Will Robots Spark the Revolution?
May 1, 2007
Part of the anarcho-transhumanist project needs to be identifying crisis points. Capitalism periodically goes through episodes of upheaval, times when the contradictions inherent in capitalism become appallingly clear, the system breaks down, and the opportunities for class struggle and social change are elevated. Many of the technologies that transhumanists discuss — elevated lifespans, genetic modifications, molecular assemblers, etc. — are certain to spark some of these crises. If we want to see these technologies used for liberatory rather than oppressive purposes, we need to prepare to take advantage of these crisis points and attack while the capitalist system is weak.
So which of these accelerating technologies is going to wreak major havoc first? Life extension is likely to be slow development — aside from potential tensions over the rich having access to better healthcare first, we won’t truly feel the impact of longer lives until the elderly overload our social security infrastructure — if that happens. Widespread development/adoption of molecular assemblers is certain to shake things up, but that seems likely to be at least a few decades off.
Let’s look at robotics. This is a technology that is already becoming widespread, whether we’re talking Predator drones, heart surgery bots, or robotic nurses. As robotics become more widespread, we’re looking at a serious shift in how capitalism operates.
Over at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Marshall Brain says:
I firmly believe that the rapid evolution of computer technology (as described in Robotic Nation) will bring us smart robots starting in a 2030 time frame. These robots will take over approximately 50% of the jobs in the U.S. economy over the course of just a decade or two. Something on the order of 50 million people will be unemployed. See Robotic Nation for details. The economy may adjust and invent new jobs for those 50 million unemployed workers, but it will not do so instantaneously. What we will have is a period of economic turmoil. All of those unemployed workers will be in a very bad spot. The economy as a whole will suffer from this turmoil and the downward economic spiral it causes. No one will benefit when this happens.
In the past, increases in productivity have meant higher wages and reduced hours for workers. Today, worker wages are stagnant. Most of the money from productivity improvements flows to the wealthy, creating a gigantic Concentration of wealth. Robots will turbocharge the concentration of wealth and leave tens of millions of workers in poverty.
Robotics are a potential powder keg of class conflict. It goes further than this, however — robots may also become a catalyst of state conflict. As the folks over at Communist Robot (who are capitalists-cum-technocrats, despite the name) put it, capitalist countries need to worry about socialist/communist countries beating them at their own game by successfully taking advantage of robotic workforces first:
A Capitalist economy is not fit for autonomous robot industrialization. A Communist economy however is perfectly suited for the implementation of a fully robotic workforce. In a Communist economy the government controls industry and wealth distribution to insure that everyone is afforded basic amenities. Communism exists as a response to the disproportionate wealth distribution of industrialized nations and functions better as an idealist philosophy than an actual economic system because it lacks the incentive of riches and glamour that compel development through Capitalism.
Robots will change all of this.
Robots topple the infrastructure of Capitalism by displacing its most valuable asset: the common worker.
Robots will empower Communist countries by lifting the burden of labor from their social structure and granting greater opportunities for education and scientific exploration.
It is of the utmost importance that Capitalist nations develop autonomous robots before a Communist country does because if a Communist country implements a fully autonomous workforce before Capitalism is ready for it, the Capitalist economy will be flooded with goods manufactured for free by the Communist nation. This surplus of extremely cheap goods will wash away the Capitalist financial system making its economy crumble to the ground. A Capitalist human labor force is no match for Communist robots.
Let’s not forget that we will increasingly see robots play a role in policing, border patrol, and military duties. After all, robots have the benefits of not being bribable, they don’t complain about long hours or work conditions, and they don’t stir up anti-war sentiments by coming home in flag-draped coffins. So not only will robots be taking our jobs, but they’ll be used to keep anyone who protests or rebels in line. This means that robots themselves will increasingly be seen as the problem — rather than capitalism.
But are robots the problem? Over at Phoenix Insurgent, we are warned that anarchists should oppose robotics:
As class war anarchists with a deep critique of technology, we should oppose robotics in general. It’s applications have already and surely will continue to parallel the class and bureaucratic structure of society, empowering the elite to make and remake the working class at will.
In another article, PI also warns:
No matter what use this tech finds, it will surely be a reflection of the narrow technocratic class that created it and the capitalist and political/bureaucratic class that funds, develops and deploys it. Such technologies, developed in that environment, cannot help but serve those masters. There is no way they can be used properly. Their flaws are in their development.
This argument is wrong for several reasons. While capitalists absolutely will use robotics to concentrate their wealth, this does not mean that in the long run robots won’t be advantageous to society. The reasons why should be obvious: robots can take on tasks that would be dangerous or tedious to humans, they can handle some tasks with more efficiency and less environmental impact than humans, and they could free up our lives for more creative, leisurely, and interesting endeavors. The solution to the problem of a robot taking over a wage slave’s job isn’t to get rid of the robot — it’s to get rid of wage slavery. We absolutely should take advantage of robotics to increase human happiness and prosperity — the question is how to use the conflict created by robots to help us get to a free society.
PI also makes the argument that, as a tool created by capitalists, robots can never have liberatory uses. This is the crux of the primitivist argument against technology — that it is never neutral, and is always tainted by the authoritarian structures that create it. They forget, however, that the street has its own uses for things. We are already seeing insurgent groups such as Hezbollah use drone attacks against Israel. What’s to prevent hacktivist guerrillas from using homemade, stolen, or hacked drones to disperse radical propaganda or facilitate clandestine communications? To make surgical strikes against police agencies or critical infrastructure systempunkts? To surveil, document, and broadcast police abuses and government crimes? To defend radical centers or even assassinate prominant politicians? Should drastic social change be achieved, why wouldn’t we make use of robots to improve our quality of life?
Let’s not lose sight of our goal: the radical transformation of society. The spread of robotics technology certainly has the possibility of making things worse and creating a crisis within capitalism. So let’s start preparing now for how we can take advantage of this — without being reactionary about it. Robots aren’t the enemy — the capitalists that use robots to exploit us are. Our aim should be to undermine capitalism and the use of robots to encourage inequalities — and to subvert such technologies for our own, emancipatory uses.