It seems rare, these days, to be able to pick up a newspaper or consult the news online without coming across at least one story heralding another step towards total automation of work at all skill levels. But I wonder whether these technological shifts (I’m reluctant to use the word “achievements” for reasons I’ll come on to) deserve such gushing, breathlessly uncritical praise as they often get in media coverage, not to mention perturbed by the tendency among some worshippers at the new altar of artificial intelligence to dismiss those who raise concerns about the impact of wholesale automation as Luddites, whose views are not to be taken seriously. It is true that without the sort of Industrial Revolution-era mechanisation that the Luddites resisted so fiercely, Britain could never have advanced beyond a more basic agricultural economy, and could certainly never have occupied the position of richest country in the world by a considerable margin for much of the nineteenth century. With this historical hindsight, it is therefore pretty easy to understand, even mildly agree with, the Luddites’ reputation as wreckers and thwarters of progress.
The big difference between the Luddites’ time and our own, though, is the alarming prospect that with the rise of artificial intelligence and its utilisation in many, if not most, forms of work, human workers will become redundant in vast numbers, generating permanently astronomical levels of unemployment. In contrast, employment levels skyrocketed during the Industrial Revolution as more and more workers moved into the factories from the old cottage industries – the number of weavers in the USA quadrupled between 1830 and 1900; what changed was the nature of work and the skill required to perform it. It is only in recent years that every industry has made moves towards automation of jobs previously undertaken by humans, and the predictions that have been made by AI-analysts make depressing reading. A report by Pricewaterhouse Coopers in August warned that 10 million people could lose their jobs to robots within the next 15 years, while a study by several American academics in 2013 found that between 35% and 50% of jobs (depending on the country in question) were at high risk of automation. This isn’t a question of old jobs dying from obsolescence as new ones are created, possibly at a faster rate than the old ones. The job remains the same, but the human worker is displaced from it by an apparently cheaper robot, and surrounded by other people in the same situation, is left with dismal prospects of alternative employment.
What, you and I and countless others may ask, are all these people who face replacement by robots going to do instead? They can’t all join the legions already working for the likes of Uber and Deliveroo in the gig economy, not least because the rise of driverless cars (which Uber has championed) and the prospect of delivery by drone threatens to make taxi-drivers and couriers the next victims of automation. The relentless, seemingly unstoppable rise of pseudo-intelligent robots capable of being set to any kind of task gives rise to two very worrying questions that barely seem to have been acknowledged, never mind addressed: firstly, what will the people who are replaced in their occupations by robots do with their time, and secondly, how will they be able to earn a living?
Part 2 to be published on 9th November.