Progress and The Care Economy (btw, the UN is badly wrong)

I’ve often written about the Care Economy, the one that I think comes after the information economy. As new things come over the horizon, it is always worth an update. And anyway, I promised a while back to write further on the future of capitalism: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/we-need-to-rethink-capitalism/ so time to get on with it I guess. The Care Economy idea is resonating better with the way the word is now than when I first raised it in the 90s. We see a stronger desire to live sustainably, to see human skills valued per se rather than just financial wealth. These are both care economy values.

The primary driver for the care economy is progress in machines. Let’s include large-scale robotics and AI of course, but let’s also recognise that much of the progress now happens at invisibly small scales, in biotech, in synthetic biology, biomimetics, in synthetic neurology.  Taking the most obvious and most easily quantifiable area, the fastest supercomputers now compare to the human brain in overall power (which I estimate at the equivalent of around 10^15 instructions per second and 10^15 bits of storage, though it is a bit of an apples-and-oranges comparison). Thanks to the limits on Moore’s Law recently having been pushed back another decade or two, their descendants will carry on getting even better (graphene and molybdenene circuits can be smaller and faster, with lasagne processors not far away, not to mention smart yoghurt, so there is a lot of potential still in the pipeline, but that’s another blog). Eventually, even personal gadgets will have better capability than the Mk1 human brain (unless regulation intervenes).

An ordinary computer doesn’t work the same way as the brain of course, but work is also ongoing in understanding how the brain works, and scientists can produce electronic equivalents to some small brain regions already. Electronics isn’t all digital chips, there are many other sorts of devices too. With a big well-stocked toolbox and detailed instruction manuals, or descendants will be able to do a lot with electronics.

What then for your information economy job? Well, it will eventually be better, faster and cheaper to use some sort of machine instead of you. That will force you to retrain or to concentrate on those areas of your job that can’t still be done by machine, and those areas will be shrinking.

The Care Economy is recognition of this problem, and suggesting that we will focus more and more on the emotional, human interaction, side of work. Social, emotional, interpersonal skills will be relatively more important. Hence, for lack of a better name, the care economy. However, there is absolutely no guarantee that the number of care economy jobs will expand to fill the number leaving the information economy. Today, about 30% of jobs are in what could reasonably be described as the care economy. This can grow, but not indefinitely. So we will have to rework our economy to avoid excessive polarisation between haves and have nots. That won’t be easy. We will need to redesign capitalism.

It isn’t going to be just that a lot of people in information economy jobs will have migrated to care economy jobs. The nature of the economy will change. With machines increasingly doing the physical and intellectual work, it will be like a black box economy, where people put a request into the box, and out comes the required product. The cost of material goods will drop a great deal, as will the materials and energy needed – progress in all branches of science and engineering will accelerate a great deal as AI adds hugely to the available thinking. (Some of us call this the singularity, though that can be a somewhat misleading term, because infinite development speed is not possible.) A small number of people plus a lot of machine power will take basic resources (mined or recycled, it matters not) and add highly to their usefulness, vastly more than previous technology generations could. Nanotech, biotech, infotech and cognotech will converge and will allow tiny amounts of physical resource to yield huge benefits in people’s lives. NBIC convergence includes areas such as synthetic biology, biomimetics, which will adsorb parts of IT and strong AI as well as materials technology and nanotech. And vice versa.

I am not certain whether professional economists call it economic growth if we end up with far more stuff at lower output cost. Reduction in costs reduces prices, which reduces the size of the financial economy if growth in demand doesn’t grow faster. It is certainly a growth in the economy to me, since money is only one factor that indicates wealth and economics isn’t about money, it is about managing resources to gain the greatest benefit. And this benefit will grow spectacularly. In the care economy, we could even see less money but still all have a far higher standard of living. Money simply becomes less important as things become cheaper.

So one of a characteristics of the Care Economy is that it is a time of spectacular growth in material wealth, of plenty, even as it reduces environmental impact and improves the valuation of human interaction. Even if there is less of what we now call money (there may not be less money, I’m just saying it doesn’t necessarily matter if there is).

I find myself agreeing a bit, but mostly disagreeing with the UN’s recent proclamations here. (quick summary here:http://news.yahoo.com/un-panel-says-retool-world-economy-sustainability-164515165.html)

I fully agree that we need to become sustainable, and need to value non-financial things like quality of environment and human social well-being more. I believe strongly that the technology progress route is the best way to achieve it. The UN is very wrong with their approach. They are coming at it from totally the wrong angle, not understanding that technology progress can deliver lower environmental impact than cutting back on standard of living. Whether this is extreme left-wing influence or just bad futurist advice I don’t know. What is clear is that they argue for the opposite philosophy, that growth is bad, that we should trim back our lifestyles because only then can we live sustainably. That is nonsense, we don’t need to do that. In fact, to do so slows down the demand for new products slows down the progress to better ones that are more environmentally friendly. We are faced with a simple choice. Do we want to live in a healthy environment with happy people with a fantastic lifestyle? Or do we want a UN world of relative poverty, using primitive technology sparingly and telling ourselves it is for our own good, polishing our halos to make ourselves feel better?

The care economy will change our value sets as it progresses. If we leap towards the mature care economy, say 2050, where anyone can buy a $100 device with a five-figure IQ, and integrate it so well into their nervous system that it acts as a brain extension, what is the value of being smart? If anyone can use an assembler to create pretty much anything they can imagine (within modest size and resource limits), what is the value of physical skill? If anyone can use technology to reach what is today Olympic class performance in any sport within months, where is the value in being faster or stronger or more precise? Historical advantage has come from being born with a genetic advantage, and using cultural advantage to nurture it to overall benefit. Technology levels the field.

So we will value the most core of human skills, being human. Even if R2D2 can beat you in just about every way possible, it still won’t be human.

2050 is some way off, and the information economy is still running at full speed. However, we already see the increasing focus on human value and reduction of emphasis on financial wealth as indicators of happiness or even national well-being. We already see more demands for human value-add, such as ‘authenticity’, or provenance. Even celebrity is increasing in value. Some new trends will start soon. As people come to value machines less and humans more, companies will find the markets forcing them to become closer to the customer, to become more integrated into their customer communities. Many care economy businesses will emerge from social network sites.

The biggest problem with all of this, and it remains unresolved, is that increasing  efficiency via machine effort reduces the number of people needed in many job areas, and offers no guarantee elsewhere that new jobs will be created in equal measure. We don’t want to end up with many people unemployed and poor. We have to make sure somehow that everyone has access to the very nice life potentially on offer. We do need to redesign capitalism.

I wrote in my capitalism piece about taxing the accumulated human knowledge and infrastructure needed to make all the automated systems – those using them shouldn’t be able to keep all the wealth for themselves if the entire society has contributed, providing capital and effort is important and valuable, but nevertheless is only one of the inputs, and should be valued as such.

One idea that has started to gain ground since then is that of reducing the working week. It also has some merit. If there is enough work for 50 hours a week, it is perhaps better to have 2 people working 25 each than one working 50 and one unemployed, one rich and one poor. If more work becomes available, then they can both work longer again. This becomes more attractive still as automation brings the costs down so that the 25 hours provides enough to live well. It is one idea, and I am confident there will be more.

Concluding, we are one notch closer to the care economy. We can see a bit better where the technology path is leading, and can already see some of the signs of cultural change. We are also becoming more aware of some of the problems along the way, but are starting to produce potential solutions for them.  Sadly, we now have misguided institutions like the UN muddying the waters with policy suggestions that would destroy the potential for good, and make the world a worse place. The UN suggestions are based on poor thinking and bad futurology. They should be ignored.

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