I find watching the march of human robots absolutely revolting. All too often, while looking at the news, at any mention of North Korea, files of absolutely identical uniformed men are shown marching on parade in front of their leader. This is as close as we can presently get to producing programed human robots –- at least until we find ways to insert smart control chips into the brain!
Why are we rushing headlong — and with little consideration — into ever greater replacement of human beings by robotics and automation? It is almost as if those in politics, business — yes, even education — have no understanding or appreciation of where they may be going. The goal of “efficiency” (that is the parlance for “profit,” “more money” and lower labor costs) outweighs any impact these “advances” may have on the well-being of the human race and the societies we have created.
The full impact of an economic system we serve, rather than one that could serve us, has yet to be recognized. We are slowly beginning to accept that a continuation of capitalism as we have known it is unsustainable. However, at the same time the advancement of robotics continues undisturbed. The rapidly diminishing job prospects for upcoming generations, the increasing state expenditures on the unemployed, the mounting numbers of those requiring mental health care, the spread of those taking drugs as an escape –- all seem part of our destiny on a planet of 7+ billion people where much of the work will no longer be done by human beings but by machines.
Writer Andrew McAfee, an expert in the field, argues that it is inevitable that algorithms and robots will force profound changes in the labor market.1 In the past generation, typists, elevator operators, travel agents, clerks and bank tellers have seen their services diminished. So have middle rank state workers in the US and the UK. The new robots will inevitably terminate many jobs in manufacturing and machinery production. “In future, there may be people who — despite being willing and fit to work — have no economic value as employees.”2 It behooves us to consider their plight before we create a new caste of undesirables.
In this social and economic situation, a clear rethink is mandatory: Suspending the production of robotics would be seen as an attempt to halt progress or to stop time. Given our current socio-political-economic system this is hardly feasible.
Shifting the capitalist economy from profit to human sustainability seems overwhelmingly challenging but this may turn out to be inevitable in the long term. We must find ways to redistribute the ownership of assets more evenly as well as examining how to relocate some of the burden of taxation away from the workers to those holding the wealth. Rather than investing in the education and training of human beings, the hyper-rich prefer to invest in robotics. Robots are not unionized and never demand overtime.
It therefore is essential for us to confront the need to reconsider our ultimate direction, our human trajectory on this planet. This would entail shifting away from our addiction to short term perspectives and engaging in long term strategies.
Our first long term goal should be to provide sufficient food, housing, electricity, and clothing for all. How to achieve this? This can happen only when we underwrite everyone alive with the basic monthly means — irrespective of whether or not they are in employment. With the advances in agriculture over the past 200 years and an almost infinite production capacity, it is essential to distribute the basic minimum to every living being.
Aristotle wrote two millennia ago in The Politics that he could only imagine new conditions for humanity if “each instrument could do its own work, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation… as if a shuttle should weave of itself, and a plectrum should do its own harp playing.” The wisest men of Athens could never have imagined the internet but nearly all inventions made since then have caused some people to lose jobs while providing different kinds of work to others.
So we must also begin to examine and develop those functions at which we can excel but which robots cannot: There are service sectors, like the care of the very young and the aged; creative areas like music, poetry, sculpture, and gourmet cuisine, as well as the various sport activities. Demands in the medical professions ranging from mental health to physiotherapy are not likely to suffer.
Certainly at the moment those pushing for the advance of robotics are being given “carte blanche”: Andy Rubin, who heads Google’s new robotics arm, has acquired and put together a string of artificial intelligence and robotics companies, such as Schaft, Meka, Industrial Perception, Redwood Robotics, and Boston Dynamics, in a concerted effort to privately build dexterous and mobile robots.3
It can be argued that such robots are essential if we are to deal with the safe handling of nuclear reactors, poisonous gases and contaminating substances, and such dangerous tasks as repairing malfunctions in outer space.
The Japanese, one of the world leaders in the production of robots, introduced labor contracts a couple of decades back banning the lay-offs of workers displaced by automation. These workers continue to be paid and kept by the employers. Such a policy has proven costly to the entire Japanese economy and has thus far not been copied by others. Even at serious economic gatherings like Davos, little attention is given to the challenge posed by these global challenges.4
Now, when we are on the verge of new advances in automation and robotics, is the time for a global conference on how to deal with the inevitable consequences of a massive march of the robots in the 21st Century.
1Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age, 2013.
2Tim Harford, “The robots are coming and will terminate your jobs,” The Financial Times, December 29, 2013, p.9
3John Markoff, “Google puts money on future of robots,” New York Times, December 5, 2013.
4See: Yorick Blumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy, (2004) pp. 161-2