Which is why we should be worried. Very worried indeed.
There is a downside to all this technology, as well as an upside.
One of the programmes in the series, which I saw on BBC World Service while on holiday, was a televised debate. Arguing in favour of the continued advance of robot technology and AI was, as one might expect, business. Arguing against were people from the social sciences. Their concern was the effect that all this technology will have on people and they made some good points.
The most significant impact that technology can have on people is on their ability to earn a living. Where will people work, they asked, if their jobs are taken by robots? The answer that came back was that robots can’t replace people in all possible workplaces. A robot will never be an entrepreneur. Robots will never replace people in the creative arts or in businesses that require a high level of creative input. There are some areas of work, especially those requiring a delicate touch and a lot of manual dexterity, where robots aren’t as good as people – yet.
Taking those examples from the top, entrepreneurship is about finding a gap in the market and starting a business to fill that gap. That in itself means that the number of people who succeed will be limited. Already 2 out of 3 new business start-ups fail in their first year. That makes it a risky business where only the most talented, or perhaps the most ruthless, succeed.
The creative arts, however, require the person to have a basic talent to start with, which many people do not. Success in the creative field, as in many fields, depends on the rarity of one’s talent. For every David Hockney there are a million daubers who will never make any money. As a writer I can vouch for how difficult it is to carve out a path in a creative field that is already crowded with other talented people. Besides which, if no one can afford to pay for creativity then the creative people themselves go hungry, but I’ll come back to that later.
As far as jobs requiring manual dexterity and a light touch are concerned, it is only a matter of time before robots are built that can fill that gap. Welding and plumbing are skills that were picked out as difficult for robots to be good at, but everyone learning plumbing and welding will only increase competition in an already crowded market, only for the plumbers and welders to find themselves being replaced by a robot 20 or 30 years from now when the standard of robotics improves, as it inevitably will.
This is what the pro-robotics lobby seemed to fail to understand. Employment is a competitive market place. Employers pay the best rates of pay to the people who hold the rarest skills. In the 1970s, when computer programming was a rare skill, programmers earned a small fortune. Now that programming is a commodity market wages are considerably lower.
Those with the poorest skills, or the skills in least demand, get paid the least. If all you have to offer is a pair of hands then you are in competition with everyone else who has a pair of hands. Employers can pick and choose, selecting those that will work hardest for the lowest wages. A minimum wage, or living wage as it is now being called, just sets a legal base line for the exploitation of the low-skilled.
There is an initial cost, purchasing the robot(s), but anyone who understands the maths of Return on Investment (ROI) knows that if the cost of an investment can be recovered within a defined time period it becomes more attractive than paying wages year after year. It’s why JCBs have replaced men with shovels even though JCBs are expensive to buy. We have already seen this in the car industry where robots have totally replaced humans on significant sections of the production line. No sooner had the automated teller machine (ATM or cashpoint) been invented than the number of customer-facing jobs in bank branches started to decline.
All of this technology actually exists today. It only requires someone to put it all together and open a pub and it is no longer fiction but fact. I haven't yet worked out how to automate the collection of the empty glasses and the washing up, but that's hardly a major challenge. So how far are we away from replacing human bar staff with robots? In J D Wetherspoon's pubs this may have already happened. If it can be imagined it can be made to happen.
It is therefore the poorest in society that stands to suffer from the advances in robotics and it is inevitable that the gap between the richest and the poorest will grow rather than shrink. It also means that it’s inevitable that taxes will rise. Every person that loses their job to a robot has a family that must be fed, so the burden of feeding that family falls on those who are still in work.
In a fast growing economy a person may be replaced by a robot and still be able to walk straight into another job, but if that economy falters, or if growth is slow, then unemployment is bound to rise.
Finally this could, and probably will, lead to the collapse of whole economies. The more poor, unemployed people there are the less money there is to buy the products from the robot powered factories. They will go bust because they employ robots rather than paying people a wage. While it may be true that you don’t have to pay a robot a living wage, it is also true that robots don’t buy many cars, clothes or concert tickets.
Of course the early adopters in industry will do well, but when they have made their money they will cash in their chips and sell out to people who think they are onto a good thing but who are actually entering a declining market caused by rising unemployment.
There is a utopian vision that robots will free us from the drudgery of work. While they take on the manual or tedious labour we will share the remaining work between us, working shorter hours for higher wages. I won’t hold my breath waiting for that one. When labour is in greatest supply wages go down, not up. More people available for work places a downward pressure on wages, not an upward pressure. Even if we have the right skills the excess in supply will always put a downward pressure on wages.
There is even a downside to that, of course. Weaponising robots reduces the need to place soldiers in the line of fire, which is unpopular with voters. Could this lead to an increase in warfare? Potentially it could. Perhaps it already has.
Weaponised robots are already with us. A remotely piloted vehicle, or drone, is a flying robot controlled from half a world away, but the technology already exists to take the human control out of the equation, to fully automate the drone. There would likely be an increase in “collateral damage”, but who cares about that so long as it isn’t your friends and relatives that are being killed? For the record, Prime Minister, I do care. The robot soldier may be the subject of sci-fi at the moment, but the obvious attraction of such weapons means it won’t stay that way.
We must start by making sure that schools, colleges and universities understand their local industry and identify those areas where the use of robotics is on the increase, so that pupils can be steered towards areas of employment where humans are still in demand and I don’t mean McDonalds. This may even be in counter-intuitive areas, such as technological skills aimed at the design and manufacture of robots, on the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ principle.
If the lack of skills is one of the causes of poverty then we have to make sure future generations have more and better skills, because the lowest skilled people are the easiest to replace – and that’s true even without robots. If we do nothing else that’s something on which we can at least tackle our politicians.
I’m probably sounding like something of a Luddite on this subject; I plead guilty as charged. However, I do recognise that there are huge benefits to be had from the development of technology, not least in the field of medicine and health care. But for every upside there is a downside and it would be very wrong of us as a species to sleepwalk our way into a future where poverty is the norm, simply because we ignored the threat posed by some technological developments.
When Ig first picked up a stick to poke termites out of a mound and Ug first threw a rock at a rabbit to kill his dinner, they set us on a course of tool use that brought the human race to where it is today. That same course could end with most of us throwing rocks at rabbits once again simply because we have no other way of feeding ourselves and that is not the basis for a sustainable economy.