I had a brilliant idea in the shower this morning. A couple of them, actually. I was thinking about my idea for a robot lawn mower. Think Roomba for your lawn. I was thinking about how there are several components needed, requiring innovation from several areas of expertise: mechanical, motors, energy storage, computing, sensing, etc. The first brilliant idea I had was to enlist the open source community, divide the challenge into separate design tasks and let people volunteer according to their expertise. The reward is obvious: they would contribute a piece of technology and get a full-functional whole for their efforts.
However, as I was thinking about this, about how it would work, and about the impact on society if it were successful, it reminded me of my previous thoughts about the Automated Economy (which I should write about). In short, an automated economy is one where labor is largely replaced by automation. Robots, if you will. People don’t have to earn a living because their needs are provided by the automation. Instead, people can focus their attention on organization, scientific advancement, academic study, art, or simply leisure. The problem with the Automated Economy is how to get there from capitalism. In a capitalist economy, the innovation required to develop automation is regarded as intellectual property. The innovations are not shared, they are sold. The economic benefit of automation’s output is channeled back to the owners and creators of the automated systems. It does not benefit the economy as a whole, except in the sense of contributing to economic production.
Worse, automation replaces jobs. As automation increases, more people lose jobs, and the people who lose their jobs receive none of the benefit from the automation. If automation continued unchecked, eventually everyone’s job would be replaced, and the benefit of automation would controlled by a handful of owners. This is bad for capitalism, because capitalism needs workers to also be consumers (who can pay for what they consume). We have survived so far because progress toward automation has been very slow, and because the operation of automated systems has created some new jobs. Finland has begun to experiment with the idea of a basic universal income to offset these job losses. It remains to be seen whether this will catch on.
Open Source is different from Intellectual Property. Open Source creates and innovates without expectation of direct compensation. The reward is the creation itself, and the benefit that the creation provides. Open source developers derive satisfaction from contributing value to the whole world. What if open source developers contributed their efforts toward automation? Automation of the most important necessities, such as food production? What if, rather than demanding and hording the lion’s share of the reward for their innovation, the automation was free for anyone to adopt and utilize?