For a long time, technologists have written paeans to the wonders of artificial intelligence and automation. And AI and the automation it would allow do indeed offer the possibility of emancipating us all from drudgery and dreary jobs. But under capitalists’ control, while people still think in capitalist ways, they represent an enormous danger. So there’s two sides to AI: immense promise and tremendous peril.
There’s a difference between labor and work. Labor is anything dreary and unpleasant that has to be done (or is perceived to be necessary – even if it’s not) under current conditions of economic organization and technological development. Labor is forced upon the laborer; no one leaps at the chance to do labor. Work, on the other hand, is self-chosen, non-alienated, enjoyable, creative activity – not what we normally mean by the word work. Although it may require intense concentration and dedication, there’s an element of play and freedom to work. Labor is firmly within the grey, joyless realm of necessity. Work is inherently meaningful, because it’s autonomously chosen and represents an unforced instance of self-expression. Labor is only meaningful because the laborer has to find some psychic way of justifying the meaninglessness and alienation she undergoes on a daily basis.
What one version of socialism would do is eliminate labor almost completely. Work would remain. The elimination of labor will require a large degree of automation, but there will still need to be people who do some work: they will monitor and tweak the machines and robots responsible for economic production/distribution and environmental management. Automation is central to this form of socialism.
Another form of socialism is disturbed by the way that capitalism has caused people to become so alienated from the basic processes that sustain life. Large-scale, centralized economic programs and systems of automation are much less desirable if you think automation is part of the problem, not part of the solution, but this form of socialism would also automate the most unpleasant and time-consuming forms of labor. This version of socialism, while trying to make labor less meaningless and unpleasant and eliminating some varieties of labor, would argue that work and certain, reasonably tolerable forms of labor should be pretty much universal, that everyone should equally participate in the labor that makes society possible. This version of socialism is the kind that favors decentralization, local production, local consumption, small-scale farming, and other initiatives to change the way people live and work.
Both versions of socialism (and they are broad simplifications) require some considerable degree of automation, particularly if that automation cuts carbon dioxide emissions. But the danger under capitalism is that automation becomes an excuse for capitalists to throw workers out of jobs and leave the unemployment problem to be solved by governments that won’t lift a finger to help the workers because those governments are controlled by capitalists and in thrall to the ideology of austerity. The way technology develops, which technologies are chosen for widespread use, who owns those technologies, who benefits from technological improvements, who bears the costs of technological development, and which values are programmed into AI/robots…all of these things depend ultimately on who controls the technology.
And under capitalism, this is the same old capitalists who control everything else. Silicon Valley tech firms may be superficially different from Wall Street banks, but they don’t care about ordinary people either. It’s entirely possible to imagine a future where automation has continued, causing massive unemployment and displacement, while none of the political and economic changes necessary to make automation into a blessing and not a curse have taken place. There’s a good reason why so many movies these days feature techno-dystopias. In short: beware of geeks bearing gifts.