I’ve just been watching a worrying short item on the BBC’s technology prgramme ‘CLICK’. It was about robots replacing humans in more and more jobs. Nothing new there, you might think. After all, we have become used to robots in manufacturing, where they have been replacing repetitive manual tasks since as long ago as the industrial revolution, improving the human condition by replacing humans in jobs where the environment is hazardous. However it is predicted that by 2030, yes 17 years from now, 30% of all jobs currently performed by humans, in America at least, will be performed by robots. There is already a debate going on, predictably led by California, about…..wait for it…..the loss of tax revenue from people no longer in work. One suggestion is that the robots should, themselves, be taxed and the revenue raised used to retrain the displaced humans.
The problem, as I see it, is that the social consequences of, and reaction to, increasing automation are now potentially as serious as those faced by the cotton weavers who were confronted by the invention of the ‘Spinning Jenny in the 18th century. And this is why. The ever-increasing rate of technological ‘advance’ is allowing ‘robotisation’ of tasks that are not repetitive but require decision making, adaptive (learning) response and predictive ability: we are talking not about robots but artificial intelligence. We’ve already seen the squeezing out of clerical jobs formerly held by the moderately educated working class. Face-to-face interactions have been largely replaced by menu driven telephone and internet contact. Even those that retain jobs where customer contact is required are subject to the sort of reliance on automation as parodied by David Walliams’ comedic character who says “Computer says no”. Everything is subject to automation: farming, retailing catering, even fighting wars, are already being stripped of humans. Robot delivery of goods bought from an entirely automated warehouse is being trialled, along with driverless cars. Pilotless airliners are, and have been for years, entirely technically feasible. Even nursing and some medical interventions are being automated. The upward pressure of artificial intelligence is moving inexorably on to squeeze the educated middle class. The technically competent will be deployed devising and maintaining the robots, but what will the ‘thinkers’ do?
The idea that humans doing low grade, low income, low satisfaction work, will somehow be released by automation into a utopian world of creativity is laughable. It’s not, and never has been since the days of Spinning Jenny, about change for the benefit of society: it is, and has always been, about productivity and profit. How to make more money for less investment. What then of those whose educational attainment is not suited to this world? How will the politicians, the industrialists and the financiers, ensure that the displaced still have a living wage? If they have been superseded by a machine, on the basis that the machine will be cheaper per transaction (whatever that ‘transaction’ is), how will they be paid more than the machine ‘earns’? It makes no sense.
And so I return to the title of my piece. “I Robot, You Robot”. Isaac Assimov wrote “I Robot”, but from H.G. Wells’s “Time Machine” to Philip Dick’s “Blade Runner” and James Cameron’s “Terminator” the world of literature and film has been describing a dystopian future where a disatisfied underclass rebels against the machines and their guardians. It used to be called Science Fiction, but look around; it doesn’t seem much like fiction any more.