While the development of computers has made the skills of those who work in the realm of ideas more valuable, many thinkers fear that developments in artificial intelligence will soon threaten even those workers.
This threat is taken so seriously, Varga reports, that it’s actually called “the elephant in the room” by labor theorists. The conventional wisdom among scholars in labor studies is that any work we know of today — even in highly specialized fields like law or medicine — will someday be better performed by artificial intelligence and robotics. In other words, the idea is that every job from flipping burgers to writing articles like this one will eventually be taken over by computers.
If that is the case, our society clearly has some thinking to do about the central way we currently see work as fitting into people’s lives. While in the present day technological advances have accompanied increased hours, in the long run a lot of people are going to be out of work. One of the solutions that has been proposed for this eventuality is what’s called a “universal basic income.” The idea behind a basic income is to take shared social resources, such as profits from oil reserves or cost savings from new technologies, and distribute them more evenly among the members of the population so that, Varga says, “they’re not completely threatened by technological advances.”
To move towards a universal basic income, though, we have to examine how our current economic system revolves around what Varga calls “the circulation of investment capital.” In a capitalist society, new and efficient methods of production are invented in order to reduce costs and yield profits to their inventors. If people don’t need to work for their money, where is the incentive to contribute to society, to make the world a better place? In Varga’s mind, “a lot of people would say the real problem is so many people are invested in this system of circulating investment capital and can’t think of anything else.”
What could a social framework to replace capitalism look like? Professor Varga’s partner teaches in the English Department and studies utopian and dystopian science fiction. “I think the answers are there,” says Varga. “I think the answers are in the visions that we’ve gotten from that literature, because it really is amazing: if you look at sci-fi from the early 20th century, it actually is predictive of where we are now and this science fiction that we’re reading now, it’s probably predictive of where we’re going in the future.”