The latest developments in technology point to an increasingly mechanised work process. The abilities of robots to perform tasks, and even to learn on the job, coupled with the way in which we are never away from our smartphones and other smart tech, seem to point to a future where machines are central, and humanity peripheral. Highly developed AI has won games of chess – and even beaten top players in poker – which shows the magnificent heights to which our creations can attain. In human culture, there is much fear, or conversely, celebration of the new machine age. From fear, we have movies such as The Matrix trilogy, The Terminator franchise, the recent Alien spin-offs where it seems that an android sets the whole debacle going, to warn us off putting too much faith in technology; from the celebratory side we are told that artificial intelligence is just a tool to help us with things like medical care and connecting people all over the world. Both these sides miss the fundamental problem with what is going on.
There is a new level of domination going on, but it is not out of machine’s malevolence, but the way production is organised. To that extent, it is not entirely new, nevertheless a quantitative shift can become a qualitative shift it we are not made aware of what is taking place, and it is that which this blog seeks to address.
The market develops by extracting surplus value from workers that is partly represented as ‘profit’. This ‘profit’ certainly helps business owners lead luxurious lifestyles whilst workers still effectively battle like rats over a piece of courgette that has fallen into a urinal, but that inequality is not the main problem. Profit also gets re-invested in new technology, to speed up production, make it more efficient, and to increase the productivity of labour. More gets produced, often to a higher quality and in less time. Thus, we are told, society ‘progresses’. But also involved in this is the stripping of the worker’s creativity. Value he or she has produced, once the surplus is re-invested in machinery, comes to turn his work into a series of just pressing buttons and supervising machinery – it requires less conscious process, and has thus become less creative. The labour from the past cycle is now embodied in a machine that leaves little room for creativity, hence you have a domination of ‘dead’ over ‘living’ labour. This is a process that has existed since the dawn of capitalism, and hence is nothing new, but what is new is that the level the process has developed into – seemingly, machines using algorithms to make judgments (including on the stock market), does show that high-tech capitalism leaves even less room for human productive-expression in the commodity. This self-relegation of the human species gives rise to the culture of fear over new technology where we cheer the sexy Sarah Connor played by Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) in Terminator: Genisys, for smashing things up. It also gives rise to the celebrationists – who it turns out, tend to be those with a vested interest in the status quo, or are simply brain-dead.
Of course, machines can never become self-conscious so as to pose a direct threat to human life. A good argument from the philosopher John Searle asked us to imagine an isolated room in which a man handles Chinese symbols he doesn’t understand. In “The Chinese Room” the man, let us say his only language is English, receives Chinese symbols through a hole in the wall. He doesn’t understand what any of these symbols mean, but has a set of rules for how to process them. So, he looks at his list of rules, and selects a different Chinese symbol to pass back through the hole. This is effectively what ‘syntax’ is all about. You have an input, a rule for processing it, and then an output. There is no conscious involvement, simply a rule-following procedure is sufficient for syntax to take place. Therefore, syntax is quite different from the world of semantics (the realm of meaning). All computers and robots, no matter how advanced, only still operate at the level of syntax, they have never, and can never, develop semantics. Without semantics, a being cannot develop its own wishes and desires and needs, and therefore can never pose a deliberate threat to any person. They will always remain our tools.
Nevertheless, although they really are just tools, this doesn’t justify AI celebrationism. As said, the incoming high-tech machine age poses a problem for the majority because it represents such a weight of domination of dead over living labour, and thus the end of labour as in any way a creative enterprise, as experienced at the individual level by the majority in society. The solution to this does not consist in the smashing up of machines (although that is morally admirable), but in the reorganisation of the mode of production. Instead of producing for profit, we need to produce to meet people’s needs instead, and have full social democratic control over this process, invoking new models of participatory democracy. A new post-capitalist mode of production does not see the surplus product re-invested in machinery, unless so desired by the freely-associating direct producers themselves. In that way, advances can and will occur, but only as a result of democracy rather than businessmen operating behind the scenes wondering how to extract more profit. If machinery only advances because it is democratically willed, then the alienating consequences of said machinery disappear. They really do become just tools, then.
Finally, this is no pipe-dream – humanity will necessarily be compelled to face these issues. Just as more of the surplus product is re-invested in high-tech machinery, so too many workers get laid off because their jobs have been replaced by machinery. This immediately is a source of protest. But moreover, with fewer people in employment, the capitalist ends up seeing his own rate of profit decline, because the source of profit always was labour, not the machines. Eventually he has to shut down the enterprise and try and recoup a scrap from a fire-sale. Expanding these principles worldwide, the most high-tech capitalist economies breakdown and collapse. This forces people to address the underlying logic of what was already going on, and wasn’t exactly experienced as a holiday camp in the first place.