I Robot, You Robot.

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.


Militarising Grief

A few days ago, gunmen representing IS murdered more than 30 tourists on a beach in Sousse, Tunisia.  Yesterday, 1 July, the first bodies were returned in a C17 strategic airlifter of the Royal Airforce to a major British airbase.  They were received with solemn ceremony, practised hundreds of times as a result of the war in Afghanistan, and more will follow in the coming days.

I wonder if it isn’t a mistake to ‘militarise’ the repatriation of IS murder victims in this way. The images of coffins being carried from a military transport, by uniformed men, travel the global media and are open to distortion by IS as justification or evidence of the victims being legitimate state, military, targets. As it stands, all that distinguishes these repatriations from those of fallen servicemen and women from Afghanistan is the lack of a flag on the coffin. These poor people were civilian victims of a senseless, murderous, act not combatants.

While I’m all for showing collective respect by managing the return of bodies, my opinion is that this would be better served by doing it in a secular way using unmarked civilian aircraft and dress.  Unless, of course, the British Government is deliberately using this to stoke public opinion to support an escalation of military action against IS (with inevitable innocent civilian deaths wherever that may be).  However hurt and angry they must feel right now, is that what the families of the dead would really want?

Careers Advice

I overheard this conversation between a small girl and her father, at a bus stop in London, the day before yesterday.

Girl: Wha’ sort of fing would I be good at ven?  Could I do ve dogs trust, or maybe ‘airdressin’?

Father: Nah.  I should fink speech ferapist.

Straws in the wind

I was browsing the BBC News website this morning, a habit I’m in when up  very early, and came across a story about food safety in China.  According to the author, Martin Patience, rat meat is increasingly (and currently illegally) served, disguised as lamb, in restaurants.  I know that things are routinely eaten in China, in fact in other Asian countries too, that we in the ‘west’ find objectionable: dog, cat, insects, reptiles and so on, but this blog isn’t about cross-cultural sensibilities.  What I found alarming was the inescapable conclusion that China is finding it difficult to feed itself.  The “largest migration in human history” has been taking place as chinese people abandon the countryside for an increasingly urban and industrial life.  According to Patience, middle-class chinese are so worried about the safety of home produced food (remember the baby milk contaminated with melamine?) that they are turning to “trusted” western brands of processed foods and, increasingly, importing food (especially meat and dairy products) from Australia and New Zealand.  They are also spending their leisure time trying to grow food that they know the provenance of, though a wholesale return to the land is completely impractical.  Where is this going to end?  Is famine a real possibility, is global competition for food going to result in shortages here?  With the burgeoning influence of China in Africa, will there be pressure on their scarce resources?  Here, in the UK, there has been a generational shift towards more self-sufficiency, and reconnecting with the land, but perhaps we’ll all need to learn to eat rat?