Culture Magazine

Cory Doctorow on Full Employment and Climate Change

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Writing in Locus, Doctorow starts by telling us, " am an AI skeptic. I am baffled by anyone who isn’t." After saying a bit about that he gets down to it:
Remediating climate change will involve unimaginably labor-intensive tasks, like relocating every coastal city in the world kilometers inland, building high-speed rail links to replace aviation links, caring for hundreds of millions of traumatized, displaced people, and treating runaway zoontoic and insectborne pandemics.
These tasks will absorb more than 100% of any labor freed up by automation. Every person whose job is obsolete because of automation will have ten jobs waiting for them, for the entire foreseeable future. This means that even if you indulge in a thought experiment in which a General AI emerges that starts doing stuff humans can do – sometimes better than any human could do them – it would not lead to technological unemployment.
Perhaps you think I’m dodging the question. If we’re willing to stipulate a fundamental breakthrough that produces an AI, what about a comparable geoengineering breakthrough? Maybe our (imaginary) AIs will be so smart that they’ll figure out how to change the Earth’s albedo.
Sorry, that’s not SF, it’s fantasy.
It is too late to halt the climate processes that will flood every coastal city, displace hundreds of millions of people, and sicken billions as pathogenbearing organisms seek new habitats where there is neither a resistance to them nor a predator to dampen the spread of their hosts. These processes will occur irrespective of geoengineering.
To understand why, consider just one factor: the heat we’ve sunk into the oceans. The seas won’t cool until the energy trapped in their depths is expended. Which means that, to a first approximation, the ice-caps are toast. I will speculate with you about GAIs all night long, but I’m not here for thought experiments in which we repeal the second law of thermodynamics. That’s not scenario-building, it’s wishful thinking.
The good news about all of this is that it reveals the locus of the problem with technological unemployment: it’s not a technological problem at all, it’s an economic one.
After the pandemic it's collapse or government jobs:
Look: when the pandemic crisis is over, 30% of the world will either be unemployed or working for governments.
This isn’t after an Artificial General Intelligence Singularity in the distant future.
It’s next year.
Governments will get to choose between unemployment or government job creation. Governments that choose unemployment – that leave 30% of their population out of work – will collapse. Possibly their nations will collapse with them. Nations with 30% unemployment don’t function. More importantly, nations with 30% unemployment can’t do the capacity-creation work that will make them resilient to the next crisis, leading to a civilization-threatening death spiral of collapse-disaster-collapse-disaster.
Dream big:
But honestly, if we’re going to dream, let’s dream big: I can see a path from here to a federal jobs guarantee. I don’t see a path from here to a General AI. If we’re going to imagine a General AI future, let’s imagine that one of the changes we make along the way is to abandon the toxic austerity worship of the neoliberal era. If we can manage that one simple trick – the trick of adding zeroes to a spreadsheet in a central bank computer – then we have no automation employment crisis.
Which is really good news, because that will free us up to address the actual crisis that we face.
Keynes once proposed that we could jump-start an economy by paying half the unemployed people to dig holes and the other half to fill them in.
No one’s really tried that experiment, but we did just spend 150 years subsidizing our ancestors to dig hydrocarbons out of the ground. Now we’ll spend 200-300 years subsidizing our descendants to put them back in there.

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