topical

The future is artificial

Jeez. Robots. Coming over here, taking our jobs!

I don’t understand why people continue to blame immigration for job losses, whilst ignoring the thousands of self checkout machines popping up everywhere we go. The research says it all: automation is set replace one in three UK jobs over the next 20 years. This includes up to four million jobs in the British private sector in the next decade. Gulp. *Scores ebay for a “Robotics for Dummies” manual* 

It’s quite scary, if you think about it.

One in three of us have jobs that a robot will soon be able to do.

It’s scary because we can’t just put new technologies back into boxes once they’ve bled into the mainstream; and a wave of automation and artificial intelligence (as cool as it is) will create major social difficulties, there’s no doubt about it.

Think about what the political impact of mass unemployment would be. A new class of, loosely speaking, “economically useless” people, would form. In other words: through mass unemployment, potentially millions of lives will become defined by poverty. These people, through no fault of their own, will be unable to find work, have nothing to do day-to-day, and will not be contributing to the economy in any meaningful sense.

Of course, being displaced and unemployed doesn’t make you a “useless” human being. It makes you a victim of circumstance. But it does mean you will soon become frustrated, bored and angry. What happens when there are no jobs for millions of angry poor people? More importantly, what are those people going to do with themselves if our leaders choose to do nothing?

This is why I believe the future that major technological progress creates will depend entirely on how it is responded to. If our leaders continue to pursue the most aggressive form of capitalism they can get away with in the face of waves of automation (More transferring of money from the poor to the rich, more austerity, more punitive benefit sanctions; and so on.); then the future is looking pretty grim. Widespread unemployment and poverty could soon lead to outbreaks of civil unrest, violence, crime and poor political judgement.

And yet the possibilities are impossible to ignore…

The automation of labour is usually framed as a bad thing: but if we use it as a means to begin putting leisure and happiness above work, then there’s no reason why humans and robots cannot live in harmon-E. (I’ll let myself out.) 

Listen, I’ve always had a soft spot for the idea of Universal Basic Income. I’m not saying it would work right now, but radically changing our approach to labour might become a necessity as work begins to wither away across all industries. Using UBI as an example, in an unemployed world a guaranteed basic wage would become popular by default. It is a fundamentally socialist idea in that it aims to provide for all, so the socialists have always been on board. But as the robot economy strengthens day by day, there is a capitalist case for UBI…

Capitalism relies on continuous growth and consumerism, but poverty doesn’t leave any room for luxuries.

If everyone is poor and unemployed, who is going to buy the latest gadgets, cars and holidays? There’s also the point that UBI simplifies the benefits system and removes complicated state administration that does more harm than good. It will also mean that work actually does pay, because everyone will receive a basic income, but those who choose to work will be earning more. The massive objection UBI enthusiastics usually face is…

BUT BUT BUT. People would just quit their shitty jobs.

Read that sentence again. Now ask yourself, why is this a bad thing? Sure, given the safety net of a guaranteed income, I’m sure people would be handing in their notices in their droves. But it’s wrong to think productivity would suffer. People would just start being productive and innovative in their own ways. UBI could give people the freedom to and pursue what they’re truly passionate about. More time would be free for learning new skills and spending more money on leisure. People would work less; but working less isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We would just be working part time, or taking job shares. Most importantly, we wouldn’t have to accept menial or demeaning work. We would be working because we wanted to, not because we had to. 

Sure, it’s a hugely optimistic idea of how things could be…

…and granted, perhaps a little pie in the sky! But it doesn’t change the fact that automation is coming whether we want it or not, and the problems it will create cannot be ignored. Radical problems often call for radical solutions. As far as I’m concerned, over the next decade we have one of two choices: embrace change or risk being left behind. What do you think – should we be afraid of robots?

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