The industrial revolution and the end of scarcity

Right now we are living in the middle of a revolution. It has been going on for quite a while, but we are near the end of it. As with all revolutions it will bring about great change, in fact, it has already brought about so many changes that people think the revolution is over. Done and dusted. Move on. Nothing more to see.

However, that is not the case.

The revolution began almost three-hundred years ago and was considered to have been over after less than a century. It was then followed by a second revolution fifty or so years later. calling it a revolution could be a misnomer as it could be argued it was all gradual change, but it nevertheless changed the daily lives of millions and had profound social effects.

I am talking about the Industrial revolution started around the middle of the 18th century. The industrial revolution changed production from a craft where almost everything was created by hand by individuals to an industrial endeavour. Efficiency improved drastically. Better and more products could be produced in safer ways.

The social impact was enormous. People went from being subsistence farmers producing the most basic of produce to working in factories producing derived products. Trade, education, health, and practically every other aspect of life was improved as a direct result of the industrial revolution.

The first industrial revolution is said to have ended somewhere around the middle of the 19th century, but followed shortly by a second industrial revolution where amongst other things, electrification made a massive difference in production capability.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Increased output often let to lowered cost which might seem like a great thing, but it made for a bumpy economic growth as the commercial value of goods sometimes fell quickly enough for companies’ business models to break. Arguably this caused some of the economic depressions, including the Great Depression in the 1930s.

But overall on a larger scale the industrial revolution was an overwhelmingly positive thing for humanity.

And it is still going on. The industrial revolution is accelerating and will over the next decades change human lives more than they have been changed in the previous three centuries.

The technologies that are currently being worked on will render humans as a resource completely obsolete. This is a profound change that will force us to restructure economic models and rethink basic human values.

Let me clarify what I mean by that:

Artificial Intelligence is already taking over many of the tasks otherwise assigned to human beings. Current AI is narrow in scope and nothing like what we see in science fiction where self-aware artificial beings have been commonplace since Isaac Asimov and others popularized the idea. Even so, current AI can do many things better than us mere humans can. Typical factory production lines employ less people per product produced (say that quickly five times!) than they did twenty years ago, because welding, transport, stocking, quality control and many other tasks are done by narrow AIs that outperform human labour in terms of quality, speed and, of course, cost. At the level of raw product production like farming and mining, there are now less people employed than ever before producing more raw materials with the help of all sorts of narrow AI.

Many sectors can easily see that they are going to be hit over the next decade with automation and AI taking over human tasks. Transport is an obvious victim. Driverless trains are common in many subways systems around the word and advances in AI will soon make cars and trucks driven by people less reliable than vehicles operated fully by automatic systems.

AIs are more precise doctors, able to determine a diagnosis better than even the best trained practitioners. AIs can write articles about sporting events that are indistinguishable from texts written by their human counterparts. Large parts of the stock markets around the world are run exclusively by autonomous programs choosing where to invest.

And there are thousands of other examples. As AIs become broader in scope and gain more abilities, the fields in which a human worker will be needed will be ever shrinking.

Other technologies that will have similar effects include 3D printing and molecular nanotechnology. Our ability to print 3D objects will bring an end to many typical forms of production. Soon even complex machinery incorporating multiple materials could be printed either at home of in a nearby print shop. This would be much more economically than shipping the goods half way around the world where they currently have to be produced due to labour cost. 3D printing is important because it takes the physical world and turns it into an information industry. Just like movies, music and books are now handled digitally and distributed without a physical medium, so too will objects turn into an information technology.

Nanotechnology will take this a step further, enabling us to create complex electronics and medicine on the fly. As long as you can download the blue-print to something, you will be able to create it.

The industrial Revolution has so far brought enormous change to the world and the people who live in I, but it is nothing compared to what will come in the future.

Looking forward at changes to come it is always scary to observe potential jobs being lost and people being substituted the machines, but if we look at the changes that has already occurred, the vast majority of them have been positive and have improved our quality of life. There is no doubt that jobs will be lost in such sectors such as transport and production. Some say that up to 40% of all jobs will be substituted by in automatic system within the next 20 years. The fear is of course that this will make our economic system collapse and pull the foundation of existence out under the feet of the average Joe.

The changes are however no different from the change suffered with the first Industrial Revolution. If you had asked anyone in 1750 what would happen to the world if you could no longer survive as a farmer, I am sure they would have been terrified at the prospect. How would people make a living?

And that is the situation we find ourselves in right now. We can clearly see that a life-defining job we spend a third of our time on earth dedicated to will soon be taken over by a toaster.

But we should rejoice. Most people don’t actually like their jobs and the only reason they do it is to have an income. This is nothing but obscured slavery. When more and more of our time can be spent doing things we actually enjoy and doing less time at slaving away at work, the industrial revolution will finally have reached its conclusion.

But what will we live off? If we don’t have jobs, how will we pay the rent?

Our current economic model would have to change significantly. We would be able to produce more goods and services for less labour, so there would be even more riches for the people. However, assigning individuals a salary based on some kind of production model would not make sense. It is an important point to understand that going to fully automated production would not make the world a poorer place, just because no work would be done by people. It will be an overall richer world since we can increase production and lower the cost. Overall there would be more to go around. As a society we would be richer plus we would have a lot more spare-time on our hands.

We would have to break away from simple retribution based on work performed. Retribution would have to be assigned based on other parameters, such as age, number of people in household, health and other necessities.

I know this sounds like a future super-communism, and we all know that doesn’t work. If we however keep basing economic retribution on productivity by the individual, we will shortly find ourselves in a situation where those who own production capabilities will sit on all the wealth while the vast majority of people will have no source of income.

Fortunately, it will be a gradual change so there will be time to react. I am confident that an economic model will emerge over the next two decades that eventually will give us the answers. After all it will be a richer world.

When that happens we can kick back, travel, create art and do all the other personal projects we gave up on because we have a 9 to 5 job that puts food on the table.

Good luck!


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