We are all Exploited
Marx argued that under capitalism, everyone must work to live. We have some freedom to chose what type of work we do. But few of us have the choice not to work at all. Most of us need to find some particular task(s) we can do in exchange for a wage. And we cannot just walk away if we do not like it. We need our wage to live. As Marx wrote:
“[all workers must find a] determined, exclusive sphere of activity in which he is forced to remain if he does not want to lose his means of existence.” (The German Ideology)
The point Marx was making is there is a limit to freedom in this arrangement. A worker is anyone who sells their labour in exchange for money to live. In other words, workers have no choice but to work for a wage. If you aren’t independently wealthy you have no choice about this. Anyone who has had a job they hate can testify to this. It is alienating to work in a “sphere of activity” you don’t enjoy or where you are being mistreated. Many of us can relate to the feeling of hating our jobs. Most of us also can relate to having limited choice about whether or when to quit. We feel constrained because we don’t want to “lose our means of existence”, i.e. the money we need to live.
Work Without Exploitation
Marx contrasted the depressing limited freedom that characterizes most people’s working lives in a capitalist society with communism. Communism represents a different mode of production where things are made not because they are profitable but because they are needed. Marx pointed out that under capitalism market demand and human need are not always connected. Sometimes things that aren’t needed are in high demand, for instance, pet rocks or Bratz dolls. While other things that are needed are not profitable and don’t get produced, for example, low-income housing.
Under communism, workers wouldn’t need to sell their labour for a wage because there would be no need to create a profit margin as an incentive for production. The full value of what people produce would go directly into serving human needs.
Right now all of us, save for the wealthy few, must sell our labour to survive. However, image if we were all free to participate in whatever productive activity suits our interests:
[In a Communist society], on the contrary, a man would be given the possibility to do this today and that tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to go fishing in the afternoon, to do cattle breeding in the evening, to criticise after dinner” (The German Ideology’, MEGA, 1/5).
Production without Profits
Under communism, we wouldn’t have to sell our labour to others. This means we wouldn’t need to stay stuck in jobs we hate. Instead, we would be able to directly contribute to the reproduction of society by doing the type of work we find most satisfying.
If you have ever had a hobby that you’re passionate about then you can relate to this. I know a lot of people who like to write, but they don’t do it for a living. Instead, they do it in their spare time after their day job is over. Nobody forces them to write for free in their spare time. They do it because they genuinely enjoy the activity. It’s a labour of love, as they say. Under communism, wouldn’t have to keep a ‘day job’ we dislike. Instead, we could do the things we are passionate about all the time.
While Marx’s communist vision has inspired many people to do many things, the problem has always been in the implementation. How to organize a communist society to meet everyone’s needs if people aren’t motivated by money to work? On a more general scale, how does the economy know what to produce without market demand as a signal?
I think the answer could be technological, especially if it offers a way to accurately and assess human needs and respond in real time. “Artificial General Intelligence” (AGI) offers an answer.
What is Artificial General Intelligence?
Artificial intelligence or “AI” refers to machines that can learn and perform tasks like a human. Today AI systems underpin online services, allowing computers to understand speech, recognize faces, and describe photos and videos. Yet these systems are incredibly limited, excelling at a single task after extensive training, but useless for anything else.
“Artificial General Intelligence” (AGI) is something different. It would be like combining all AI devices into a network. This network would be far greater than the sum of its parts because it would be able to generate a collective artificial general intelligence through the combined experiences of each machine, as well as the interactions of machines with each other.
Thus, AGI would combine the best of human-like thinking and reasoning with the advantages of computers. It could control robots as dextrous and mobile as a person with perfect recall and the ability to perform near instantaneous calculations. The result is a new breed of machine that could take over any role performed by humans.
While AGI doesn’t exist yet, experts agree its development is inevitable. One of the strongest advocates of AGI is Google’s director of engineering Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil believes AGI will improve upon itself at an exponential rate until its intelligence operates at a level beyond human comprehension. He refers to this point as the singularity and says it will occur in 2045.
Dystopia or Utopia?
We’re all familiar with fictional dystopian depictions of intelligent machines eradicating or enslaving humanity, for example, The Matrix, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Terminator series. Not everyone finds such scenarios far-fetched. SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk calls AGI the “biggest existential threat” facing humanity and famous physicist and Cambridge University Professor Stephen Hawking said, “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”. Both were signatories to an open letter calling on the AI community to engage in “research on how to make AI systems robust and beneficial”.
At the same time, not everyone has such dire predictions. Utopian imaginings of AGI are admittedly rarer. For example, Iain M Banks’ Culture novels cast AGI as a benevolent custodian. The technology runs egalitarian societies free of suffering where inhabitants can pursue their passions. Indeed, an AGI equal to or better than humans could help develop solutions to problems that seem intractable today, such as climate change and war.
No matter which side you are on, most of human history seems to reflect the principles of winner-take-all and might-makes-right. Thus, we (humanity) might only have one chance to get AGI right. At a minimum, we must make sure AGI does not merely empower the small group of powerful individuals that rule the world already. At worst, AGI may pose a threat to humans who stand “in its way”.
Communism and AGI
The link between AGI and Marx’s idea of a communist utopia lies in the fact that AGI could control robots as dextrous and mobile as a person. This could result in a new breed of machines able to take over any role performed by humans. Such systems could perform everyday tasks, from surgery to driving cars, better than humans. This could have a substantial and render human labour obsolete.
Ending the need for human labour would have a substantial social impact. Organizing AGI to provide for all human needs will dramatically change economic and social life. There would be no need to stimulate market demand through advertising. No need to ensure profitability before offering a service. AGI could determine precisely what is needed, where, and when, and then make sure those resources are allocated. It could provide goods and services efficiently, without the need to first create/identify market demand. Advertising would cease to be about trying to make us want something. Instead, it would merely be about informing us of available products and services.
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