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Don’t fear our robotic future

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

Neo-Luddism – the fear that machines will take our jobs – is alive and well. The idea of a universal basic income as insurance against the day robots put us out of work is gaining prominence. The fear, however, remains unjustified.

Computers are no longer limited to repetitive mechanical tasks. Today’s machines can learn procedures, optimise production flows, devise new solutions, and even come up with creative designs. Besides the factory floor, where we need ever fewer workers to babysit the machines, service and professional jobs are also being threatened by automation.

A former McDonald’s CEO warned in 2016 that higher minimum wages will only encourage the chain to push ahead with self-service kiosks and food preparation robots. “It’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient making $15 an hour bagging French fries,” he told the Washington Post.

In a test, computers proved 42% better at diagnosing and treating patients, at a 58% reduction in cost, according to researchers. Would you rather have a better doctor at a lower price? Hire a computer.

Computers have proven to be better at discovery – an important, complex and time-consuming stage in the legal process – than lawyers are. They can also detect anomalous behaviour that may point to illegal activity in organisations. Lawyers are not pleased with the inroads computers are making onto their hallowed turf.

Kris Hammond, co-founder of Narrative Science, a developer of software that turns raw data into natural language narratives, once told the Guardian that a computer will win a Pulitzer Prize by 2020, and that 90% of journalism will be written by computer by 2030.

Robots and the artificial intelligence of computers will dramatically change our future. This is a certainty. What is uncertain is how humans will cope with these changes. As with many new technologies that will have significant but unpredictable consequences on our daily lives, there is no shortage of fear and anxiety to go around.

A common fear is that we will lose many, or even all, of our current employment to more efficient, more reliable, more robust and untiring robots. Truck, train, taxi and bus drivers will, like the rest of us, relinquish their vehicle driving duties to computers. Factory workers will continue to step aside for industrial robots. Soldiers will give way to remote-control and autonomous combat bots. Checkout assistants will be replaced by self-service machines. Cleaners will find their jobs usurped by robots that are more thorough, will work 24 hours a day, and can tolerate toxic or unhiegenic conditions. Doctors will become increasingly reliant on – and eventually be replaced by – computers that are better at diagnosing and treating disease, and robots will be able to provide better patient care than nurses. Company administrators and lawyers will be replaced by intelligent machines. And yes, in the dark reaches of the internet there have long been rumours that I am merely a bot. Perhaps one day I will be.

In response to this inevitable progress, some people have called for a universal basic income to ensure continued prosperity in a world in which robots have created high unemployment by taking all our jobs. The idea is that everyone, whether or not they work, will receive a basic income from the state. Employment would then merely supplement this income.

The idea unites advocates of social justice such as South Africa’s Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, and CEOs and financiers like Elon Musk, Tim Berners-Lee, Peter Diamandis, Marc Andreessen and Sam Altman. Left-wingers view a universal basic income as a “social dividend” that redistributes the profits of private companies to society at large. Right-wingers view it as a way to tear down the inefficient bureaucracy of the welfare state and minimising the incentive to choose unemployment over low-wage work. Both believe it will permanently solves the problem of unemployment, especially as technology threatens to displace human labour as the means of production.

Universal basic income pilot projects have been started, or are imminent, in many countries around the world, including the US, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Finland, France, Italy, Canada, Scotland, Iceland, India, Kenya, Uganda and Namibia.

But the idea of a basic universal income is hardly new. It can be traced back centuries, to thinkers such as Thomas Paine in the 18th century and Thomas More two centuries before him. It is a recurring theme among political philosophers as an answer to poverty and destitution, as well as to crime.

Nor is this the first time machines have threatened to take our jobs. During the industrial revolution, the followers of the mythical Ned Ludd, known as Luddites, protested against modern technology in the textile industry which would replace expensive skilled labour with the cheaper work of machine operators. The Swing Rioters of 1830 protested against threshing machines in agriculture, which put thousands of farm labourers out of work. Religious groups like the Amish and Mennonites limited their reliance on modern technology, advocating a return to the simpler life of yore. Neo-Luddites today, led by intellectuals such as Kirkpatrick Sale and David Gelernter, resist many technologies, fearing environmental degradation, globalisation and free trade, or that machines will usurp our basic humanity.

It isn’t even our first brush with electronic or digital automation. In just a few short decades, between the 1960s and the 1990s, computers put millions of typists and clerks out of work. Entire floors of middle-class, white-collar workers had to find more productive ways to earn their keep, thanks to technology.

I’m only 45, and when I went to school, typing was still a subject involving mechanical typewriters, taught only to girls. Accounting was limited to basic bookkeeping, using pen and paper. At one point, I wanted to be a draughtsman, drawing technical designs with mechanical pencils and T-squares. It’s laughable how we were being “prepared for the future”, as recently as the 1980s. The world for which we were being educated simply does not exist any more.

Yet despite these massive strides in automating human labour, there is no sign that this ever caused systemic unemployment. Sure, there are temporary disruptions in the labour market. All those clerks and typists had to retire or take different jobs. Most farm labourers – once accounting for a large percentage of the population – have become redundant and migrated to find work in the cities.

The face of the labour market has changed dramatically, and in unpredictable ways, but labour has not dried up.

Moreover, the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence may well be overstated by tech-utopian idealists. If information technology was going to have such a dramatic impact, one would expect rapid productivity growth. True, productivity growth has recovered somewhat from the slump of 1970 to 1990, but it remains lower than it was in the early 20th century, when internal combustion engines, electricity, telecommunications and chemicals were driving the change.

There is no reason to believe that we’ll all be sitting on our thumbs this time around. We’ll find new, better and more creative things to do, just as our parents and grandparents did before us.

Meanwhile, our robotic future can produce more leisure time, should we choose to take advantage of it. It will produce cheaper and better products. It will change our lives for the better, in immeasurable ways.

Yes, it will change the nature of work for millions. But if we start demanding a universal basic income out of a misplaced fear of mass unemployment, we’ll merely establish a self-fulfilling prophesy. Lower productivity is very likely to be a threat to progress, prosperity and poverty alleviation. In the absence of evidence that automation poses an existential threat to our incomes, instituting an age-old socialist panacea would be an extremely risky thing to do.

Worse, it will reduce us all to serfs. We’ll become wards of the state, dependent on whatever pocket money it sees fit to hand out. I happen to believe that free people in the modern world deserve to be treated like adults, and not like children. DM


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