Robots

Robots: The Real Impact On Us All

Robots will rise up, make us all redundant and steal all our jobs! That’s today’s big scare story, relax. Here’s why it won’t happen.

In the early 1800s, the Luddites smashed up textile machinery. They done this because they thought automation would affect their jobs. In 1871, almost one million farm workers toiled on the land; now there are fewer than 50000. But the number of accountants increased twenty-fold over the same period. Each technological advance creates more jobs than it destroys. To see why, you only need to consider the humble cash machine. Has the automated teller machine put every bank teller out of a job? Not at all: there are, in fact, more human bank tellers in the US today than when the ATM was introduced. Rather than just dispense cash, these human bank tellers now also cross-sell loans, mortgages and credit cards. Something similar also occurred in the 19th century. The automation of cloth weaving triggered a rise in demand for clothes. This more than offset the effects of automation, and employment in the industry increased.

A decade ago, who would have predicted a market for app developers? Nonetheless, the sheer pace of change creates automation anxiety in some people. Computers are now marching into professional jobs previously thought safe. Paralegals, financial advisors, journalists and doctors all have robots breathing down their necks. This raising profound and troubling questions about the future of work and the vital role it plays in our happiness, self-esteem and sanity.

For me, the real threat to the labour market is that many workplaces, far from becoming too futuristic, are reverting to quasi-Victorian labor exploitation. Take the garment market sector, for example. Workers, mostly immigrant women with limited English, have to work in sweatshop style factories. They are denied basic employment rights. They can’t afford to take their unscrupulous employers to employment tribunals. Not since hefty fees were introduced in 2013. It’s a similar story in more high-tech sectors, such as logistics. Here, technology is being used not to replace workers, but effectively to turn warehouse staff into robots. Employers are fitting them with tracking devices; delegating all their decisions to computers.

Its also important to consider the impact of artificial intelligence (AI), especially in what’s known as Moravec’s paradox.

This is the discovery that, contrary to traditional assumptions, high-level reasoning requires very little computation. But low-level sensorimotor skills need enormous computational resources. Hans Moravec, Rodney Brooks, Marvin Minsky and others articulated this in the 1980s. As Moravec writes

it is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers. But it is difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility.

Similarly, Marvin Minsky emphasized that the most difficult human skills to reverse engineer are those that are unconscious. He wrote

In general, we’re least aware of what our minds do best … we’re more aware of simple processes that don’t work well than of complex ones that work flawlessly.

So, technology such as robots find the difficult things easy and the easy things difficult. They easily outperform adults in logic. But a one-year-old can out-pace them in the basic functions of perception and mobility. So its middle-income workers, the ones whose jobs depend on logic and number crunching, who are being displaced and having to take low paid jobs like waiting and bartending. That explains what has long puzzled economists. More and more jobs are being created, yet wages remain static. For me governments need to intervene. If they don’t then the future economy will be one where a tiny number of rich people employ armies of poor ones to do menial and trivial tasks. The only hope is that machines help to boost the demand for complementary, non-routine tasks. This could lead to better paid jobs. But I fear that this is unlikely because this is only possible if we escape from our lousy rates of productivity growth. So, rather than fret about a non-existent, machine-led job apocalypse, we should be worrying about the emergence of a two-tier labour market in which vulnerable workers are denied their rights and their dignity.

What’s your opinion? Leave a comment below:

Photo by Mark Strozier on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Leave a Reply