Let’s leave aside for the moment all the dystopian visions of doom from an automated future (The Machine Stops, The Terminator, The Matrix, etc.), not because they couldn’t happen but because I have another question in mind.
When we look around us and see ATMs, Roombas, GPS operated farm combines, iPhone’s Siri, etc., it’s not so hard to imagine that if we were to jump forward a few more decades or a century, we could find ourselves in a time where the vast majority of drudge work (from janitorial services, to construction and agriculture, to cooking and waiting tables at a restaurant, to manufacturing everything including the manufacturing robots themselves) is done by “robots”. Not C-3PO or R2D2, but computer-guided machinery of one sort or another. Perhaps there will be a few humans needed to guide things (almost like George Jetson, pushing buttons), plus of course artistic and creative vocations like political punditry or ballet; but the stuff that maintains people’s basic Maslow hierarchy needs (shelter, food, etc.) will be taken care of without human labour, as will additional layers of luxury.
Further, this level of automation should mean that no one is wretchedly poor, that everyone will be able to live in at least reasonable comfort without having to “work for a living”. Right? Again, maybe those who do “extra” could have additional reward for doing so, but if robots can do all the stuff I described, and assuming population is under reasonable control, no one should want for the basics.
So here’s my question: what does the transition to this state of affairs look like? Before we get to the point where people say “duh, this is obviously stupid to make people work for paychecks and pay for everything”, it strikes me that capitalist tech entrepeneurs will try to enrich themselves by taking over sectors of the economy that used to require human labour. After all, when washers and dryers and dishwashers were invented, they weren’t just passed out to families with a benevolent wish that housewives liberate themselves from drudgery. They were (and are) sold at a profit, just like those automatic GPS-driven farm combines.
So when the janitorial robots become cheaper than hiring people, janitors and hotel housekeepers will be thrown out of work. Same thing for taxi drivers when automated cars are perfected. And so on and so forth. At what point then, and in what way, does it cross a rubicon from creating mass unemployment (which is bad) to obviating the need for employment at drudgery (which is good)? Will the robot-making companies find themselves increasingly with fewer and fewer customers because no one will have a job? Will governments just take over, Tea Partiers be damned? Or will it somehow happen organically without great turmoil? I can see the end result, but that transition is a muddle. Whaddaya think?