The shift to a robot economy is as much political as it is technological.
As algorithms and automatons start to code and roll their way into our workplaces, there’s a looming sense that employment is set for a pretty major shift. Maybe not quite yet, but slowly and surely, the robots are showing themselves to be capable of taking on jobs once held by humans. They’re more accurate than us, more consistent; they run for longer, they’re satisfied with their work (or at least not unsatisfied), and they don’t kick up a fuss about a living wage.
But to worry about robots “stealing our jobs”—an oversimplified rhetoric that sounds all too familiar—is to ignore the greater potential upheaval in our economy. That future societal change was the subject of discussion at a panel last night hosted by Nesta in London, which brought figures from the fields of technology and economics together to share some of the visions conjured by their crystal balls.
Izabella Kaminska, a financial blogger at FT Alphaville, went for the jugular of the argument. “What is the extreme example of how things could all go wrong?” she asked. The answer doesn’t require looking at our robot coworkers/usurpers themselves, but to their makers. In a technological revolution, the owners of the technology will hold the power, so for Kaminska, the real worry lies with the business monopolies. As she put it, “What happens in a world where one company owns all the stuff?”
“The ultimate monopolist is actually a technologically empowered God.”
In her chapter of Nesta’s new book on the subject, Our Work Here Is Done: Visions of a Robot Economy, Kaminska talks about “Silicon Valley’s God complex” and draws parallels between the defining characteristics of how we perceive a God versus the capitalist elite. As she said in her talk, “The ultimate monopolist is actually a technologically empowered God.”
There are already a few obvious candidates for Kaminska’s tech God—the Googles and Apples that are conglomerating tech firms under their banners via dizzyingly rapid and costly acquisitions, and thereby extending their tentacles to the corners of our lives they haven’t yet locked down.
Without us realising it, perhaps it’s this fear of monopolists pulling the automotons’ strings that lies behind our suspicion of robot workers. There’s a tendency to presume that the robot uprising will automatically be a bad thing; that it will cause unemployment and hard times for the majority of the population, while lining the pockets of those at the top of the capitalist chain.
That vision is also conjured by economics writer Frances Coppola in her chapter of the book. In the free market, she explains, falling automation costs and increasing competition for the jobs that are left could push wages down to starvation levels in some countries.
“But most Western governments have minimum wage legislation that sets a floor on wages. As the cost of automation fell, therefore, it would become uneconomic in developed countries to employ humans to do jobs that could be automated, even at minimum wage levels," she said.
L-R Izabella Kaminska, Nick Hawes, panel chair Stian Westlake
But while this scenario is often presented as somehow inevitable, she insists that it doesn't have to be. There is another, much more optimistic narrative: Robots could drastically improve our quality of life. The jobs they’re good at—the only ones they’re capable of right now—are the boring, repetitive, strenuous positions. By taking monotonous tasks off our fleshy hands, they could free us from drudgery so we can do what humans have a unique aptitude for: complete creative tasks, care for each other, and communicate.
That cooperative model is certainly more realistic right now. Birmingham University roboticist Nick Hawes brought the panel down to Earth from daydreams of a robot-run world by reminding everyone quite how bad robots are at most things. They’re good at monitoring, like the robot security guard I met last week, but they’re terrible at dealing with any amount of uncertainty, or understanding pretty much anything.
“Don’t get carried away with ideas of humanoid robots walking around doing stuff,” he said.
But the limitations of robots are what Coppola thought could lead to a “wonderful opportunity” rather than the economic disaster many fear. “In the post-technological world, the work of humans will be understanding each other and, with robots, caring for each other,” she said. (In her view, robots would take on the physical side of care.)
She imagined a hair salon of the future, where robots would deliver the perfect cut, but human staff would fulfill the most important role—understanding the needs of their clients.
But for that more utopian future to materialise, she emphasised the need not only for an attitude shift away from the idea that work means producing stuff, but also for political action. That was a call echoed by techno-economist Carlota Perez, who presented a compelling argument that we can have a new golden age—if we make the right economic moves.
We’ll need strategies to shift jobs into the fields where humans outperform robots, and tax and welfare schemes that take the new economy into account. Ultimately, the impact of the robot revolution won’t just be down to the technology itself, but how we use it—or more importantly, whether the people using it is in fact a “we,” or a limited, elitist “they.”
In any case, if you don’t like the way things are headed, don’t blame imagined robotic overlords. Blame real human ones.