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Resisting the rise of the robots


Reg Rumney is the former director of the SA Reserve Bank Centre for Economics Journalism at Rhodes University and former head of the economics department at the SABC.

In a world of growing automation and consequent job losses, what the continued existence of petrol attendants in South Africa shows is that a social contract can exist between business and government to preserve jobs. Surely the trade-off between jobs and mechanisation is up for negotiation.

A strike looms in the banking sector over the loss of jobs as banks close branches, supposedly an inevitable result of the move to internet banking. McDonald’s has introduced self-service kiosks, and Ster-Kinekor has added automated snack ordering to its automated ticket system.

This is happening in a country where the official unemployment rate rose to 29% in the second quarter of 2019, and the expanded unemployment rate, including discouraged work seekers, hit 38.5%. That means more than a third of people in the country who could work are not able to work. And let’s not forget that around 50% of the population is considered chronically poor, according to one measure.

Moreover, there’s another sinister side to tech-driven job losses. The science-fiction film Her exemplifies another kind of loss. The film, released in 2014, presents, for a change, a future which is not the usual science-fiction anti-utopia or dystopia. No rag-clad survivors with strange hairstyles and body alterations scamper across the devastated land. The city of Her looks a lot like our own, but cleaner, and the people are well fed and clothed and housed.

Instead, what makes the future of Her disturbing is the wilful absence of human interaction. It soon becomes clear that the fact of the hero’s infatuation with his digital virtual assistant, powered by artificial intelligence or AI, is not unusual in this future society. The Her of the title is a future and more powerful version of Apple’s Siri, intelligently and seductively voiced by actor Scarlett Johansson. The hero is in love with an illusion.

The threat posed by the film Her seems more real in an era when the phrase Fourth Industrial Revolution, championed by the World Economic Forum, is so common it has been abbreviated to 4IR for convenience. However, it is not so much the 4IR, which seems to describe the inexorable advance of AI in the workplace, that is now wreaking havoc in South Africa, but the third, centred on digitalisation and computing power linked to the internet.

No one want to be a modern version of the Luddites of the First Industrial Revolution, who smashed the weaving machines in a vain attempt to stop their jobs vanishing. However, technology sometimes seems to be no guarantee even of material progress, let alone the spiritual promise in Nikola Tesla’s supposed prediction: “In the twenty-first century, the robot will take the place which slave labour occupied in ancient civilisation.”

We were once assured that mechanisation would relieve us of the pressure of long work hours, and, since “leisure is the basis of culture”, give us richer inner lives. What we didn’t expect was instant and constant connectivity intruding into our leisure hours, and the decline of formal employment in favour of outsourcing and contracts, making work harder and more precarious. Rich inner life is out of the picture.

The march of technology symbolised by the 4IR seems inexorable, unstoppable, all-encompassing, as did “globalisation”, another term the WEF was so fond of at the start of the millennium and which some argue is among, other things, an ideologically loaded privileging of multinational business interests over democratic sovereignty.

This technological and economic determinism must be resisted. We have a choice. Business, for a start, could divert some of the billions from corporate charitable giving and executive pay to keeping, and maybe even creating, more real jobs. Corporate social responsibility should not be an add-on, but at the heart of the business.

An example exists in South Africa of technology being left to one side and leading to a situation that helps stem job losses as well as enhancing the customer experience. Garage forecourts feature attendants who fill cars with petrol or diesel, wash windscreens, and check tyre pressure, water and oil, for free. This could easily be replaced by self-service pumps. The unwritten contract in South Africa is that the fuel stations employ attendants in return for continued regulation of the fuel industry, a situation that serves almost everyone.

What the continued existence of the petrol attendants shows is that a social contract can exist between business and government to preserve jobs and that the ideology of efficiency and shareholder revenue maximisation is not necessarily optimal for the broader society. It’s true that people are harder for executives to manage than machines, but machines don’t buy products. Surely the trade-off between jobs and mechanisation is up for negotiation.

Can a society where widespread unemployment means that many will never experience the dignity of earning their own money, while inequality is at unacceptable levels, really justify putting shareholders first? The other side of a mechanised future is the dismal prospect of increasing interaction with machines rather than humans, the future envisaged by the film Her. I, for one, will boycott any retailer who replaces cashiers with automated check-out.

I am inevitable,” declares the super-villain Thanos in one of the Marvel movies that make up the Avengers saga. We can guess he’ll be proved wrong. And so can the mindless worship of technology and elevation of efficiency above morality. DM


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