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We Robots

February 18, 2017

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It seems to be a good time for dystopic novels. Sales of 1984 are booming in the wake of the election of Donald Trump and, in a wider sense, contemporary events shake us into remembering the worlds we were happy to believe only existed in fiction.

One of the most disturbing pieces of fiction I have ever read is Isaac Asimov’s “I Robot”, a chilling and very well told set of stories tracking a possible future of robots taking over from humans. The 2004 film of the same name explored some of the same issues, but, of course, with a Hollywood happy ending.

In recent weeks robots have been back in the news in various guises. Automation and the replacement of human labour and intelligence with robots is ever more regularly discussed as the key to improving productivity and even to squaring the circle in terms of the cost of public services.  Only last week a report from the think tank Reform “Work in Progress:  Towards a leaner, smarter, public sector workforce.” suggested that it might be possible, amongst other things, to replace both school receptionists and 90% of Department of Education administrators with robots.  It was n’t just because I have been a civil servant which made me stand back in shock at the scale and implications of this change.

The arguments about automation are not new and, as a historian, I know that in the long term the Luddites and saboteurs (their French equivalent) have usually been on the wrong side of the argument. Whatever the trauma experienced by the generation and groups most directly affected, we have, in the longer term, replaced the roles we have lost with new ones and automation has generally contributed to a net increase in wealth (whether or not that wealth has been evenly distributed).  Why should it be different this time?

I have a number of concerns that warrant, I believe, society considering more deeply the implications of the kind of changes which are being proposed here.

The first relates to scale. The number and breadth of roles which could be automated implies an enormous change in both the world of work and the structure of society.  Given the importance of work both as a means of distributing wealth but also of providing individuals with purpose and a sense of identity, can we successfully manage this level of change without creating a level of economic and social dislocation which would dwarf the issues we are already struggling to manage?

The second is the danger of myopic focus on technical efficiency rather than wider social functions which are embedded in many of the roles which might be automated. I know, for instance, how important receptionists are in my own NHS organisation.  On one level their role may be seen narrowly as administrators but often they can be a crucial source of welcome and support for anxious patients and families coming to our Clinic for treatment.  We neglect those intangible but crucial social aspects at our peril.

My third concern relates to arguments about who the beneficiaries of such change might be. It is possible to argue that if more work was automated we could all have more leisure.  That argument assumes however that, as individuals, we have the income to enjoy that leisure.  The disturbing trends towards the ever greater concentration of wealth would be at risk of being exacerbated by wholesale automation.  With declining commitment to individual and corporate taxation, employment remains one of the few ways in which wealth can be successfully distributed across society.  We may create, as a result of automation, more interesting roles for those who remain in employment, but what of those who do not have the skills or attributes to get the new roles? The dangers of expanding an underclass of the workless is concerning, even more so in the turbulent political times in which we are living.

My final concern is what I would call the Frankenstein argument. I am no expert but it strikes me that some of what we are now able to do with technology is of such a level of sophistication that it is changing the relationship between humans as creators and that which we create.  There are dangers here which we need to be more wary of before committing to the next generation of automation across all aspects of our activity.

Some automation is good and will inevitably happen. My plea in writing this blog is not to  rubbish all technological innovation but rather to reassert a moral and ethical framework around which we decide what is best us for us as a society.  The danger is that we become the slave not the master of our technological genius and if you want to know where that might lead buy a copy of I Robot.

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