Picture, for a moment, the perfect slave. Try to do it without making it a commentary on the current state of gender inequality, racial politics, or working at a fast food restaurant. Treat it like the other serious thought experiments I’ve proposed. What kind of traits would such a slave have?
Naturally, the perfect slave would have to be obedient. He, she, or it wouldn’t just obey an order without question. The idea of not obeying an order never even crosses their mind. In addition to obedience, the slave would have to be robust, durable, and capable. That may require some level of cognitive ability, but only to the extent that it can serve a master.
I bring this issue up knowing that slavery is an emotionally-charged topic with a bloody history. While we, as a society, have made strides in confronting the ethical issues surrounding it, including wars and social movements, slavery is still relevant today. At this very moment, millions of people are living as slaves.
The fact that many people find slavery morally reprehensible says a lot about humanity’s capacity for justice. The fact slavery exists despite that aversion says just as much about the economics behind it. Producing anything requires labor. Cheap labor ensures more profit. It sounds simple, but it understates the massive financial incentives at work.
It’s because of those incentives that slavery, as abhorrent as it is, will likely have a place in our future. Ideally, the rapid growth of technology and automation will eliminate the need for human slavery. Advanced machines that have no sense of self basically circumvents the moral problem entirely.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. We also don’t live in a world where everyone exercises similar moral standards. Some are perfectly okay with utilizing slaves. Some of those people, sadly, are rulers of entire countries.
As such, it’s distressingly possible that emerging technology could be utilized to expand slavery rather than reduce it. I think it’s an unlikely scenario, given current social and technological trends. However, I worry it’s a road our society could go down if our choices are wrong and the incentives are strong.
To contemplate how, it’s important to note the limitations of slavery. While it does provide the cheapest possible labor, its inherent flaws tend to work against any society that relies on it and not just because of moral condemnation.
In any system that uses slavery, there are hidden costs that go beyond human suffering. Slaves require significant maintenance if you want them to produce. A master, no matter how ruthless, needs to care for their slaves so that they’re healthy enough to work. The logistics of that, especially in a world without modern medicine, made slavery a risky investment.
You could say the same about feudal societies that relied on serfs. While it wouldn’t be accurate to classify them as slaves, they still survived by providing slave-like labor to landlords. That may be a good deal for the landlords, but the system has a lot of vulnerabilities.
Historically, waves of death caused by disease, famine, and war hit these lower-class people first. When so much of the society relies on their cheap labor, it tends to collapse or stagnate. It happened after the Black Death and it happened in the American south.
It’s another byproduct of incentives. When you have cheap labor, there just isn’t much incentive to innovate. A lack of innovation over the long haul tends to doom empires and economies alike. In a modern context, that’s a good thing because it ensures slave-based economies can’t function over the long haul. However, emerging technology is in a position to change that.
Think back to the perfect slave I mentioned earlier. Those traits are currently unattainable for a human or a machine. On top of that, human beings are stubborn in their desire to not be enslaved. Refinements in biotechnology, genetic engineering, and cloning could change that, though.
This is where the dystopian potential of technology reveals itself. Even if robotics continues to advance, there’s a chance that the labor they provide isn’t adequate or the maintenance involved is too costly. In that scenario, those with the exceedingly flexible moral standards could resort to tapping genetic engineering to fill the gap.
It’s already possible to edit a genome, thanks to tools like CRISPR. It’s also possible to partially hack an existing genome, although that process is still in its infancy. In theory, there’s no reason why someone with the right tools couldn’t re-engineer a human being into a perfect slave.
That being may or may not look human. They may have a body, a similar muscle structure, and a series of specified cognitive abilities. However, every trait they have, biological or otherwise, would have the sole purpose of obeying and serving a master.
That means editing out the parts of the brain that give someone a sense of self or suppressing it with a brain implant. That also means limiting the slave’s capacity for thoughts and desires beyond serving their master.
Their bodies, as a whole, could also be engineered to minimize maintenance. Their digestive system could be made to require only an intake of cheap gruel. Their genetics and immune system could be structured in a way to resist disease. They could even be made sterile through gene editing or implants.
This is where the influence of cloning technology and artificial wombs enter the picture. One of the costliest parts of the old slave trade was traveling to remote areas, buying or subduing people into bondage, and then transporting them to areas where their labor could be exploited. Once you’ve engineered the perfect slave, though, biotechnology could effectively create a copy-and-paste process.
It goes beyond labor, as well. I’ve mentioned before how advances in sex robots could allow people to create customized lovers. Well, if it’s possible to engineer the perfect slave for labor, then it’s just as possible to engineer the perfect sex slave. The implications of that raise a whole host of disturbing possibilities.
Whether for sex or for labor, crating such slaves would be an incredibly tedious, incredibly risky feat. However, given the economics of slavery I mentioned earlier, the incentives are already there. With these advances, coupled with cybernetic augmentations, and the potential payoff is even greater.
Suddenly, there’s an endless pool of labor to work in factories, fields, and homes. There’s no need to worry about labor unions, minimum wage, or slave revolts. When slaves are engineered at the cellular level to be a slave, then it makes too much financial sense to use their labor.
As a result, future societies will find some excuse to justify this kind of slavery. The precedent is already there. It wasn’t that long ago that people found excuses to justify enslaving an entire race. In this case, though, it would be even easier.
If these slaves don’t come from existing populations and aren’t even genetically “human,” then it’s easy for someone to see this brand of slavery as something different from the kind we’ve utilized throughout history. If these slaves are engineered not to suffer or feel any discomfort, then that makes it even more tenable.
The end result could be something similar to what George Orwell envisioned with the proles in “1984.” There would be this massive underclass population that exists solely to work, serve, and obey. To some extent, it would go even further than Orwell did.
This population of slaves wouldn’t need to be placated with meaningless entertainment, indulgence, or distractions. Their default condition would be to serve their masters in every way necessary. Anything beyond that is never even a thought.
I don’t deny that the scenario I just described sounds bleak. If you have even a moderate sense of decency, you would be aghast at any society structured in such a way. Even if the slaves seemed happy and the people who served as their masters had no moral qualms with it, chances are it would still bother you and that’s a good thing.
I think it’s because of that inherent revulsion to slavery that this dystopian path is not likely. I believe advances in robotics technology is already outpacing the rate of biotechnology. By the time we have the tools to create the perfect slave biologically, we’ll probably already have the tools to make machines that can function just as well.
That’s still not a guarantee. Nobody can predict the future, especially not an aspiring erotica/romance writer. It’s still a potential path, though, and a very dark path at that. As a society and a civilization, we’re still recovering from the scars of slavery. Those are wounds we should avoid opening for the society we’re hoping to build.