Aaron Bastani is thinking about automated luxury…communism? (Transcript)
The TED Interview
Aaron Bastani is thinking about automated luxury…communism?
August 11, 2022
[00:00:00] Steven Johnson:
Welcome to the TED Interview. I'm your host, Steven Johnson. It may seem strange, given our current reality of runaway inflation, supply chain bottlenecks, and $6 a gallon gasoline, but there's an influential group of thinkers out there who believe we are on the cusp of an age of abundance, a near future with ubiquitous and cheap energy, transportation, and healthcare.
Now, a lot of the people associated with the abundance mindset are your traditional Silicon Valley techno-utopian types, the sort who think that venture-backed startups are the cure for everything that ails us, but not all the abundance advocates fit that mold. Aaron Bastani is a journalist and author of the much-discussed 2019 book, Fully Automated Luxury Communism, which covered everything from asteroid mining to synthetic biology to new techniques for growing meat without animals.
Bastani has a refreshingly upbeat vision of our technological future. But it's a vision that belongs squarely to the progressive left, and he has a fascinating twist on an idea that's gained followers in recent years on both the left and the right: universal basic income. He's a rare combination, a techno-optimist who believes that the government has a much bigger role to play in ensuring that all of us get to participate in the era of abundance.
Would Karl Marx be spinning in his grave with this kind of tech boosterism, or would he be cheering Aaron Bastani on? We'll find out in this episode of the TED interview.
[00:01:57] Steven Johnson:
Aaron Bastani. Welcome to the TED Interview.
[00:02:01] Aaron Bastani:
It's my pleasure to join you.
[00:02:02] Steven Johnson:
So, much to talk about. A fascinating book, Fully Automated Luxury Communism. Also, maybe one of the best titles of the last 10 years. It's one of those titles you see in a bookstore and you're like, “That is something I wanna read.”
But I wanna start with a kind of a historical story that shows up in the book. Can you… You and I have something strange in common, which is that we've both written about in our books the, the staggering amount of excrement that 19th-century Londoners had to deal with. Listeners may wonder what this has to do with the utopian future where robots do all the work for us, but I actually think it's a really great place to begin. I mean, you talk in the book about this concept of peak horse. Tell us what you mean by that.
[00:02:47] Aaron Bastani:
So, I mean, it's shorthand as an anecdote for a bunch of themes and ideas in the book. One of them is a kind of a, a counterpoint to the presumption that things don't change and how things change.
And, and this has a name, it's called Amara's Law. You know, there's lots of laws in the tech, politics, policy world, and that is we… We have a tendency to underestimate change in the long term and overestimate it in the short term. So, for instance, you know, technology doesn't transform society when it's invented. You know, it, it transforms society when it becomes mundane, when everybody takes it for granted.
And a good example of that is the internal combustion engine and the automobile, which of course is a technology, goes back right to the start of the 20th century, but actually peak horse, which is to say the maximum number of horses in the United States used for industry, used in agriculture, transportation, it peaks, I think in the early 20th century, the 1920s, which is, is quite counterintuitive to lots of people though. So, well, they had the internal combustion engine, they had trains, they had trams, there was electricity, and yet you're using this very primitive source of, mode of power.
And, and I say that's quite a useful way of, of how we should think about artificial intelligence, machine learning, renewable energies. And how even if we think right now that these are ultimately gonna comprise a small part of the economy, actually in 50, 60, 70 years’ time, they're gonna transform society beyond all recognition and, and peak horse is a really great, quick way of explaining that.
[00:04:28] Steven Johnson:
And basically it also talks about how our, our forecasts are often wrong if we're predicating them on existing technologies or, or, or sources of energy. So, looking at London at the end of the 1890s, you just saw, you know, just horse manure everywhere because there were so many horses, and it seemed like if you, if you projected forward, it looked like London was gonna be buried under, you know, dozens of feet of horse manure if nothing changed. And, and that kind of linear projection ends up not being the right way to think about the future.
[00:04:59] Aaron Bastani:
Yeah, I mean, there are other, there are other points in the book where I say, “Look, you know, we shouldn't use this sort of a recency bias and say, ‘Well, the last time there was a crisis like this, innovation got us out of it.’”
You know, there was the horse manure crisis. I think the Times wrote about it in 19, uh, in 1894. And, and you know, they were extrapolating thousands of horses being used for cabs and transportation, all kinds of things. And like you say, this is, this is a city which is more than a million inhabitants. Important to say: Europe doesn't really see a city beyond a million people really since first, second century AD Rome. Then the Industrial Revolution happens, and it's an open question, you know. Can we have cities on this scale? And one of the kind of bottlenecks, so to speak, was horses and excrement, you know? The, the limits of organic motive power.
And so if you were to say to somebody in, in London 1894, “Well actually, you know, you might think this is a problem, but in 30, 40, 50 years time, there'd be barely any horses on the road at all,” very few people would've believed you, and, and yet it happened. So it's to… It’s to tell a story that things can change as a result of innovation.
But I, I would also warn our listeners that you know, that, that isn't there for a reason to say, “Well, look, look, we don't need to address certain problems through redistribution or regulation because there'll be a technological fix.” You know, I think that's equally dangerous, but there are certainly, um, historical examples.
[00:06:19] Steven Johnson:
Yeah, I want to get into this later in the conversation, but let's continue to set the stage a little bit here. We, the book basically goes from this historical anecdote of, of peak horse to a new analog to that in the future, which is peak human, and it's all tied to this concept, what do you call the third disruption. Walk us through what that, what that really means.
[00:06:43] Aaron Bastani:
So I'm sure some of the people listening to this are familiar with the idea of the second machine age. You have the first machine age with the Industrial Revolution: the arrival of steam power, mechanical energy coming from fossil fuels, first coal, later gas and oil. And this obviously reduces the amount of human labor that's necessary in things like agriculture, um, and industry. And that, that drops an extraordinary percent. They say the second machine age is the result of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and so on, and I am re-relitigating that argument a little bit.
But what I'm saying is that just as machines replaced humans with regards to physical labor after the early 1800s, early 19th century, yes something analogous is now happening in regards to cognitive work, pattern recognition, the use of big data, and that that, that ranges from warehousing to eventually self-driving vehicles, to automation in white-collar jobs like accountancy.
We see it already in radiography. And so what I say is, yes, I agree with that twofold typology, but I, I go back further, and I sort of historize all of it, and I say, “Yes, the Industrial Revolution is this massive disruption. Yes. What we're going through now is also a massive disruption analogous to that.”
But there was also something else 12,000 years ago with the arrival of agriculture, which is arguably the, the biggest kind of technological game changer of all. It's important to remember, you know, our planet is four and a half billion years old. Humans as a, as a species are a couple of hundred thousand years old. Modern humans.
And, and we've only had agriculture for 12,000 years. So it's an incredibly recent phenomenon. And for that reason, I think it's useful to actually have this kind of historical context through which we understand the industrial revolution, and now you know, the rise of artificial intelligence. And these are huge disruptive innovations. Of course, they are. But I think that they're probably still very much in the shadow of agriculture.
[00:08:42] Steven Johnson:
It’s… I think the historical framing of all this is really wonderful. It's one of the things that's really striking about the book and, and I think that's sometimes missing in traditional kind of purely tech-driven accounts of, of where we're headed. And having that, that long view, I think really sets the stage in an important way.
Let's walk through a bit more of what this third disruption is gonna mean in, in practice. One of the things that unites a lot of the technologies that, that you're talking about is that they are all increasing at exponential rates in, in either their efficiency, um, or their, their cost is decreasing at an exponential rate, or their ability, their, the kind of compute cycles they're capable of doing is increasing at exponential rates. And that just, as we know, that kind of pace of progress creates very unpredictable and dramatic results that often look unpromising for years, sometimes for decades.
And then you, you hit some kind of threshold where suddenly everything changes. And a lot of what seems to be happening in society is that whole fields are now dependent on, or increasingly dependent on exponential technologies, and that, and that's, that's the wave we're about to kind of run into. So one example maybe we could start with, which is perhaps one of the most important trends in over the last 10 years, and certainly going forward in the next 10 years, is the, the efficiency of solar panels. Can you talk a little bit about that?
[00:10:06] Aaron Bastani:
I distinguish in the book between exponential growth and, um, what can be viewed as the result of the experience curve, which basically states, and this was first devised by the Boston Consulting Group in the 1960s. They said if you, you double the production of a certain commodity, I think with every doubling of production, you get a 20% reduction in cost, on average.
You know, different commodities see different falls and costs, but this is called the experience curve, that there are five or six reasons why when you produce more of something that becomes cheaper to make. Obviously economies of scale with regards to raw materials, innovations with regards to working processes, et cetera, et cetera. And that applies to, to, to solar winds and lithium ion batteries. We see that sort of with the doubling of the production of these things, that their, their costs fall. And this has been going on for a long time, but for some reason it's, it's a relatively recent sort of realization that you know, well, okay, let's extrapolate this.
Going forward, it means, you know, quite significant changes in the economics of these things. So I think as recently as 2015, the International Energy Agency, you know, was quite conservative about its estimates for solar capacity globally. You know, solar's ability to meet our electricity needs. And, and this was because they didn't take into account that what was happening with solar, that each doubling of production would see falling costs.
And now with solar in the last several years, we've reached a point where solar energy in some parts of the world, solar electricity generation in some parts of the world, is now the cheapest energy that's ever been generated by humans anywhere, ever, you know. It’s quite significant.
And, um, the response could be from some, “Well, that's all very well in, in California or Italy or North Africa, but you know, that's not gonna help the world.” And there's two responses to this. The first is, well, actually the overwhelming majority of the planet’s population lives in, in areas with high solar exposure. That's the first point.
Second point is that, of course, there's a huge amount of solar energy potential in, in Britain or in, um, Norway or in Russia. Now the question is, can they meet the electricity needs of those particular countries? Sometimes, often not because of course they have, uh, long winters, very cold, and the, the exact moment you have long, cold nights, you have the least ability to generate solar. So solar is not the answer for everywhere, but I, I really, I, I really think if you look at the trends on solar since 2010 in particular, it's obvious. I think it's gonna be the, the backbone of global energy, uh, production for the 21st century.
[00:12:49] Steven Johnson:
And what this really means in practice, and we see this again and again in, in multiple fields that you write about in the book, is that things that were very expensive and hard to get access to because they were scarce are going to become over the next 40 or 50 years abundant and in some cases, too cheap to meter, as the expression goes, so that they might actually be almost freely available once you've paid for your solar panels on your house and you live in a place where there’s sun, the energy is just free on some level.
And there are other places where this is happening. I mean, another great example of this in, in the book is you talk about the, the change over time and the cost of sequencing DNA. That, that's a remarkable story as well, just thinking about it from a health point of view.
[00:13:31] Aaron Bastani:
Yeah. This is actually a conversation I had at TED. I had the pleasure of meeting a senior person from Moderna. Of course, they're responsible for the mRNA vaccine in regards to COVID, and mRNA is an interesting technology, is piggybacking on a bunch of technological innovations, uh, which have been sort of critical in the last, uh, 10 years, which even, like I said, like I said, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, kind of implausible.
I think the Human Genome Project—important to say, actually it was only about 90%—but they said, “Well, we've sequenced the whole thing.” I dunno why, but there you go. This cost several billion dollars, and today it costs about, I think you can get it under $500, I think $350, $400 to sequence a genome. And the same woman, I asked her, I said, “Well, what do you think? Look, what's the floor for sequencing a human genome?”
You know, I've had some people say a chocolate bar, a candy bar as you, you say, in North America, which is, you know, like, uh, 50, 60, 70p, I dunno, a dollar over there maybe.
[00:14:26] Steven Johnson:
And it's, it's a time story as well too. So that first sequencing, you know, cost a couple billion dollars, you know, now we're talking about maybe it's, you know, $5 and 10 minutes. That's, that's the kind of change we're talking about here.
[00:14:38] Aaron Bastani:
And again, yeah, exactly. And again, COVID kind of showed us how far we've come in some ways. So for instance, when we were getting these new variants, right, like Omicron and so on, we were only able to recognize this because the pathogen’s genome was being sequenced by researchers on the ground, whether it was in South Africa or, or wherever.
But, you know, the ability to do that at speed and identify new pathogens in real time, incredibly new. The, the idea that you could do it in the field very quickly, very cheaply, that’s the last five years, frankly. And it was un—you know, it was unimaginable 20 years ago.
[00:15:11] Steven Johnson:
The analogy I always use is that with, with the Great Influenza a hundred years ago, um, they—you know, which killed far more people than, than COVID, um—they didn't figure out whether it was a virus or a bacterium that caused the, you know, the Spanish Flu from 1918-1920 until the 1930s. Like they couldn't even identify. No, it wasn't, no one was talking about variants. No one was talking about identifying variants, you know, within a week of its emergence the way we're talking about now. And so yes, we're, we're in just a completely different world in terms of health that is, that is clearly happening and that the ramifications of that are gonna be enormous.
I wanna keep on the thread we've been on just for one more section here about the changes that are coming in this third disruption before we shift over to the, kind of the politics of it all.
And, and that's robotics. One of the arguments that has started to emerge with, with the rise of, of artificial intelligence and machine learning is that the it, it's the lawyers and the accountants who, who are gonna lose their jobs here. But the plumbers are gonna be fine because it turns out to be surprisingly hard to do, complicated, you know, manual dexterity tasks that involve, you know, a very specific situation that aren't just automated. Where do you think robotics is in terms of actually displacing those kinds of jobs? What's your take on that?
[00:16:33] Aaron Bastani:
Yeah, it’s an interesting question. I mean, I, I mentioned Amara's Law earlier on. Another sort of scientific law, it comes from science fiction, which states that, you know, the hardest things to automate are not what we would associate with, you know, frontal cortex, executive function. It's not playing chess or mathematical equations, which, you know, when you're a kid, your parents tell you that's what intelligence is: being able to solve math problems.
Actually, you know, real cognitive power comes from fine motor coordination, dexterity, rapid responses to stimuli. And so for instance, you know, it's very, very, very difficult to create machines which are capable of responding to the stimuli in real-time. You know, if you're driving a car and a cat runs out and you sort of steer clear, it's quite difficult to automate that, you know. And that, as a process of biological evolution, you know, people refer to that being in our sort of reptilian brain that's been part of our, the computer in our head for, for millions and millions of years.
So it, it, it actually turns out that these sort of more ancient parts of our brain are the, are the highest forms of intelligence and that fine motor coordination, of course, would mean that jobs like being a cleanup, washing the dishes… It’s very hard for a machine to replicate. Or you know, detailed painting. If you are painter, somebody's painting the ceiling, and they've now got a certain finish or a fireplace. Very difficult to do. Or if they're cleaning something which requires care and patience, otherwise it might be broken. Very, very difficult to, to automate if it's not incredibly replicable, you know?
So you can get machines, for instance, which are capable of surgery. They can stitch you up better than any human can, but that's because it's the same process being done thousands of thousands of thousands of times.
So real world. You know, or, or, or looking after children, for instance, you're responding to stimuli in real-time. You have to have an emotive element, again, using fine motor coordination. These kinds of jobs, which actually we, we generally pay very little money for. And we don't really valorize and respect the society, I think wrongly, those, the, those are the last things to be automated.
So social care, cleaning, and then the first things to be automated, perhaps counterintuitive, as you said, you know, accountancy. And there's a great quote from Mark Cuban—and I put it in the book—owner of the Dallas Mavericks, and you know, he's talking at some tech conference a couple of years ago now, and you know, he's, he's being asked, “What could, should my kid study?”
And he's saying, “Don't do accountancy.” You know, and I think this is probably quite wise advice. Now, don't push into it. I mean, there's probably some people out there, parents whatever, saying, “Look, I want my kid to do medicine or law or accountancy. They're solid jobs.” Maybe. I mean, I'm, I, I, we haven't got a crystal ball here. But the… They look to be very subject to disruption from technologies over the next sort of 10, 15 years. And his, his answer was actually, you know, go study philosophy. Um, you know, I say that's probably right. Or design. Something like that I think can be very flexible and very, very lucrative. So yes, in terms of technological unemployment, it's not gonna be the most “educated” quote-unquote parts of the labor market that get replaced last. It's gonna be a bit more complex than that.
[00:19:38] Steven Johnson:
It's interesting with philosophy because it is, it's suddenly in, in the world of AI and deep learning. All these ideas that were really kind of esoteric and abstract ideas for, for a long stretch of time in the philosophical tradition are now incredibly vital questions and, and expertise that is, is informing all of these new, you know, what is some of the most interesting technology in the world right now? So, you know, all the philosophy majors out there who got ridiculed 30 years ago are now, they're striking it rich.
When you look at, at this broader picture. What this is is really a story, as I mentioned before, of abundance. The things that were scarce are going to be abundant in this world, and that's gonna require a, a number of adjustments. One is just the question of how we measure all of this, right? The things that used to be very expensive are going to be incredibly cheap, and by our traditional way of measuring how things are going in society, which is economic growth or something like GDP, that progress will show up as the opposite of progress, will be going backwards because we're generating less, you know, material that is valued at, you know, at a, at a lower number because it's either, you know, close to, close to free or actually free. And so you propose a slightly different way of measuring this, which is the abundance index. Tell us about that.
[00:20:54] Aaron Bastani:
Yeah, so that would be something sort of, um, a composite measure that would replace GDP. So, there's a few things to say here. That the person who comes up with GDP, a gentleman called Simon Kuznets, he, he never intended for it to be this catchall in measuring economic welfare. He was very clear about that.
It only becomes that really, I think after the Great Depression and, you know, economists are looking for tools in terms of how to chronicle progress. You know, the big thing that matters to catalysts—you know, people that are listening here and they've got businesses—is profitability. The idea of the economy expanding more broadly, people weren't really aware of that, particularly, until after the Second World War.
So he said, “That's not the right way to do things.” You go a bit further on, you get Robert Kennedy saying that, you know, GDP can measure everything except the things that matter most in life. Great speech. I'm saying that, and as, as you've sort of hinted at, I'm saying also that because of technological change, this is only, you know, getting worse. It's going on kind of steroids, so to speak. So with all of that, I think, I think GDP is a very limited way of, of measuring economic welfare. And that criticism's always been there. You know, it doesn't include negative externalities of environmental destruction, for instance, you know, and that's not new.
But I think with the technology stuff too, I think it kind of, it really boils over, and I think it, it, it increasingly becomes a kind of a social problem. COVID again, is a, is a great example. And you look at the contraction of GDP in the UK, and obviously it's terrible, many people suffered as a result.
But we made a decision because of the virus to basically eliminate homelessness and rough sleeping. Right? So you had economy sort of GDP contraction, I think, in this country. It’s like 8, 9% ballpark. For me, it's a useful thing to think about. I'm not suggesting we should have economic contraction of 8%, but you can have a society where the economy is 8% smaller, and you don't have homelessness, and you don't have, you know, student debt. And in the US you have universal healthcare coverage, et cetera, cetera. These are, these are political and social choices.
The idea that, “Oh, if the economy was just a bit bigger then these people wouldn't be homeless”… actually in many, in, in many aspects, these things are intimately connected. Not entirely—I'm not saying economic growth creates homelessness. That’s obviously not true, but economic growth, doesn't accurately describe public welfare.
[00:23:19] Steven Johnson:
So there are whole chapters of the book that you can read, I think, and think to yourself that you might be reading a, a classic Silicon Valley kind of booster’s account of the world of abundance that is coming towards us, thanks to technological change, right? That, that's, that's an idea that is out there in, in the kind of Big Tech view of the world and the philosophy there is, you know, so just let a million, you know, venture-backed startups bloom, and all of our problems are gonna be solved.
And yet, you know, the last word of the title of your book is “Communism”, right? This is, you were making this argument from the, from the left, from the far left. And there's some unlikely kind of intellectual bedfellows in, in this book, which I think makes it so striking and, and, and original in its perspective.
And, and one of the things you argue for in terms of a vision of, of change—which also differs a little bit from what you would hear in, you know, the big tech world—is this idea of universal basic services. And that's distinct from a similar phrase, universal basic income, which is actually been kind of championed in some ways by, um, the Silicon Valley world. So walk us through the distinction between UBS and UBI?
[00:24:30] Aaron Bastani:
Um, so of course, the universal basic income is guaranteed income to everyone. Um, it's untethered from work/production. You get a wage without work. So some people say, “Well, this is, this is radical. This is, you know, what Marx talked about.”
I, I prefer to adopt a policy of universal basic services instead. Now, why? There are some studies into a UBI, which suggest that an affordable UBI is ineffective. An effective UBI is unaffordable. Now, of course, people can say, well, we don't know UBI will push up people into new marginal tax brackets, and it'll take away from here and give there or whatever.
There's a great study from a think tank in the UK called Compass, and they worked out that with a UBI alongside existing benefits, they wouldn't get rid of those, with that, I think you were seeing sort of child poverty and pensioner poverty tick down.
[00:25:23] Steven Johnson:
Given the size of the span, that you, you'd have to raise so much money and it wouldn't really ultimately change people's lives as much as the advocates had hoped.
[00:25:33] Aaron Bastani:
That's exactly right. So you could foreseeably have a very quite effective UBI, but it would be extraordinarily expensive, you know? And, and there's of course a opportunity cost here, okay? So we're spending that money on a UBI rather than other things. Well, if we're in the UK and we're looking at say, 90 to 100 billion pounds, which wouldn't be that impressive in terms of consequences, what could we do instead?
Well, we could have free university education. We could massively expand healthcare. We could, you know, extend it to a universal elderly care system. We could have a mass program of social housing construction. We could also do all of that and probably cut taxes in the middle class. You know, so wherever you're coming from here, I think the UBI, the numbers involved, they, they don't make sense.
And so for me, that's one of the arguments for UBS is that there's a lot more bang for buck. The second, you know, the, the public is already acquainted with, is this as a way of solving political problems. You know, you have it with education already in much of the West. The idea of “The state provides education”, at least in primary and secondary education.
And, and when I sort of lay this out in the book, you're looking fundamentally at four universal basic services, which again, should all sound quite familiar to a European/North American audience. Healthcare, education, transport, and housing. Housing we’ll park that for a second, but healthcare, okay. Familiar enough, you know, single-payer in the US, NHS in the, in the UK. Basically saying it's not necessarily single-payer, but basically saying you have healthcare, which is universally available, paid for through progressive taxation, through the point of consumption.
Uh, same with education. And then finally housing, which, you know, could take the form of a, a guarantee in regards to housing. It doesn't mean that we don't have markets for housing. But we, we probably need, in the US and the UK, we probably need something like we've seen in Japan over the last 25 years, which is we need zero price growth for housing, I think for quite a long time.
And one of the ways we could do that is, you know, providing housing as a, as a universal basic service. So that means massive construction of social housing. Just two things. It houses many people. Uh, it also should help with supply and therefore bring the price down of, uh, private housing as well. So those are the universal basic services, just to repeat: housing, education, transport, and healthcare.
[00:27:44] Steven Johnson:
And the argument that you're making is that by focusing on those four, you're building on top of those exponential trends towards abundance in many of those different fields. So if it gets cheaper and cheaper to do things like sequence somebody’s genome or to develop an mRNA vaccine, uh, that might be used for cancer and, and not just for COVID, or if automated vehicles, uh, are cheaper to operate, or if energy sources are, are much cheaper, all of these things over time get less expensive, and so unlike giving people cash, you actually are investing in a platform for people that should get cheaper as the technology develops. That, that, is that the kind of central part of the argument, would you say?
[00:28:26] Aaron Bastani:
That’s right. Yeah. You know, in the classical language it's a supply-side intervention. So we think that, uh, technology is going to change a lot of the supply-side factors here, so, why would you, as a result, give people money? Another thing to address here is that I support UBS because it's building on that technological dividend. But also I think if we, we have the technological dividend, we have, on the one hand, these amazing opportunities. On the other hand, there are these big challenges, which I think whether or not people agree with my politics, you know, I think they're kind of inarguable: climate change, rampant inequality, demographic aging, elderly care crisis. And it's very difficult to see how a UBI addresses those challenges. You know, how, how does a UBI help us to decarbonize by, you know, 2040?
And now I know some people say, “Well, if we had a UBI we could work less, we'd consume less, perhaps.” But those are quite ambiguous arguments. I'd, I'd far rather say, “Well look. We have transport as universal basic service. Um, which means that we, we can, we’re gonna guarantee zero-carbon, price-free buses and trains by this date.”
And again, that might sound outlandish, but you know, there are a number of places now cities, but even nation states; I think Luxembourg now has, has free public transport. And like you say, the, the, the technology is okay, well with, with buses. What are the inputs? You've obviously got the labor of the bus driver.
I think we should have unionized bus drivers. I'm not suggesting these people need to lose out. But in that transition, in the way I'm talking about these things, if it's managed, workers should also benefit. So these technologies aren't coming through tomorrow, but they're coming through over the next 15, 20, 25 years.
It should be done in a, in a very managed way. So the, you know, less labor will be necessary. Uh, the energy price is a strange thing to say in 2022, but they will be falling. As we've said, the price of renewable energy is, has been falling for decades. It will continue to fall. And then of course, the, the construction of the bus is falling.
You know, I talk about this in some detail in the book about, for instance, the number of moving parts in a space shuttle from the 1980s compared to what we're presently, you know, sending into space because of 3D printing and things like that. So the fabrication of the actual bus itself, the energy powering it, and the necessity of having a human there, the price for all this is, is collapsing, right, over the next 20, 30 years.
And so the question is: who benefits? Does that mean that we are gonna, you know, uh, allow shareholders to benefit and the 1% to benefit from, from monopolies and new profit models? Or are we gonna say there's a social problem here, bunch of social problems in fact, and, and free buses are part of the solution, and let's leverage the technological revolution to, to address these problems and to help people.
[00:31:07] Steven Johnson:
One of the things that I think is so interesting about the book intellectually is the way you, you recast Karl Marx himself, um, and I think present a vision of Marx, which I think is, is accurate and underappreciated, which is that on some level Marx was the kind of techno-utopian. That he believed that capitalism, for all of its flaws, was creating a set of technological revolutions that would ultimately lead to this utopian society that, that he was fighting for. And so there's, there's a kind of tech optimist side of Marx's writing that I think got kind of lost in the 20th century?
[00:31:42] Aaron Bastani:
[00:31:43] Steven Johnson:
And, and, you know, you're, you're, you're reviving it, uh, I think in a very powerful way with this book. Tell us about that vision of Marx.
[00:31:50] Aaron Bastani:
Well look, the, the Communist Manifesto, for your listeners, uh, is very short.
[00:31:54] Steven Johnson:
This is the most we've talked about Marx on this podcast, by the way.
[00:31:58] Aaron Bastani:
The Communist Manifesto is, is 60 to 70 pages. I can't remember. You can read it in, in an hour or two. And strangely enough, this is one of the great sort of encomiums to, to capitalism.
And there's line here. I actually just got on my screen since you mentioned it. This is from the Communist Manifesto. And this could, this could be from like WIRED Magazine or something. Um, “The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass, that the brutal display of vigor in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first”—that’s the bourgeoisie—“to show what man's activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and gothic cathedrals. It has conducted expeditions that put in the shade or form exoduses of nations and crusades.”
You know, and this seems very complimentary about capitalism, right? You know, he’s saying, “Here is a, a new motor production. It's emerged in the last century, and it just puts, it puts in the shade the entirety of human history.” And so I, I've always found it quite strange that, you know, this is the Communist Manifesto, the most red book. And, and so when sort of people cast Marx as a kind of, you know, skeptical about technological change or somebody who was, you know, unaware of the future or closed-minded, I mean, this is incredibly ignorant.
You know, so I say, I implore your listeners, just read the Communist Manifesto. You, you won’t… It's a love letter to capitalism in many ways. And so, Marx views capitalism as a big upgrade, and this is quite controversial on the left, right? He, he views capitalism as a big upgrade on feudalism. He says, “This is better. It's much better.”
Um, and it was, this is a necessary precondition for the things that I'm, I'm talking about. Now, of course, on the left, that’s terrible because the discovery of the Americas, right? You know, the encounter between the Western Hemisphere and Europeans that, you know, tens of millions of people die.
Now, Marx is quite, is terrible actually, in some passages saying this is kind of necessary, right? And… ‘cause we have to create a world market in order to create, you know, the conditions for communism one day. Now I, I don't agree with that necessarily. I mean, who knows how, how history turns out? We don't have the, we don't have the counter-histories. But he, he is a huge, huge fan— in a way—of, of how things are unfolding around him. And, and he wants to realign that with a different set of political values. But in terms of the technologies that capitalism creates, you know, he's, he's very, very positive.
[00:34:17] Steven Johnson:
So much of the Marxist tradition is about class struggle and about inequality between the different classes. Um, in the, in the vision of Fully Automated Luxury Communism that you're arguing for, how does the future of inequality look?
[00:34:34] Aaron Bastani:
Wow. Well, that’s a, I mean, that's a huge question. I mean, when we talk about inequality, um, that there's a lot of inequalities to think about, particularly with artificial intelligence, particularly with biology. And this is something that's touched upon with, you know, OpenAI or Elon Musk.
They are, at least, I think, you know, there are many things where I think Elon Musk is saying some strange things for such an intelligent person. But then in terms of what artificial intelligence does to, uh, distort the labor market, for instance, and economic equality, I think, I think he's quite open to that. I think some smart people who aren't on the left are quite open to that. I think with biology, that's a hugely interesting one with, uh, gene editing. Is, you know… We are kind of confronted with two different kinds of worlds. One is where everybody has access to the technologies we've talked about. You know, liquid biopsies discovering cancer at stage zero. Um, putting the dividend of the technology revolution at the service of, you know, global public health, that's one option. And another option is that biological inequality maps onto economic inequality, which is that the 1% are the ones that access life extension technologies, you know? And we see them live longer and longer, and that would be, I mean, that for me is one of the sort of terrifying outcomes it's talked about by Yuval Harari in, um, Homo Deus, one of his more recent books.
And I think it's definitely… It’s definitely a concern because even if, even if the 1%—and I, I mean the, you know, the wealthiest of the wealthy—even if their median age ticks up to like 110, 120 and the rest of us are living to, you know, 80… In terms of further concentrating economic and political power, just that is quite extraordinary.
And you see already in the US, you know, you see already in the United States how a society which is economically unequal, um, is dovetailing with gerontocracy. You see that with your—and I have no problem with Joe Biden. I have no problem with older people being in public life by the way, but there’s quite clearly something shifting in the US where you're quite a young country, you're younger than, say, Italy, but then your, your politicians are quite old.
So yes, there's Donald Trump. There's Joe Biden, and they're not, they're not outliers. And somebody can attack me and say, well, you're on the left. Bernie Sanders. Jeremy Corbyn. Yeah. It's a… That's fair. That's totally fair. And so we're already seeing the beginnings of that. And so, if there was a set of technologies which came online which only the ultrarich can access, you know, I think it's quite dangerous for democracy in somewhere like the US if all of a sudden, you know, the elite live longer and longer and longer than the rest of us don’t. And that's a good, that's a good snapshot of, of what we're seeing more broadly, which is life expectancies going up for a big chunk of the population, relatively affluent people, not the super-rich, relatively affluent people.
But actually, for the sort of poorest 20, 30% of society, life expectancy’s either stagnating or actually falling a little bit in the last 10 years. So inequality with these technologies, um, is a big question. It's not, and it's just not around economics: biological inequality, access to artificial intelligence, and then finally, sticking on AI, the great book that AI superpowers… So this is the guy who was with Google China when it, when it existed. And you know, he makes a really compelling argument to say that AI is gonna add trillions to the global economy by 2030 and, and he thinks the overwhelming majority of that new wealth is gonna go to the US and to China because they have the technological basis and they have the huge data sets from having these massive populations.
And that then creates problems. So if AI is going to do to economies what the steam engine did, you know, 150, 200 years ago, and only two countries on the planet, are gonna really benefit from that, you know, and they're gonna hoover up the returns and the profits, again, in terms of global inequality, that's gonna create new problems as well.
So, inequality is the watchword, but I, I don't want people to think that just means, you know, street homelessness in your city. You know, it's, there's multiple vectors to understand it.
[00:38:33] Steven Johnson:
In this future that you're arguing for here, what is the future of work? I mean, this is part of a series we're doing on the future of work, how, how we work, and we've talked about the, the, the four day work week and telecommuting and all these changes that are coming. But what seems to be on the table here is this idea where perhaps traditional labor becomes less central. Is that, is that part of what you're arguing?
[00:38:54] Aaron Bastani:
Totally. Yeah. I, I, I think the four day, the four day week is a great bridge. Uh, or, you know, perhaps more sellable, certainly in Britain, be a three-day weekend with obviously no reduction in pay. Absolutely. And again, to go back to Marx and the sort of socialist tradition, you know, it, it's socialists and the labor movement who argued for an eight-hour day, who argued for a weekday.
They, they were never saying, “We want to work more.” They, they wanted work in a world of high unemployment, but it was never an ambition, sort of ethically or intellectually. The good life was not to be working. It's leisure time. And so yes, we need to be constructing a world where the technological changes we are seeing are put at the service of people.
What does that mean? It means, you know, all the things we talked about, universal basic services. It also means, of course, working less. And to, to conclude, that's not limited to, to the, the Marxist tradition. Obviously, you know, you have John Maynard Keynes in 1930. He writes this very famous letter on the economic possibilities of our grandchildren. And, and this is the quintessential liberal economist of the 20th century, saying in 100 years, you know, we'll basically live in a world where people are working 15 hours a week. So, you know, that world is now eight years away, and we're not working 15 hours a week. So, a huge question to be posed of not just people on the left, but also the center. Why aren't we?
[00:40:09] Steven Johnson:
And for people who are inspired by this vision, what's your practical advice on how they can fight for this kind of change today? Do you see political figures or movements that are making this kind of argument? What are the short-term interventions that can kind of push us in this, in this direction?
[00:40:29] Aaron Bastani:
Well, I think there’s definitely, um, there's definitely a widespread urge to work less, to enjoy life and, and that's captured by a wealth of business literature, self-help literature. You know, the 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. You know, we had, we had John Maynard Keynes saying a hundred years ago. Now we've got Tim Ferriss.
So there's a lot of agreement about that. The question is how you get there. We’re not… Where I would disagree with some of that literature, which, like I said, hugely widespread is that, you know, you are only gonna get that through social processes, regulation, labor organizing, you know, crafting a different kind of economy.
So yeah, if that's, if that's the world you want to get involved in, I think the, the easiest thing you can do is, is if you're a business owner, ask yourself, well, can we move to a four-day week? Look at some of the research. You can talk to people about that. There's consultancies out there helping businesses transition.
Um, and it should make no difference to output, you know, ‘cause it increases productivity. You have less turnover of employees. If you're an employee, make the same arguments to your, the, you know, your boss or the, the whoever owns the business, uh, or if you're, you know, the shareholders or whoever. So I think, I think that's the first one is, is the four day week.
And then, you know, join a union. In some sectors, if you're being paid very little, I mean, that can sound quite fatuous, but in other sectors, it can be a very powerful thing. So yeah, campaign for the four-day week and, and, uh, and join a union.
[00:41:48] Steven Johnson:
We have a question we ask all of our guests on this show, which is really about kind of the blank spots on the map that you're most interested in seeing filled. What is the, the unsolved problem or kind of mystery that, you know, 10 years in the future, you're most looking forward to seeing solved?
[00:42:04] Aaron Bastani:
This is such a great question. So there's this thing called the Socialist Calculation Debate, and in the early 20th century, this is the gotcha of all gotchas, which comes from people like Hayek and later Friedman, the sort of neoliberal school. And they say, “Look, it's all very well, wanting central planning and a socialist economy, but socialism can never work because you can never have a central planner internalize the same amount of information as the price system. You know, the price system is this incredible thing which captures all of these inputs, and it's kind of beyond human comprehension, and it's very sweet that you think you can do this, but you can’t.”
Now, that has been accepted as correct by mainstream economic thinking for a very long time. The left hasn't had a a, a really good counter-challenge. The best counter challenge was, well, okay, it's a little bit less efficient, but it's still worth it. What we see now with, with big data, um, with um, companies like Walmart or Amazon, is that they work in ways that kind of resemble central planning.
Um, and so there's now a question, it's kind of alive again, that Socialist Calculation Debate. Well, with the internet of, um, internet of everything, with constant real-time data, um, with, you know, high levels of automation, with predictive algorithms, maybe actually central planning is more efficient than the market and prices. So that for me is an amazing debate, which I think in the next 10, 15 years, you know, maybe we'll get an answer.
[00:43:37] Steven Johnson:
Aaron Bastani, thank you so much for joining us on the TED interview. This has been a fascinating conversation.
[00:43:43] Aaron Bastani:
It was my pleasure.
[00:43:46] Steven Johnson:
That's it for our show today, and you can expect to see Aaron's TED talk later this year. It may have been the first speech in TED's history to make a stirring argument for communism as a political philosophy.
The TED interview is part of the TED Audio Collective. This episode was produced by Allie Graham. Sammy Case is our story editor. Fact-checking by Hana Matsuidara. Constanza Gallardo is our managing producer, and Gretta Cohn is our executive producer.
Special thanks to Michelle Quint and Anna Phelan. I'm your host, Stephen Johnson. For more information on my other projects, including my latest book Extra Life, you can follow me on Twitter at @stevenbjohnson or sign up for my Substack newsletter: Adjacent Possible.