Do the quick changes in artificial intelligence (AI) and automation promise a future where robots dramatically decrease the demand of human employees? In a world still recovering after the deep economy crisis of 2008, and with unemployment affecting many countries, the image of new technologies is reflected in two confronting mirrors: from improving productivity to a threat for workers.
Statistics show that technology is destroying jobs, but it’s also creating new, better qualified ones… however, to a lesser extent. The robot, as epitome of the new times, translates this uncertainty to a future already present.
2015. Are we at the beginning of a technological transformation unique in history, wonderful for its positive contribution, but devastating for those unable to leverage its benefits? Do robots and software replace most of human workers?
Worries about job destroyed by technology advance are not new. It happened in the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution focused in England. In 1821, the influential British economist David Ricardo was concerned about the replacement of human Jobs by machines. One century later, in 1930, just after the 1929 crack and its consequent world economy downturn that led to the 2nd World War, John Maynard Keynes, a recognized Nobel awarded, warned that the discovery and application of new ways to economize labour were going to promote what he called ‘technological unemployment’. A current Economy Nobel prize, Joseph Stiglitz, argues that the Big Depression in the US has been also due to the unexpected change from manual to industrial agriculture, driven by technology.
Writers, musicians and film directors anticipated during the latest century how a mechanized, robotized world would be. These are some examples:
Welcome to the Machine. Second track on the Pink Floyd album ‘Wish You Were Here’, recorded in 1975. The song is a kind of plea against music industry –which is considered a machine only interested in making money– and therefore against any industrialized society. It’s about an applicant to professional musician –the whole album is a tribute to Syd Barrett, first leader of the group, who turned out disturbed– on the brink of signing with a seedy manager of the music industry (‘the machine’) more concerned about business than art.
‘I Robot’. Second Alan Parsons Project album, launched in 1977, a conceptual record (vinyl by then), inspire on the short stories written by the Russian-American writer Isaac Asimov, who is considered father of science-fiction. These stories establish and pose the problems arising from the three laws of robotics, a moral compendium enforceable to presumably intelligent robots. The stories pose different situations that question the situation of the current man in the technology universe.
‘I Robot’ was also the title of a dystopic film produced in 2004, directed by Alex Proyas and starring Will Smith. Although it included Asimov’s ideas about robotics, the film looks more similar to the science-fiction tale with the same title, published in 1939 by Eando Binder. The story is about an ‘intelligent’ humanoid robot that is blamed for killing its creator.
Robotics has taken steps that neither Asimov nor Binder had ever dared to pose in their respective ‘I Robot’ stories
Blade Runner. Cult movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford, released in 1982 and based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick (1968). A sci-fi classic, the film takes place in a dystopic version of the city of Los Angeles in 2019. It describes a future where artificial humans are manufactured by genetic engineering and called ‘replicants’; they perform dangerous jobs and as slaves in space colonies. They are manufactured to be ‘more human than human beings’, to which they are physically lookalikes; they have more agility and strength, but apparently they lack emotions and empathy. Being declared illegal after a riot in Mars, a special police corps (Blade Runners) is devoted to ‘withdraw’ them from circulation. Ultimately, it seems that they become too human…
Artificial Intelligence (I.A.). A film directed in 2001 by Steven Spielberg and based on the sci-fi story ‘Super-toys Last All Summer Long’, by Brian Aldiss. The I.A. idea started with Stanley Kubrick at the beginning of the 70s, but he passed away before filming the movie. Spielberg kept the original script: in the middle of the 21st century, global warming results in the decrease of resources worldwide. There’s a new class of robots called Mecas, advanced humanoids able to emulate thinking and emotions. One of them is David, designed to seem like a human child and to show love for his ‘parents’. A robot son replaces the real one, on hibernation due to a disease. But the robot child wants to be a real boy …
Robotics has taken steps that neither Asimov nor Binder had ever dared to pose. Take Hod Lipson for instance. Some years ago, he created an algorithm that explained experimental data by means of new laws of science formulated in accordance to laws already known and demonstrated by science. Ultimately, he automated scientific discovery. On an interview for the MIT Review, Lipson describes his Creative Machines Lab: “We are interested in robots that create and are creative.”
Lipson, Professor of Engineering at Cornell University, is one of the biggest experts in artificial intelligence and robots worldwide. His research projects give us some idea about the potential of machines and automation, from robots that ‘evolve’ to robots that assemble themselves from basic modules. In the future envisioned by Lipson, machines and software have unique capabilities, unthinkable even for Asimov and his followers. However, there’s something that, in our times, after a new macro financial crisis, with Greece in the eye of the European hurricane, is scaring: the incredible advances in automation and digital technology, could they induce/worsen a big social crisis due to unemployment? And more: is it true that the owner of those robots will hoard world’s wealth? Will a new ruling elite control the rest of the population, as forecasted by Aldous Huxley in his ‘Brave New World’?
Nowadays, with the economy crisis, the emergence of new players worldwide (China, India et al.) competing or overcoming the traditional western powers (US, UK, France…) new intelligent technologies, as the early invention of the steam machine, is again on suspicion. The growing economy inequality between countries and citizens is emphasizing the question: are we on the right way?
A recent OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) report shows that the gap between rich and poor has reached historic levels in many member countries, driven in part by lower salaries affecting a 40% of less qualified population. Those earning less have experienced a significant salary decrease in the last decades, and the OECD warns salary inequalities harm the economic growth.
The economy gap is establishing itself worldwide, both for countries and their inhabitants, globally and individually. The problem may be described as follows: countries and citizens that have technology –because they have the capacity to create it and because they have the necessary ability– will separate by a gap from those countries and citizens not having these abilities. As in Huxley’s dystopian book, there would be a significant separation between the populations in the World State and the Savage Reservation.
Average worker earnings do not follow the pace of economic growth for decades. According to official date mentioned by the MIT, the average salary by a man with no secondary education has fallen in the US by a 29% between 1990 and 2013, while the salary for those only finishing secondary education have fallen by a 13% (see graphic). Women have performed slightly better by comparison, but in general terms, they still earn less than men. These data can be applied to almost any other country in the so called First World.
Last year, Thomas Piketty became notorious after publishing ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ and turned inequality into a hot economy topic. It has been proved that since 1960 salary inequality has increased dramatically in many countries. Inequality levels have grown in the UK during the 1980s and have not been reduced so far, and in the US it is still growing, reaching unprecedented levels in history.
There’s a thought among economists according to which many people in the world does not have the necessary training and education for jobs that will require ever more sophisticated technology abilities. By the other hand, an additional problem arises: some machines have replaced people in jobs requiring physical effort –robots in car factories–, accountant abilities –ATMs in banks– or advices – in the administration. Forbes magazine is already using software to create some articles about corporate results, while Associated Press uses another version to write sport news. In addition to this, we should remember that Information Technologies allow anyone to perform countless operations, queries, registrations, etc. from a portable computer or smartphone.
All of this has led in recent years to the destruction of many middle-class jobs, or they are underpaid. So technology is taking is taking most of the jobs considered as secure for a long time. And, worst of all, the most affected, according to statistics, are the youngest, in particular the range of 20 to 30 years old.
Isn’t there a way out?
Nobody knows the answer, mostly because, although history has many precedents with reference to big changes, what we live currently is unprecedented from a technology point of view. Are technology advances really responsible for the lower number of jobs? And, as happened in previous times, will job opportunities increase after time thanks to artificial intelligence and automation, now guilty?
Martin Ford is among those believing that this time is different. In his new book, ‘Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future’, Ford provides many examples of new technologies, like driverless cars and 3D printing, that in his opinion will ultimately replace most of the workers.
Driverless cars and 3D printing may replace most of the workers in many industries
More questions: can human society afford not considering those who don’t meet the requirements determined by new technologies? Will be able that society to keep marginalized people, since they won’t generate resources?
It’s clear –or seems logic at least– that the use of new technologies depends of human decisions. Politicians, governments, companies and consumers have their say. In fact, all together define the tempo and its day-to-day applications. Whoever is without sin…
The point is posing how and how much we want to produce, and what we want really from machines. Capitalism is clear: bigger production for a bigger benefit. And if machines cheapen the production process, sunshine and flowers. Does it mean that everything is due to be mechanized? Well, it remains to be seen whether our favourite café for breakfast, where the waiter knows us and we meet our acquaintances, is going to die in the hands of robots without such human features.
We should recognize that many services companies have achieved keeping that human side, in spite of be based on smart technologies. They know how to join them together suitably… so far, at least. If robotics keeps accelerating, maybe that balance will be broken.
Who will own the robots?
Back to the economist Joseph Stiglitz, mentioned at the beginning, he argues that we are trapped in the mid of a painful transition: from an industrial economy to services-based economy. This can be compared to what happened one century ago, when the economy evolved from agriculture to the industry.
The Man, with a continuous zeal of progress, has been always trying to increase productivity; it has been considered a positive issue. The current paradox is that productivity increases with machines, not with human beings. Does it mean that we should produce less or, at least, to innovate to be more supportive? Another paradox: if machines do most of the tasks better and faster, should we forgo technology progress, in spite of the fact that it can imply a bigger social inequality?
One final thought: if advantages provided by new technologies are targeted particularly to the wealthiest, then Asimov’s or Huxley’s dystopian visions could become a reality.