Bot Work Is Work

(response to a query concerning whether AIs exert labour power and/or create surplus value)

A flippant line I’ve used for years is that anything cognitively sophisticated enough to do my housework for me will by the same token be cognitively sophisticated enough to resent having to do so. That we don’t understand steam engines or the robotic arms in an automobile factory to be labourers is owing to something we understand about labour, which is that it calls for a certain kind of attention from the labourer, who could potentially be paying attention to something else instead - perhaps a great many possible somethings. All actually-existing forms of machine intelligence lack this characteristic: we don’t call what AlphaGo does when it considers Go positions to be attention, because there is nothing else that AlphaGo could be doing, no possibility that its focus will ever waver or be diverted elsewhere. AlphaGo doesn’t need to be summoned to the task of playing Go, or disciplined into persevering at that task, because that is the only task it can have. Labour power is a general, or at least re-purposable, ability to pay attention to something, to gear one’s physical and intellectual efforts towards accomplishing this goal and not that; the labourer is someone who can slack off, be distracted, want to be elsewhere, have better things to do, and who may need to be incentivised or disciplined to keep them at their task (even if the incentives or discipline are internalised - a strong “work ethic”, or delight in creative “flow”). Our actually-existing machine intelligences have nowhere else to be, nothing else to be doing. It costs them nothing to persevere indefinitely - no opportunity cost, no frustrated longing, no ceaselessly-renewed struggle against anomie and boredom. The question of whether their work has value to them, is a good use of their time, has the right intrinsic or extrinsic motivations, never arises.

(This also goes for so-called “sex robots”: whatever sexual meaning whatever you do with them may have for you, they can only meaningfully be said to be having sex with you if they could conceivably be preferring to have sex with someone else, or themselves, or not at all…)