In the summer of 2036 during the Second Great Recession, Chester Digby, an economist at MIT, found himself walking across campus. At that particular moment in time, a student designed robot malfunctioned, careened out a third story window, and crashed down at his feet. The hurtling bot came inches from decapitating the future Nobel laureate. Distracted, Dr. Digby failed to notice.
To be fair, he was contemplating the greatest economic conundrum of his time. A few years prior, the engine of the world’s economy for over one hundred years—the American consumer—had finally succumbed to his own weight. Since the collapse, thinking about how to revive the moribund American economy had become the solemn duty of economists everywhere. In no other crisis—other than perhaps the ongoing warming of the world—had academics produced more tomes of great thought while doing so little to help, but that was about to change.
Digby stepped forward and immediately tripped over the robot which had nearly killed him. Finding his round spectacles on the walk in front of him, he adjusted them on his nose, and having lost his train of thought, rolled over to see what had caused him to fall. There staring at him—red eyes fading to black—lay the answer to the world’s problems. Gravity had produced no more significant act of mischief since it announced its existence to the world by dropping an apple on Sir Newton’s head.
Staring at the now cold eyes of his would-be attacker he thought, If we cannot make humans increase their consumption, perhaps someone could manufacture more consumers. Getting up off the ground with the head of the bot in his hands, Digby stared at the jagged pane of broken glass above him and contemplated a building on the campus which hard core academics, like himself, had always considered a bit of a joke. Digby walked in the doors of the Media Lab.
Thus began an economic revolution unknown in the history of human kind. The genius of Digby was to recognize that robotic workers replacing human beings wasn’t in itself a problem. The problem was that robots did their work for free. Digby recognized that the robots in the auto factory were a dead end for money. They made the car, but they didn’t buy the car. Money went into them, but it didn’t come out. What if they did buy the car?, he thought. That would close the loop.
Within a year, budding entrepreneurs had devised a scheme in which they sold robotic consumers to corporations desperate to find someone to purchase their goods. The first low-level, task oriented AIs did things like sorting mail and keeping books, tasks suited to the simple mind of an AI but horrible for the human soul. Unlike previous robotic replacements for human workers, these pieces of software got paid a small wage for what they did, and they were programmed to spend their money on consumer goods. Since they had no physical need, they could purchase the consumer items no longer affordable to human beings, most of whom were just trying to survive under their massive loads of personal debt.
Once the teetering edifice of corporate America caught the genius of the plan, it took off, and within a few short months the world economy was growing happily again. Not long after, the first crowd funded investment pools of robotic labor opened, and the thirty-year transformation from a human to a robot economy began.
Understanding that robots posed almost no investment risk, banks soon got into the act, offering robotic consumers credit cards and mortgages at rates which they could not refuse. Soon robots were working to make payments just like their masters had in the past, but having no consciousness to intervene, the robotic workforce was completely content within their slavery.
Not to be outdone by the private sector, the government quickly recognized they could exercise precise control of the economy through owning pools of robotic labor. Instead of the loose and imprecise control of monetary policy, the fed now had direct control through its own workforce. This led to unprecedented economic stability. When there was a short supply on fossil fuels, the Federal Reserve simply identified the kink in the flow from field to consumer and then added workers to solve the problem. If an oversupply threatened the economy, government regulators simply idled workers or reprogrammed their demand algorithms and kept the economy humming along nicely.
Of course, like all other revolutions, not all revolutionaries are created equal. Those with more money invested more heavily, and those who started at the bottom of the economic ladder remained there, but no one seemed to care. Once the government opened up the Federal Reserve sponsored robotic labor pool to investment by the poor, everyone had the opportunity to allow someone else to earn their living for them. Every human being in the industrialized world became an owner and lived comfortably, while robot workers did their jobs and consumed the goods they helped create.
Capital moved, the world changed, and humanity entered a time of peace and prosperity unknown in the history of our species.
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