I recently found myself on the phone with American Airlines for a customer service issue. It was a fascinating experience. Why? Because the “operator” was an AI that was able to listen and respond to my voice commands. It was almost like I was having a conversation with a robot.
This bot felt more sophisticated than Siri or Alexa. And it got me to thinking about the age of abundance we’re living in. It led me to think about the consequences of productive AI and automated systems. Most importantly, how the consequences of automation will change society’s value systems.
Society wont lose productivity as more sophisticated AI’s take over traditionally human operated jobs. But these systems will displace traditional opportunities to earn income. And at a large enough scale, and across enough industries, productive AI systems will pave the way towards mass unemployment.
Ultimately – it likely necessitates some new form of broad spectrum universal basic income (UBI).
And in a world with UBI, the value systems of society will change. Wealth and status in the age of automation are dictated by an ability to create, entertain, and become culturally productive.
It’s not such a big leap when you look at what’s already happening.
Abundance Necessitates Universal Basic Income
The 2nd and 3rd order societal impacts of automation create a simple chain of events. In the not too distant future, AI is going to replace a large number of jobs. Automated cash registers, driving, freight, and manufacturing are early examples of how this is already happening. But in the longer term, and as AI gets more sophisticated, we can expect more skilled jobs will no longer require human labor.
As our ability to create robots and the AI to support complex tasks expands, we can expect the cost of these systems to drop. This forces humans to accept lower wages. (It’s already happening.) And at some point, AI will become more cost effective than human labor.
UBI is not unprecedented.
We already have a robust welfare apparatus to support a growing population of displaced workers in the developed world. You can receive assistance for paying for food, unemployment benefits, healthcare, and even subsidized housing. These are far from perfect mechanisms but you can and should think of them as first iterations and prototypes for what likely comes next.
As robotics advance and costs come down, the ability to produce food, energy, and shelter will come down as well. What comes next is a UBI supported society that addresses the human needs on the bottom levels of Maslow’s pyramid.
Let me explain what I mean.
Breaking Down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
As automation kicks into higher gear it wont simply replace low skilled jobs. It will start to take over agricultural production, energy production, and advanced manufacturing. Sure, there will always be laborers needed to service and support the machines. But the general premise is that we’re shifting the means of production from human labor to machine. (An example.)
We can expect at the very least productivity will stay the same. But it likely improves because machines aren’t subject to human labor laws. So in effect, society will become more productive.
We won’t produce less food and shelter but we’ll lose the means to pay for it.
As the automated revolution sweeps society, it will become clear to politicians that they need to overhaul the methods of welfare distribution. And the path towards a desirable outcome becomes available through the abundance provided by automated productivity. This happens by guaranteeing at a minimum that our baseline human physiological needs are met.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is used to study how humans intrinsically partake in behavioral motivation. Maslow used the terms “physiological”, “safety”, “belonging and love”, “social needs” or “esteem”, and “self-actualization” to describe the pattern through which human motivations generally move.
This means that in order for motivation to arise at the next stage, each stage must be satisfied within the individual themselves. Additionally, this hierarchy is a main base in knowing how effort and motivation are correlated when discussing human behavior.”
Universal Basic Income Forces a New Value System
So the bottom levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy represent our baseline physiological needs. That’s food, shelter, safety. We need the bottom levels of the hierarchy addressed in order to survive.
These are already just about guaranteed in developed nations. Yes, there are still homeless and impoverished people struggling to put food on the table. And the mechanisms for distributing these needs are far from perfect. But there are mechanism in place that guarantee food (food stamps), shelter (subsidized housing and homeless shelters) and safety (military and police forces).
As we transition to a society that relies on automated production vs human labor, we can expect how we provide welfare will change. There will be a transitory period characterized by a shortage of human jobs but an abundance of goods and services. Instead of monetary payments, governments will provide direct allotments of food, energy, and shelter. This services our baseline human needs.
But in doing so, it also fundamentally alters our motivations for life. What drives us forward if our baseline needs are met? What becomes important to us? How do our value systems change if we don’t need to worry about our baseline survival needs?
The Implications of a Post-Abundance World
In this post abundance society, we now look to our higher order psychological needs as what drives us forward and motivates us. These needs are increasingly showing up in society and leading to new forms of neomedieval tribalism.
We can already see the beginnings of this phenomenon manifesting in a variety of political and social movements sweeping the Western nations. The emerging social value systems and rise of progressive movements is a consequence of physiological human needs being met. And it represents the transition to a new value system based on our higher order human needs.
Belongingness, Esteem, and Self Actualization.
In countries that still struggle to support physiological needs, these higher order issues fall into the “nice to have” category. They haven’t begun to emerge as part of the primary value system. The word “privileged” is really just a slight against those who are able to pursue and accomplish their higher order needs.
This transition of societal value systems is a biproduct of the transition from the industrial age to the digital age. And the changeover creates a sense of incompatible value systems.
It’s also why it increasingly seems like political factions are talking past each other. Because they are no longer using the same value systems.
A shift of the value structure of society is underway as a result of this changeover. It’s why we increasingly seem to value information assets. The things that appeal to our psychological needs. Social media, community validation, and the need to feel like we belong. The things that impact our sense of self worth.
So What’s It All Mean?
It’s not possible to look into a crystal ball and say how the world will look in 10 years. But it’s likely that the trends of value transformation will continue and accelerate as AI displaces human labor. We can expect that as this transition happens, the issues that become most talked about will be more closely tied to higher order needs than physiological needs.
I suspect an interesting byproduct of an abundant society is increased mental illness. As we have more time and ability to focus on our new fundamental purpose, we may struggle to make sense of this changing world. The fundamental question of how to find our place and sense of belonging in society will eat at our sense of self worth.
But what is clear is that in a world with UBI, the value systems of society will change. Wealth and status this reshaped society will come from an ability to create, entertain, and become culturally productive. The ability to service the populations higher order needs. That is to say, if you’re not working on developing AI.
I’m piecing together a new narrative that makes sense of society’s shift into the Digital Age. The goal: to give you the facts and tools necessary to successfully navigate an increasingly digital life. I cover topics and narratives you can’t fully appreciate because you’re in the thick of it. Providing insights and analysis that are not always covered or accepted by conventional thought.