Ascended Economies

Lately there has been some discussion about “ascended economies” – economic systems where humans are removed from the process.

Scott has two posts about the matter:

If capital investment gets automated, corporate governance gets automated, and labor gets automated, we might end up with the creepy prospect of ascended corporations – robot companies with robot workers owned by robot capitalists. Humans could become irrelevant to most economic activity. Run such an economy for a few hundred years and what do you get?

Could it happen? Fat chance.

I don’t see how humans can be eliminated entirely. Automation in the form of plows, automobiles, assembly lines, and computers has failed to shrink the labor force. (In fact, over the past two-thousand years it has obviously expanded significantly in spite of technology.) Only relatively recently has the labor force participation rate begun to shrink, but it’s impossible to know if this is attributable to technology or other factors. All too often, a new technology that that eliminates jobs for company ‘A’ creates new jobs for companies ‘B’ ‘C’ etc. For example, Amazon.com, while it has hurt some retail jobs, has seen its own employee count explode in recent years due to its booming warehouse operations:

E-commerce is a good example of an almost self-contained economic system, but as the example of Amazon shows there are still a lot of humans involved.

I suppose in the least convenient possible world, Amazon would eventually replace all non-Amazon jobs and then automate those jobs too. Or maybe these jobs will pay more poorly than the ones they replaced.

The Luddite Fallacy means that there will always be an abundance of jobs for all skill levels despite advances in technology. Carriage mechanics become auto mechanics, whose descendants become rocket mechanics, etc. Whether or not it remains a fallacy is up to debate, but so far it seems so.

Imagine a world in which you can design and build a car by flipping the “on” switch.

I think if they can build the car up to that point, they will figure out how to automate the pushing of the button. But then someone has to make the machine that pushes the button that pushes the button…In the case of a self-sustaining robot/factory symbiosis, the first factory still has to be built. Thus it’s ‘buttons all the way down’, ultimately leading to a ‘button for everything’ that when pushed will provide everything everyone will ever need.

Rather than sentient machines or total automation, more likely things will become more efficient and predictable. Vast resources of computing power will allow companies to better optimize their operations, as well as anticipate possible averse conditions. The world will become more predictable, less spontaneous, resembling a Ballardian ‘video game’ of sorts where everything is pre-planned according to its creators or script. We’re already seeing evidence of that with geopolitics and Pinker’s ‘long peace’. Or the stock market, which keeps going up for seven years (and counting). Some like Taleb argue that interconnectedness makes the world less stable, but the evidence seems to suggest the opposite.

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