hedge fund managers with robots (Javelosa 2017). Other Wall Street investors are following suit. The financial services consulting firm Opimas recently published a report concerning automation in the financial trading industry, claiming, “Layoffs due to automation are an industry-wide shift. By 2025, financial institutions will reduce their human workforce by 10%—resulting in roughly 230,000 fewer heads—as computers take their place” (Shen 2017). The automation of traditionally white-collar jobs demonstrates that human beings cannot simply rely on their cognitive capacities to save them from this Luddite scare. Since this is an information revolution, rather than an industrial one, no one is safe.

The most pernicious part of this automation is its potential to concentrate wealth, and therefore evolutionary and information capacity, among a small few. According to Harari (2017), if we combine the two above-mentioned classes, the “gods” and the “useless”, we are left with a society in which the project of liberalism dies.

[The] threat to liberalism is that some people will remain both indispensible and undecipherable, but they will constitute a small and privileged elite of upgraded humans. These superhumans will enjoy unheard-of abilities and unprecedented creativity, which will allow them to go on making many of the most important decisions in the world … However, most humans will not be upgraded, and will consequently become an inferior cast dominated by both computer algorithms and the new superhumans (Pg. 351).

The obvious threat here is that the inequality, not only economically but also politically, cognitively, and evolutionarily, exponentially undermines the basic notion of a liberal, democratic society. While Harari does not explicitly state it, his dystopian vision of a posthuman future within Homo Deus appears to be a necessary result of the capitalist system—a system based on (1) the hierarchical model of the workplace which mandates an authoritarian distribution of resources and future investments, and (2) the power of an undemocratic financial system which is unavailable to many citizens. The drive for profit and unrelenting growth has already concentrated immense economic success among a small number, and the prospect for a similar concentration of cognitive, information, and evolutionary potential seems inherent within the capitalist model. The next section will address several key modes of interpreting Harari’s posthuman vision with respect to technology under capitalism.

4 The Information Effect and Homo Deus

The crux of Harari’s work is centered on the notion of the biotechnological development of human beings and the possible evolutionary deviation between two classes of society. The analysis in Homo Deus is not outwardly Marxist, but the dystopian class distinction makes its Marxist tendencies implicit. Nonetheless, Harari does not provide a robust framework for thinking about how to overcome this conceivably disastrous speciation. However, if we invoke several key concepts within Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, we can garner some valuable tools for identifying several ways in which the division of classes espoused in Homo Deus is the natural result of an undemocratic economy. Additionally, Mason’s work can help us mend together a potential solution to the coming divide.

In Postcapitalism, Mason (2016) develops what he calls “the information effect.” Mason’s supposition is that the development of technology is reaching a stage in which information is now the world’s most valued commodity. Information allows us to produce commodities at a continuously lower cost, allowing us to potentially reach a state in which the marginal cost of producing commodities essentially reaches zero. If we extend this concept to Harari’s “god” class, then not only are we allowing the economic elite to accrue wealth, but we are also allowing them privileged access to information—the world’s new, most valuable resource. What was once the economic elite may soon become the information elite. The biotechnological development of the information elite not only would allow them to develop products at a near zero cost value, but the intellectual capacity with which they would operate would far exceed that of the average human being. The fear is that if information truly is the most highly valued commodity, and if the “god” class can become increasingly integrated with technology, then we may face a runaway scenario. Just as with the exponential explosion of technology in the last twenty years, an exponential explosion of information capacity and posthuman potential may simply catapult the “god” class into another species entirely—and those left behind will become “useless.”

But this tells us a key story in the potential development of the “god” class—so long as they hold the power to produce goods at a near zero cost, they will hold the ability to exponentially increase their own economic as well as intellectual or informational capacities. Thus, Mason’s “information effect” presents us with only one option—democratize information. This can be done in numerous ways, but it begins with the open sharing of information via the Internet. What this necessitates is the maintenance of an open and fair Internet via net neutrality regulation, the provision of Internet access to all individuals as a public utility, and a fundamental restructuring of the way in which we engage in the dispersion of informational access, viz., guaranteeing lifelong educational opportunities. If we are to prevent a concentration of information, much like we have failed to prevent the concentration of wealth, we need to stand in staunch opposition to the amassing of privately owned information. Of course, the accrual of wealth makes the purchase of this information possible. Thus, it is also infinitely clear that at the crux of Harari’s dystopian fear are the strikingly high levels of economic inequality in modern society. To prevent the accumulation of privately owned information, we must first address economic inequality.

5 A Fork in the Road

While Harari’s fears of the development of a “god” class may appear distant, the exponential growth of technology in the last 20 years should be our canary in the coal mine. The issue with shelving the potential god/useless distinction is that the cascading effect of technology is such that we continually find ourselves behind the legislative and political needs of our new technology. Dealing with automation and artificial intelligence may appear to be the issue of the future, but it is actually the issue of the now. Alternatively, dealing with a god/useless divide is the issue of the future, but it is also a near future. Thus, we find ourselves at a fork in the road. In one direction, the economic, technological, and informational development of all human beings is egalitarian and mutually beneficial. In the other direction, Harari’s Homo Deus becomes non-fiction and historically accurate.

We have the option to live in society of abundance, longevity, and creativity. However, there are several key cultural, economic, and political needs still standing in the way. The creation of a society rife with abundance, free from the capitalist structure that has made technology a profit increasing tool rather than a laborsaving device, should have several key aspects: (1) The fundamental structure of the workplace must be reformulated to make room for democratic decision-making, thus preventing the authoritarian nature that has led to our current situation; (2) Democratic decision-making should be extended to the community with respect to the kinds of technological developments that are made; (3) Mason’s “information effect” should be put into practice, meaning that an open and accessible Internet must be considered not only a basic need, but it must be provided equitably to all; (4) There should be a movement away from our current patent law system, thus allowing the free flow and dissemination of information necessary to create our necessary commodities; and (5) We must transition to a “less work” society in which familial, community, and creative development can flourish and replace our current society’s incessant production and overwork.

First, the fundamental structure of the workplace has to be reworked in order to topple the current hierarchical structure that gives way to vast unemployment, low wages, and specified use of technology for increasing profit. I contend that the best way to address this would be through a system akin to that of David Schweickart’s (2011) economic democracy, a system wherein firms are democratically managed and operated by the workers themselves, where the stock market is dissolved and replaced with a public investment fund accessible by communities to develop democratic workplaces, and where capital remains within the bounds of the nation. A system that operates in this way is necessary in preventing the development of a “god” class, as we have seen that the nature of the capitalist structure is inimical to abundance production and equal distribution of necessary resources. In a post-capitalist society, such as Schweickart’s economic democracy, we should see less inequality, a mode of providing basic necessities, and a world more optimized for the information age, one where the free flow of information will not need to be captured and contained as a type of profit. Fundamentally, such a society would not allow for the concentration of wealth, nor would it allow for the concentration of information among the elite. A democratic economy would ostensibly also lead to the development of democratic information sharing via open source channels.

Second, decisions concerning the kinds of technological development must also be under democratic control. At present, our technology is designed and motivated by capitalist interest. The goal of technological development is the quantitative increase in production while reducing the production costs. What this means is that automation and artificial intelligence currently serve the purpose of gaining more work out of less labor, thus maximizing profit margins. Additionally, much of the technology that we are sold for entertainment purposes are designed in such a way as to maximize the “attention economy,” causing producers to participate in a competitive “race to the bottom of the brain stem” rather than remaining value neutral.1 Smartphones, Facebook, and Twitter are prime examples of ostensibly highly beneficial communicative and cognitive enhancing technologies that are developed in a non-value neutral way. As opposed to technological development for the sake of qualitatively enhancing our intellectual and communicative experiences, companies are engaging in a competitive challenge for who can soak in the most amount of time in the attention economy. As we see with something like Facebook, our human relationships now have an extra layer of mediated interference if we wish to maintain these relationships over long distances, or in order to have continual access to these relationships.

The solution to the problem of a purely quantitative development of technology is certainly not to place more power in the hands of large corporate manufacturers and tech industry shareholders. Unfortunately, this appears to be the direction in which we are heading, with companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook continually centralizing power and garnering more influence in our daily lives.2 To usher in a society in which there is a democratic say as to what kinds of technology are developed and how they are implemented, I suggest that we look to something akin to Schweickart’s proposal for a public banking system. Such a system includes an apparatus of decentralized, democratic, public banks that engage in business loans that are both profitable and beneficial to the community.3 The fundamental goal of a public banking system is that it is beholden to the democratic will of the community, as leaders within the banking system must be elected representatives of the community and its goals. As such, research and development of new technology must be achieved through the public banking system. The investment funds that trickle into these newly developed technologies are therefore those of the community, and the democratic decision-making that precedes the provision of investment funds should guarantee choice in the matter of technological progress.

At present, the capitalist model necessitates that the average consumer of technology is merely that—a consumer. Individuals do not have real choice as to what kinds of technology develop, nor do individuals have a choice as to the goals of these technological developments. Ostensibly, under economic democracy, a community would be able to self-govern the types of automated machinery and artificial intelligence that are developed. Rather than simply being the recipients of technology that is directly designed to simplify and deskill workers, workers themselves would be able to govern the value that the technology imparts onto their working lives. For instance, a community may choose to develop what is known as “centaur” technology—a brand of technological development that seeks to augment human labor in such a way that maximizes the technology’s potential while sustaining the human element. Additionally, a community could choose to develop technology that increases the enjoyment and meaning found in the work being done. Or, a community could choose to develop laborsaving technology in order to minimize the workweek and increase leisure, all while assigning automated machinery to produce necessary goods for the community. Of course, all three of these possibilities are not exclusive, and technology can be used beneficially in innumerable ways. Regardless, the goal should be to allow for the choice of a community to research and develop technologies that will positively benefit the users rather than simply being passive consumers of non-value neutral, profit-driven technologies.

Third, in order to achieve a system of abundance and less work, we should put into practice Mason’s “information effect”. Putting this “information effect” (the flow of information leading to essentially zero value in many commodities) into practice means that we must be willing to allow for the accessibility of information for all. Because this system would rely heavily on access to the Internet, access should be viewed as a basic necessity. The Internet can be viewed as the collective consciousness of humanity—an aggregate of our combined knowledge—and access to ideas and information should not be restricted to those who are able to afford it. Thus, it should be the case that the government, along with healthcare, transportation, education, etc., should provide Internet access to all civilians. In this way, there will be an operational apparatus available to produce the free flow of information. At present, the potential rollback of net neutrality and the fcc’s bright line rules concerning an open and free Internet threaten the equality of information access. This must be fought against, as it is an affront to individual’s rights to the freedom of speech, press, and assembly. The fight for net neutrality appears to be the fundamental free speech battle of our time, and the prospect of an unequal Internet is looming in the near future. Without fair and equal access to an open Internet, we could easily find ourselves in a world where privileged access to the Internet leads to the informational inequality we see possible in Harari’s work.

Fourth, a post-capitalist society seriously concerned with the robotic and biotechnological revolution should move towards the disbanding of patent laws, or at least drastically reduce their current effectiveness in preventing information access. Reducing patent laws on certain types of intellectual information to a more minimal amount may be beneficial in still protecting ideas, while allowing for the free flow of information. The removal of patent laws may also be a valuable asset in an open information age. Since basic necessities will be produced and provided regardless of one’s monetary value, it only seems right that some forms of intellectual property cannot remain behind patent laws (i.e., medication, genes, etc.). Current patent laws are often valuable insofar as they protect the profit that can be generated from certain products. However, with the exponential increase in biotechnology, a posthuman evolutionary route (should we want it) should be openly and easily accessible to all. Otherwise, we face a scenario in which a posthuman evolution will come at the cost of vast swaths of humanity.

Fifth, while this article takes a skeptical view towards the future of humanity’s ability to adequately deal with impending technological disruptions, we should be willing to recognize the potential benefits of a continuously developing technological society. One of the main benefits of a continuously automated and robotized economy is the potential for a reduced working life in favor of the pursuits of education, art, family, community, etc. Many trivial and meaningless jobs can be eschewed in favor of automation, and instead we can focus our lives directly on the creation of meaningful pursuits. Of course, if the reduction in our working lives is not accompanied with the necessary resources for actualizing a meaningful life, then this is the type of future that we should clearly avoid at all costs.

This is where many people find the concept of a universal basic income as a solution to this problem. Given the automation of jobs, supporters of a basic income proposal assume that one way forward is to divvy the surplus created by our robot laborer counterparts to the general public. If the proper structure is in place, a basic income could be the liberating force within a post-scarcity society that allows us to actualize lives of meaning. However, under present circumstances, I would caution supporters of basic income to remain highly skeptical of any such proposals under our present system. The fear is that without a truly democratic society (including social control over investment and democratic workplaces), we run the risk of accepting a basic income simply to be consumers. Rather than having a democratic say as to what is automated, developed, and distributed, basic income proposals within our present economic system run the risk of only maintaining vast inequalities between ever-consolidating producers and ever-increasing consumers.

However, it is not ultimately the case that a basic income is a necessary response to our automated futures—at least not right away. A restructuring of the workplace into a democratic control and profit sharing system allows for democratic workplaces to decide their profit to work ratios. Over time, we should see a variance among workplaces as to how much they decide to work—some workplaces will decide to work longer hours for more profit; others will decide to work less in favor of more free time. Regardless, the decision remains in the hands of the workers, and thus those who wish to engage in a reduction of the workweek will have the option to do so. What’s more, with democratic control over production, workplaces will have the ability to determine what amounts of automation will displace working hours of human laborers. And when they do replace human labor hours, rather than reducing income for the worker and increasing income for those at the top, profits can continue to be distributed among the workers in such a way that they benefit from both the economic value that comes with automation as well as the free time that is provided by automating their tasks. With the average American worker now working 46.7 hours per week, and with salaried employees working beyond 49 hours per week, the structure of economic democracy coupled with automation would allow for a reduction in the workweek and the maintenance of worker income (McCregor 2014).

6 Conclusion

Harari’s Homo Deus presents us with a rather bleak view of the future—one in which the evolutionary development of human beings is divided among the haves and the have-nots. Harari presents his case as to why this is a reasonable fear, contending that we are on the precipice of an explosion in biotechnology, such as Musk’s neuro-lace. Unless we address the key issues within the economic framework of our society, the information revolution may spiral out of control, thus concentrating information and cognitive potential in the hands of a few. In order to avoid the Homo Deus scenario and enjoy the fruits of egalitarian technological development, we must look to (1) move towards a more democratic system within the workplace and our economy, (2) provide democratic control over the kinds of technological development, (3) consider the Internet a basic human necessity and provide its access to all, (4) drastically overhaul our patent laws in order to open the flow of information and creative commons, and (5) move towards a less work society. The path forward may be tortuous and convoluted, but these five basic premises provide a basic outline to structure our future. However, getting to this future is a matter of moving beyond the present system. As such, either the automation and artificial intelligence revolution will force us into Harari’s Homo Deus scenario, or it will force the end of capitalism.

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1

See Bianca Bosker’s (2016) article with former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris concerning the attention economy and the ways in which technologies are developed and presented so as to intentionally capture and maintain the highest amount of screen time. The valuable takeaway here is the realization that technology within a capitalist framework should not typically be viewed as value neutral.

2

Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook have the highest market capitalization at present. See nasdaq’s rankings based on market capitalization at http://www.nasdaq.com/screening/companies-by-industry.aspx?&sortname=marketcap&sorttype=1. These figures are the rankings as of May 26, 2017.

3

Much more can be said concerning the public banking system proposed by Schweickart, more broadly what he calls “social control of investment”. See his 2011 book After Capitalism for his overview of his public banking system, his suggestion for the development of a capital assets tax to raise the necessary funds for these public banks, the dispersion of funds on a per capita basis, and more.

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