Robots part II

By Ms. President (Flickr User) -, CC BY-SA 2.0, until now robots and automation has been peripheral to most of our lives -insufficient technological progress in AI and globalisation have saved us from it.  However this does look about to change.  Just last Saturday the Guardian magazine did a test where a robot painted a portrait, made a meal and wrote something.

Lets consider some of the areas that are under consideration for automation. Whilst since I wrote in part 1 McDonalds has rowed back on its robot threat other restaurants are trialling robots.

  • The UK is going to allow driver-less vehicles on its roads. At first these will require “drivers” but as the technology gets accepted?
  • Its no secret that Amazon is working on full automation for its warehouses. Also it wants to use drones to deliver its parcels.
  • The estimate is 40% of all jobs could be automated.  What are the implications of this?

From 2000 globalisation was all the rage and on everyone’s lips (at least all politicians). It was seen as a good thing and in many ways it was.  The transfer of many jobs to the developing world lifted millions out of poverty in a little over a decade. Whilst these jobs were lost in the West the price of almost everything fell (apart from oil).  This was in a way supposed to keep the masses happy, cheap consumer goods.  However three things meant this led to a false sense of security for those who unthinkingly supported neo-liberalism.  Firstly median incomes had not been rising for the great majority of people for decades only for top 1%.  Whilst consumer goods were falling so much in price this was is acceptable.  Second, a whole set of jobs was lost and and the jobs that replaced them were not of the same quality.  Third rising energy prices (and therefore food prices) began to make a relatively falling standard of living apparent.

In 2008 came the global crash.  The Western electorate reacted in a quite surprising way. The crash could firmly be blamed on right wing policies, but the left with some slight exceptions (such as in Spain) has struggled.  Instead in almost every democracy the electorate has turned to new often nationalistic parties.  (I see Donald Trump as the latest example of this.)  These parties promise much deliver little and blame the “other” for all their “nations” problems.  The fuss over immigration and migration is not really about immigration but about a lack of well paid secure jobs.

This is what worries me about Robots.  Arguably the Western electorate has in most ways behaved with remarkable forbearance since 2008.  Whilst they have voted for some extreme parties, these parties are either not in power or have done little damage so far. But what if 40% of all jobs disappear if not overnight over a decade or so?  Can these jobs be regenerated in other as yet to be thought of ways?  Maybe but its a big ask and how will the electorate react?  One solution that is increasingly brought up when robots are mentioned is the universal basic income (citizens income).  Whilst I’m a big fan of this idea there is one reason why I do not see it as a solution to the challenge of automation. Robots do not pay tax.  At least not at the moment, although they may have to.

Its possible an international backlash may stop this.  Its also possible as I wrote in part 1 that the robots’ energy use* may stop their widespread implementation.  This whole business raises questions over how far should economic efficiency go,  a good deal of ethical problems and issues over energy use. However, at the moment we are sleep walking into this without any real discussion.


* something I’ve found impossible to find any data on.

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