If a robot could do everything that a human could, then why would any human be employed? The pragmatist would respond that robots still cannot do everything that a human being can (e.g. sensory and motor skills). Some would even argue that robots will never match the creative skills of a human being. But it is often taken for granted that if robots were equivalent to humans in an objective sense, then there would be no demand for human “work”. Is this assumption correct?
In Philip K. Dick’s novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, androids and synthetic animals are almost indistinguishable from human beings and real animals. Yet every human being wants a “real” animal despite the fact that a real animal costs much more than an artificial animal that can do everything that the “natural” animal can. A real ostrich costs $30,000 and an equivalent synthetic ostrich costs $800 but everyone wants the real thing. Real animals are prized not for their perfection but for their imperfection. The sloppiness and disorder of real life is so highly valued that fake animals have a “disease circuit” that simulates biological illness when their circuits malfunction.
Dick’s vision is a perfect analogy for the dynamics of value in the near-automated economy. Even in a world where the human contribution has little objective value, it has subjective value in the economy. And this subjective value comes not from its perfection but from its imperfection, its sloppiness, its humanness. Even in a world where androids can dream of electric sheep, technological unemployment can be avoided.
In many respects, we already live in such a world. Isn’t much of the demand for organic food simply a desire for food that has been grown by local human beings rather than distant machines? Isn’t the success of Kickstarter driven by our desire to consume goods and services from people we know rather than from bureaucratic, “robotic” corporate organisations?
However even if the human contribution is not an expert contribution, it must be a uniquely human contribution. Unfortunately our educational system is geared to produce automatons, mediocre imitations of androids rather than superior, or even average, human beings.