Time to embrace technology in place of labor

What is the role of economics, or government, or technology? Certainly the entire purpose of the advancements in the technological field are for the purpose of pursing greater human freedom from labor.

When man was beast, labor, generally physical labor, was a mode of pure survival. By putting forth a massive expenditure of energy, man could stalk, pursue, and kill his prey for nourishment.

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As time progressed, man made this expenditure of energy easier through the cultivation of crops and the domestication of animals. This formed homo sapiens into communities, as less and less labor was required to produce more and more sustenance. What once took ten laborers to produce now only required one.

This created a freedom from the previously necessary labor for those ten laborers, and generally those laborers would turn to another craft to add value to their community – whether that be shoe making, cooking, or shelter construction. Over time, technologies are invented to make that labor easier as well, and the cycle of specialization continues further.

Fast forward some centuries from the time of early man to present day and we see that physical labor has nearly been perfected. One laborer’s energy on a farm can feed thousands thanks to generations of improved farming techniques and technologies spearheaded by the likes of John Deere and Caterpillar. Building homes is easier, cheaper, and soon to be 3-D printed by giant machines. Already today giant pre-constructed, machine-constructed walls and frames are made in manufacturing plants and shipped to the point of instillation, making home building more efficient and less labor intensive. In Tesla’s new gigafactory Elon Musk has robots building cars and robots repairing robots.

All of these advancements in technology have rendered millions of manual labor professions obsolete. Capitalism and the Western world considers this a bad thing, as man should be and must be contributing labor to the community. Yet, are we not simply on the edge of a reality mankind has always aspired to? A society in which humanity is free from the toils of physical labor. Free from the hardships of fields and factories? We view freedom today as unemployment, as freeloading – instead we should be viewing it as a blessing borne on the backs of tens of thousands of years of perfecting technology to make our lives easier. Physical labor, with the exponential gains in robotic capabilities, artificial intelligence, and specialization, is nearly an act of past generations – a fact that those generations would embrace.

Lets take a moment to understand exactly what I am saying by use of an illustration. Up until recently (i.e. the 1920’s onward), a nation, more or less, domestically produced what they domestically consumed. Certainly there was some trade between nations, but generally only for luxury goods and commodities. This is because travel, transportation, and shipping were expensive, risky, and complicated.

Today, logistics and economies of scale are sciences as massive corporations have spent billions developing hardware, software, and infrastructure to accommodate a global market. It is cheaper today for Nike to design their garments in the United States, source their fabrics from India, manufacture their garments in Vietnam, and then ship and sell those garments all over the world than it would be for them to pay American workers (or any domestic nation’s workers) to do the same manufacturing work. This is an astounding fact.

Let me reiterate, it is cheaper for Nike to make a shirt in Vietnam and then ship it across the Pacific Ocean to sell it in San Diego than it is for them to make it in Los Angeles to sell in San Diego. The costs for global transportation have never been cheaper. Hundreds of massive Maersk Ocean-Liners cross the oceans of the World every day filled with Capitalism’s finest products. What’s more, soon robotics will be advanced enough that the inexpensive physical labor being exploited in third-world nations will too be more expensive than a factory plant in Des Moines filled with autonomous robots stitching and cutting the clothes we wear.

Technology has gradually been trending in the direction that physical labor will no longer be needed with the narrow exception of incredibly specialized labors (think brain surgeon, advanced repair professionals, customized home builders, etc). And this should be seen as a triumph for humanity as we are now freed from the prison of labor.

Every industry, from driverless cars, to fast-food, to apparel, to manufacturing, is being intensely disrupted by technology. Whether that be MIT and Stanford’s robotics teams, to the auto-industry’s push for autonomous driving vehicles, human labor for physical jobs is rapidly diminishing and giving those previously employed laborer’s the freedom to specialize in something that will add even more value to society.

Yet even as I argue this point, I know that there are naysayers that believe that either 1) technology will never replace all physical labor jobs, or 2) that this is not a good thing. For those thinking 1, you are wrong – and countless surveys, data, and billions of dollars in investment are evidence of your misconception of the future. To those thinking 2, it is Western culture that is bringing you to this conclusion – not rational thought.

In the Western and Capitalistic culture, one who has freedom has no job, one who has no job does not contribute to society, one that does not contribute to society is bad. The logic falls apart at point two – just because one does not have employment does not mean they are not contributing to society.

One can easily imagine that as computers, robotics, and engineers continue getting smarter and better, the future of employment via physical labor is in serious jeopardy. Our world will be dealing with a political revolution in the next century as our leaders look to cope with the pressures of unemployment – and as inequality grows between capital holders and laborers even though efficiency has never been higher and costs have never been lower, the world’s governments will need to adapt as confusion, fear, and uncertainty abound as laborers lose their jobs to computers, machines, and robotics.

What we must do is to reshape our understanding of value. We should embrace freedom from physical labor, and embrace those who have been liberated from the labor. To do this, we must restructure our society to emphasize specialization in mental labor. Every citizen should have the chance to become an expert in the field of their choice; whether that be public policy, religion, coding, or medicine.

Imagine a world in which we are free from physical labor, imagine the additional collective knowledge we could garner if every individual had the chance to find their intellectual passion and pursue it now that they are free from the constraints of physical labor. The world would undoubtedly be a better place – and although the naysayers will likely fight to maintain a dystopic status quo when a utopian future lies close ahead of us, just remember: freedom is a treasured possession.

May is a J.D. Candidate at the University of Richmond and has worked in numerous public policy and legislative rolls - including the Virginia General Assembly and the Office of the Attorney General of Virginia. He holds a B.A. in Political Science, a B.A. in Religious Studies, and a minor in Economics from Virginia Commonwealth University.