Good Robot? Bad Robot?

It’s 2030 and you’re not doing your old job any more because an AI machine can do it faster, cheaper and safer. How’s that working out for you?

But, first of all, let’s deal with some basic logic.  How fair is this?

  • Gavin: “Steve, what’ll we do for tea tonight if Mum’s not there to cook?”
  • Steve: “Dunno. Ask Dad? Or make it ourselves? Or go down the chippy?”
  • Gavin: “Steve, you’re an idiot. We won’t have do any of that because Mum will be there!”

Bit harsh on Steve, yes?  He was only answering the question that was put to him.  If their Mum wasn’t there, he had an idea of what could happen.  He wasn’t asked whether he thought she might be.

Silly?  Maybe.  But that’s exactly what the economists and the right-wing press did to Professor Stephen Hawking a while ago on the subject of robot automation and unemployment.

In 2015, Hawking was asked, in a very brief Reddit interview, what he thought the world would be like if robots took away most of the jobs.  He replied that, if that happened, and if there was no change to the underlying capitalist system, it would be pretty unpleasant.

And he was called an idiot.

More precisely, he was called an idiot for thinking that the robots would take the jobs – even though that wasn’t what he was asked or answered.  The economists insisted that the effect of automation wouldn’t be so severe and that many old jobs would be replaced by more interesting ones.  (The basic premise of technocapitalism.)  So, it was stupid to think that … even though he didn’t.  As for what he did say – that it would be horrible if it did happen, well, we didn’t want to discuss that bit.

So, with that as a warning, let’s be absolutely clear on where we’re going with this post …

There are going to be several world factors to consider over the next few years:

  • P: The population is changing (it’s currently rising quickly and getting older)
  • A: Increasing AI/Robot automation is a thing (we can argue about how much of a thing, but it’s a thing)
  • T: Technocapitalism may change the human employment landscape (new jobs may be created)
  • O: There will be other factors to consider even if we can’t say what they are (unknown unknowns)

The net effect of these factors on global employment/unemployment (EU) will be something

EU = f(P, A, T, O)

… and we have practically no idea what the form of the function, f, is (except that P and A are likely to raise unemployment and T and O could conceivably lower it – but that’s far from certain) because that’s not the argument we want to pursue here!

We’ll consider the ‘shape’ of the function, f, (i.e. what the employment/unemployment landscape might be in future) in detail in another post.  For now, we’ll hypothetically stick with this blog’s recent position and consider P and A to be significant, T less so, and no idea about O really, of course, but the effect might not be huge (in this respect).  In other words, an increasing population and accelerating automation will lead to many job losses across the globe (the signs are already there for this), technocapitalism won’t work, and the rest we’ll have to guess at (it either won’t affect employment dramatically or will be so catastrophic we won’t care any more).

So, our axiom for this post, X, is that – globally – there will be large-scale loss of work for humans.  We’re allowed to do that: it’s a hypothetical discussion with a defined starting point!  If you don’t like it, jump to the (‘END‘).

So, if X holds, what does the world look like? (Which was the question Hawking quite reasonably thought he was answering.)

In other words, what does a world in which (very) large numbers of people don’t work look like?

Or, to get further focus, what would ‘not working’ look like for (very) large numbers of individuals?

And we can make a start by considering what it looks like now …

It all depends on who you are …

For an elite few, ‘not working’ is pretty good.  If you get lucky (by having the right parents, property, winning a lottery, investment, etc.) then ‘not working’ is cool.  And even the system itself looks OK if you’re a beneficiary of it.

But for the majority, ‘not working’ is horrible.  It means misery, poverty and despair.  ‘Not working’ has ‘no value’.  (At the moment, it also means being looked down on by the rest of the ‘working’ population but that could be an interesting development if the working/not-working majority/minority switch.)  Either way, it’s shite.

a15featurejobs1

It doesn’t have to be that way of course.  Not only could we treat ‘not workers’ better but there’s actually tons of work to do.  We need schools, hospitals, (positive) health provision, (popular) large-scale arts, leisure and sports facilities, etc. but very little of that happens because everything today is driven by profit.  Unless someone (usually within the elite) benefits financially then it doesn’t happen.  (Even funded research has to offer ‘exploitation’; the profit goal is everywhere – even in the so-called ‘public’ domain.)  That’s capitalism: capitalism means decadence for a ‘non-working’ few and misery for everyone else – particularly at the other (growing under X) ‘non-working’ end of the spectrum.

So what will all this be like in future?

What will ‘not working’ look like under techno-capitalism?  (Assuming X holds.)

Exactly the same, of course: nothing changes because … nothing changes.

If capitalism simply evolves – unaltered – into technocapitalism – driven by the same profit model, then ‘not working’ for most will mean what it’s always meant: which is still ‘no value’.  There will be no change: how could there be?  No-one will profit from someone being unemployed so the system will make life miserable for them.  There might be no actual need for them to work any more – and/or there could be better things for them to do – but that won’t matter: capitalism doesn’t work like that and neither will technocapitalism.  What could be an opportunity, will instead be a problem.

So, when we discuss what the world might be like with a robot workforce doing all the work for us, we have to make the point repeatedly – until it’s properly understood – that it has nothing to do with the robots themselves – or any of the technology!  In principle:

  1. It might mean a (‘new’) society of leisure and luxury for all of us [one end of the possible spectrum]
  2. It might mean massive (‘conventional’) unemployment and misery [the other end of the spectrum]
  3. It might be anything in between

But this is all dependent on the socio-economic-political framework we place the technology in: not the technology itself.

  • If things change big time, we could get 1.
  • If nothing changes, we’ll get 2.
  • If we manage some changes, we get some sort of 3.

Unfortunately, there are many of us who – no matter how much we might like or want things to change – suspect they won’t … at allCombine this growing surplus workforce with the increasing (and therefore ‘unnecessary’) environmental damage they’ll be doing and there are those who question what remedial action the elite might have to take as time passes.

(END: For those of you re-joining us, having been unable to accept axiom X.)

So, there is absolutely no doubt that, if axiom X holds, the future is misery (or possibly annihilation/elimination) for the majority … unless the underlying political-economic framework changes, which it may be very unlikely to.  The only thread the economists and right-wingers have left to hold on to is that X doesn’t hold – that there won’t be massive global unemployment caused by automation.  Fair enough: time will tell on that, of course, but, as evidence begins to mount, that might not be such a strong logical (or moral) position to defend as the years go by.

As, for changing the underlying framework, that’s going to need a BIG shift – and QUICKLY.  Frankly, it’s debatable if there’s time if all we’re prepared to do is tinker around the edges of capitalism … And the current signs are that few have an appetite for it – even if the future of the planet is at stake!  Isn’t that astonishing!

About Vic Grout

Professor of Computing Futures at Wrexham Glyndwr University, Wales, UK. View all posts by Vic Grout

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