Marx claimed that machines cannot "produce surplus value" but only redistribute labor and provide individual firms with a temporary market advantage. Nonetheless, many thinkers across the spectrum seem to believe in a globalized concept of "technological unemployment" or the idea that someday "robots can do all the work."

While machines can clearly alter the nature of work and redistribute labor, can they globally "replace" labor? All other arguments aside, doesn't this ultimately violate the laws of entropy? After all, "life" is the only "perpetual motion machine," and without humans all machines would quickly cease to output "work." Ideally self-perpetuating machinery like the Von Neumann Replicator or Maxwell's Demon remain mathematical and "frictionless."

Peripheral evidence supports this. Obviously, machines are made, fueled, and maintained by humans. Further humans feed, raise, and support the humans who make the machines, etc. Additionally, since the rise of "labor-saving" technology, employed global labor has only increased tenfold. This also suggests that machines redistribute, alter, and subdivide labor globally, but do not "reduce work" in any absolute, quantitative sense.

While this is slightly trickier, I would also suggest, following Maxwell's Demon, that "mental labor" is not free and can only increase on a pyramid of "physical labor." The machine, in other words, only reduces work locally and always contains equivalent "work" as human labor distributed elsewhere in space and time. Even with "free," nonfossil solar power, the most efficient way to transform it into "socially useful labor" is to capture it photosynthetically and feed it to humans.

Isn't this a perfectly plausible argument? Doesn't the common idea of "robots doing all (or most) of the work" violate the second law of thermodynamics? Isn't machine replacement of human labor in an absolute and global sense ultimately fallacious? Is there really a physical "free lunch" inside the labor capacities of machines?

Note: I posted a similar question on Economics Stack, but I believe it requires a broader, more interdisciplinary approach best suited for philosophy. The logical implications of entropy often appear here.

Note 2. I am having a temporary Java-script issue preventing use of "Comments," so may comment or inquire about answers later.

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    I had a little trouble following, which I think would be resolved by asking you whether you believe "life" depends on thermodynamic energy. You mention calling life a "perpetual motion machine," but there's a lot of quirks and nuances that show up along the way when you play with infinities like that. – Cort Ammon Nov 22 '15 at 0:52
  • Me too, Cort. If humans can create a machine such as the HAL in the 2001 Odyssey, then we are no longer "required" to "work". But in that process, we human beings, we are going to violate the second law. Because, if we can violate the second law, that means "in an isolated system", everything, namely anything stops at one point, which suggests the "machine" thing would not move by itself. – user13955 Nov 23 '15 at 3:50
  • Btw, if you read "very carefully" what Marx is saying, you will see his "vision" is going to end up in either ape-savage world or just a fallacy like Heaven where everybody is "saved". Division of labor will be inevitable forever until we human beings can make ourselves the "machines". – user13955 Nov 23 '15 at 3:56

As I studied economics as well as philosophy and had advanced courses in physics in school, I feel prepared to answer this question.

First, what does the second law of thermodynamics state? It has various formulations, but the essential core may be formulated like this:

There is no way (=no machine) that can transfer energy from a system with lower temperature (=energy) to a system with higher temperature without needing at least as much energy for doing so as it transfers. That means every move against entropy needs at least the difference of energy reached by this move.

As I take it, your question aims at the notion of labor and I will reformulate this, too:

Does it violate the second law of thermodynamics if machines can do more work than ever put into them by human labor?

The obvious answer is no, nothing violates this basic law of physics. But why?

Your solution seems to be to say that the work has been done by humans elsewhere, at another time. But it is not as simple as that and would in fact determine us to the pre-industrial cultural level. The law mentioned speaks about energy, not work. And the sources of energy are manifold, as you yourself implicitly stated. So by using fossil combustible material, biomass, solar energy and so on there is constantly added energy into the system. And it has to be, because neither we nor the machines have efficiency rates of over 70%, not to speak of 100%.
Most of the energy added to our system is by sunlight, but the natural optimum of transformation by photosynthesis is lost as it has been maintained until we established a work-production system by encroaching on nature.

But, more importantly for your question, the energy added in our work-production system is more than we put work into building and maintaining the power grids and retrieving the resources and so on. I know this simply because of the fact that the conversion volume of energy did grow much faster than the number of humans on this planet during the last two centuries while the work-time went down (from all the time to less than this) in modern societies.

You have to consider all the efficiancy losses in every economy due to allocation of goods, irrational human behaviour, efficiancy rates and so on. If they would not be compensated by any other than human labor we had a problem.

Otherwise, economically spoken, there could never be a global groth of the average real wages. And we would have no free-time.

  • Great answer. Any "machine" or "system" needs an "input" of human labor or such. That's why we are not immortal. – user13955 Nov 23 '15 at 3:53

Philip Klöcking has a decent technical answer, but it's much simpler.

Humans can't violate the second law of thermodynamics. We're part of the system too. If humans can generate "value" nonetheless, so can machines. Depending on details, maybe they can generate a lot more per input of energy or capital or whatever.

One formulation of the 2nd law is that entropy never decreases in a closed system. The Earth isn't a closed system: tons of sunlight comes in and tons of heat goes out. So it's not even applicable! (And if it were, we don't care much about the entropy of uranium isotopes, so we can still construct value.)

There are lots of interesting things to say about the relationship to human and machine labor, but one can safely ignore the 2nd law of thermodynamics until one starts talking about "infinite power" and stuff like that.

  • Apparently the sun turns four million tons of its mass in to light every second, but only about two ounces of photons strike the earth each second. – Scott Rowe Apr 27 '20 at 16:12

Interesting question; first, the second law of thermodynamics is a basic law of physics - which isn't going to be subverted by what men or robots do; but my impression is this isn't how you're using the law - but more as a kind of metaphor or allegory.

Mental labour surely is a kind of labour: a man who works with his mind must still be fed and sheltered; it ought to be part of the Labour Theory of Value - which, I think from how it's been theorised by Locke, Smith, Pareto and Marx has a very strong claim in being the correct theory of value.

Is it fair to say that on the Capital/Labour divide that mental labour finds itself on the Capital side as mangerial, entrepreneurial or administrative work? This, doesn't seem quite right.

Keynes, I recall reading somewhere wrote a paper on automation and employment, I think warning of inimical effect this is well over half a century ago - and surely given how much automation there is now in the world as to then, there must be more recent work on this that is properly critical.

Interestingly, it's Keynes that coined the term technological unemployment ... something you may already know!

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    Btw I love Keynes (and some of his citations!). And he is proven by facts: As the human labor necessary for production decreased massivly in the last 150 years, the nonproductive industries (service sector) increased proportionally: As humans want to/have to work, they look for ways to work if their labour is not needed for production anymore (supply) and as human labor would become an unused resource, there will be people with capital looking for ways to make use of it to generate more capital, being quite inventional (demand). But there have to be processes of adaption over time. – Philip Klöcking Nov 23 '15 at 11:50

As others pointed out, in its original form, the question dissolves, because since people can't violate the second law of thermodynamics, it doesn't matter that machines can't violate it either.

However, there is a way of reformulating your question which makes it more relevant. Although the 2nd law holds for the universe as a whole, (open) systems can decrease their entropy locally and temporarily.

Schrödinger, in his book "What is life?", defined life as those systems which are able to spontaneously decrease their own entropy.

So your question becomes, in two parts:

a) Does added value require a local decrease in entropy?

b) Is life necessary for there to be local decreases in entropy?

We can safely assume that the answer to a) is yes. There might be some exceptions, but the vast majority of economically useful work requires generating order out of disorder in one way or another, so, yes, creating added or surplus value does require a decrease in entropy.

So what your question really boils down to is b) Can there be added value without life? Or, alternatively, can we ever artificially replicate living beings' ability to spontaneously decrease their entropy? (Again, while the overall entropy of the universe remains increasing, per the 2nd law).

It is possible that the answer to b) is "Yes, life is necessary". There can't be any spontaneous increase of entropy without life, and therefore there can't be any economic added value without life.

But this is a very strong position to take, as it amounts to a sort of vitalism, à la Bergson. You would have to subscribe to a notion of Élan vital as a necessary ingredient for self-organization, hence the inability of ever replicating life's value adding capability with machines.

In this sense, the peripheral evidence points in the other direction. Computer scientists have been able to create self organizing systems using various programing approaches. Although difficult with present technology, creating self organizing mechanical systems based on similar algorithms doesn't seem that far fetched at all. Moreover, the boundaries of just how much of the creativity and design side of things can be handled by computers is being pushed constantly.

In this same vain, I disagree with your placing Maxwell's demon and Von Neumann machines in the same category. Maxwell's demon is truly impossible in the real world. Von Neumann machines are just very unlikely based on current technology, but are no more improbable than manned trips to Mars or human level intelligent robots. Indeed, computer viruses can self replicate by consuming resources from their surrounding environments, and as such already represent rudimentary Von Neumann machines.

Back to your original question: "Does “technological unemployment” violate the second law of thermodynamics?" -- No, because humans can't violate the second law either.

But as I demonstrated earlier: Technological unemployment might still be impossible because we are unable to replicate life's ability to spontaneously decrease entropy. However this requires subscribing to a strong metaphysical position that life possesses an Élan vital or dualistic nature that machines will never be able to replicate.

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