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Karl Marx’s Eerie AI Prediction

He felt that capitalism would fall when machines replaced human labor

In Life after Google: The Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy, George Gilder talks about the economic theories of Karl Marx (1818–1883) in relation to the new economy. Marx had apparently thought about machine learning despite his life dates but then the idea could be deduced in principle from the advance of steam technology.

Data analyst Michael McBride tells us that Marx wrote “The Fragment on Machines” in a notebook but his notebooks were not published in English until 125 years later, in 1973. In that fragment, he mused,

“Once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labour passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the… automatic system of machinery… set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages.”

McBride comments,

I think the most surprising thing about “The Fragment on Machines” is that you’d expect some sort of “John Henry vs the Steam Drill” type dichotomy, with Marx taking the side of John Henry: muscle, sinew and sweat building society one swing at time. After all, which two symbols most closely symbolize Marxist theory? The hammer and sickle — manual tools that couldn’t be more antithetical to automation. … However, in the great battle of Man vs. Machine, Marx shockingly sides with… the machine.

Because Marx held that the value of goods resided in the labor required to produce them, if goods were produced by automatons, without human labor, the economy would fall apart and capitalism would fail. McBride points to guaranteed annual income as a solution to the resulting hardship that Marx might approve:

Marx expounds an essentially utopian view of automation here. However, it’s not entirely far-fetched. In the greedy 90’s, could you possibly have imagined the phrase “universal basic income” being taken seriously in intellectual circles? That the New York Times, a mainstream media outlet, would publish an article titled “Capitalism Has a Problem. Is Free Money the Answer?” That Finland would give universal basic income to an entire town?  Michael R. McBride, “Did Karl Marx Predict Artificial Intelligence 170 Years Ago?” at Medium (November 18, 2017)

McBride thinks that a jobs famine is looming: “as artificial intelligence increases the rate of job loss to a fever pitch, displacing even white collar professions such as lawyers and accountants, one wonders how new jobs can possibly be created at the same speed.”

Punditry remains a dicey business. Despite the onrush of AI and machine learning, the jobs picture is currently quite good. Many factors help determine an employment rate, including banking policy, laws, and demographics (the proportion of the population in the age groups likely to be seeking work).

Also, something that is often overlooked, especially by Marx and his heirs, is that many jobs exist because people want a given product or service, not because they need it to survive. People who need not do manual labor to survive hire personal trainers to help them stay fit. People who need not raise animals for food keep dogs as pets and send them to obedience school. They might not be interested in a robotic substitute for the personnel they hire for these purposes. Predictions that fail to take such factors into account can often guess a general direction with unsettling accuracy, as Marx did, but then be quite wrong about the specifics.

Hat tip: Eric Holloway

See also: Imagining life after Google The reactions from the business world to the book should give us a lot to think about.


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Karl Marx’s Eerie AI Prediction