Automation Angst

According to some techno-evangelists, humanity is on the verge of huge breakthroughs in computing, robotics, genetics, automation and artificial intelligence that will dwarf many of the inventions of the past two centuries. They might be right, but at what price? What might the cost be of these breakthroughs in terms of unemployment and inequality? Moreover, are these breakthroughs really as close as the evangelists claim and will they be as fundamental as those in the past?

It can be argued, for example, that compared to clean water or the invention of the motorcar, Facebook and Uber are trivial inventions. Most of our recent innovations are incremental improvements of innovations created years ago and most of the most significant change over the last 100 years has been social not technological.

Time will tell as to who’s right, but it does seem a fair bet to suggest that the search for economic efficiency and convenience will continue to displace workers on a significant scale and may focus wealth in a handful of places and professions. Fully autonomous farms, factories, warehouses, logistics and transport networks are probably not that far off and it’s possible that the development of digital and virtual products and services, many of them delivered for ‘free’, will result in mass consumption being decoupled from mass employment, which could be catastrophic.

None of this has to be a bad thing, of course, if new jobs are created and perhaps if the spoils of efficiency are fairly shared, although remember that while the Industrial Revolution created new jobs, wages in England were stagnant or declined for almost 40 years and that work conditions associated with many of the new jobs were appalling.

Having said this it’s almost impossible that all old jobs will disappear. Many of the developments that are nervously anticipated are still years away and many of the things that humans do will remain out of reach for robots and autonomous systems. Humans are far better than machines at abstraction, generalisation and creative thinking. We have vastly better common sense than machines, we’re agile, nimble and energy efficient too. And don’t forget that it’s humans that have rights and vote – and we can revolt too. Humans are also a deeply social species and physical connection is likely to remain important. Many of of our economic needs are also explicitly interpersonal or social.

The bad news is how robots and automated systems interact with human beings depends a great deal upon how much their designers know or care about human beings. In the same way that there’s a fine line between genetics and eugenics, there’s a thin line between technologies that enhance humanity and those that diminish it. Moreover, developments in robotics, information technology, neuro-technology and genetics all have the potential to vastly widen the gaps that already exist in health, intelligence, opportunity and achievement.

The amount of data that spills from these technologies also seriously threatens privacy and freedom of choice. There’s a very real possibility too that one day these technologies will advance to such a point that the owners of the technologies will be able to predict and control almost everything an individual does, thereby reducing humans to mere automatons.

This is unlikely, although an even worse scenario might involve the widespread adoption of mediocre artificial intelligence and predictive systems, which, little by little, become a train wreck of momentous proportions due to a decline in human agency or a crisis in human identity.

Governments and giant corporations are pouring billions into robotics and automation projects with almost no external oversight whatsoever. We urgently need the inclusion of an ethical code alongside any computer code and should be able to quiz the technologists, and perhaps one day the technologies themselves, about their knowledge, their skills, and their intentions. Ultimately, any AI singularity is a choice, not a destiny.

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