Robot Revolution

If the Earth’s history was presented on a 24 hour clock, then humans have been roaming around since 23.58.43pm. Assuming that midnight is the present, that means homosapiens have been the Earth’s dominant species for 1 minute and 17 seconds. In this time a lot has been accomplished; our many revolutions in agriculture, industry and science have ensured our continued survival and heightened our quality of life.

The next revolution could change all of that. Humans might have to share their status as the dominant beings of Earth, population growth could stall and millions of workers may find themselves unemployed, as inequality increases and people’s standard of
living decreases.

The next revolution has begun, and it belongs to robots. While the above scenario is more like a Black Mirror writer indulging in dystopian fear mongering than it is a reality, the rise of robots as part of humankind’s next great revolution means Western society has to start asking itself some serious questions. Will robots be beneficial or detrimental to society? Is it just and fair that development continues amidst growing global and national concerns over security, the economy and sovereignty?

These questions have to be considered now. A report from research company Forrester believes that within four years, robots will have taken 6% of all jobs in the USA. Extend this to the next two decades and the figure is closer to 50%. Moving away from the States, The World Economic Forum predicts that ‘robotic automation will result in the net loss of more than 5m jobs across 15 developed nations by 2020’.

Low paid jobs are the most vulnerable. An Australian company has developed a robot that can lay 1,000 bricks in one hour – a feat that would take two humans one day. In San Francisco, a startup has developed an automated supermarket assistant which can accurately stack shelves. 

Yet higher paid workers should not rest easy either – according to Martin Ford, writer of Rise of the Robots, “People with college degrees, even professional degrees, people like lawyers are doing things that ultimately are predictable. A lot of those jobs are going to be susceptible over time.” According to The University of Law, lawyers have a 3.5% chance of losing their jobs to robots in the next 20 years. But paralegals, whose jobs focus more on binary decisions, have a 94% chance. AI lawyers have already been made available to law firms in the US. The same is happening in journalism – in 2016, the Heliograf system debuted in newsrooms and wrote data heavy, structured articles about the Rio Olympics and the US election. Furthermore, by 2018 Google will have built automated systems that can be programmed to write 30,000 local news stories in one month.

People with college degrees, even professional degrees, people like lawyers are doing things that ultimately are predictable. A lot of those jobs are going to be susceptible over time.
— Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots

This next revolution comes at a time of unprecedented political angst and unease in the UK. The recent votes revealed a lot about the British public’s desires and concerns. First, Brexit is a vehicle to speed up immigration reform. Naive immigration policies from Tony Blair’s time in office allowed over 1 million Eastern European nationals to move to the UK since 2004, which has made some Brits apprehensive about the consequences of overpopulation. Second, the 2017 general election and the Labour party’s surprise surge in the polls suggested an appetite for the re-introduction of nationalisation in industries full of lower paid jobs – such as in the railways and Royal Mail – in order to protect workers from the potential dangers of the private sector. 

Seven years of Conservative enforced austerity measures has taken its toll too. Cuts and low spending, as well as a weak pound and real wages shrinking by 0.4% up to September means allowing automation to expand could be a precarious move for the already weak Conservatives. And yet, so far the government has been slow to invest in training low skilled workers who are most at risk of having their jobs automated. As Martin Ford proposes, “(a) solution is to have some kind of a guaranteed income that incentivizes education. (Then) I believe that aguaranteed income would actually result in more entrepreneurship. A lot of people would start businesses.”

But is this a moral issue as well as it being a financial one? Should the government – present or future – take an ethical standpoint and regulate the industry because it is the right thing to do, because it protects the people’s jobs? 

Consequentialism – and more specifically utilitarianism – is a good starting point for examining this dilemma. This brand of 19th century ethics, decrees that “an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favourable than unfavourable to everyone.” There are too many costs and benefits of mass robot manufacturing to determine exactly whether it is favourable or unfavourable to everyone, but on a basic level the provision of jobs and livelihoods seems far more important to more people than ensuring big brands save money by filling their workforce with non-humans. For example on a much smaller scale, does it benefit society if you can order your Big Mac faster in McDonalds via a big touch screen tablet, or is society richer for having one more person employed to take an order? As with everything in philosophy, the answer to this is subjective.

For example on a much smaller scale, does it benefit society if you can order your Big Mac faster in McDonalds via a big touch screen tablet, or is society richer for having one more person employed to take an order?

But 21.2% of British people aged from 16 to 64 years old are ‘economically inactive’, and a population growth of 0.8% per year means the UK population will reach 70 million in less than ten years. Add robots into this equation, and jobs will become sparse. This, as the philosopher Kurt Baier would affirm, is a ‘rational’ argument to halt this encroaching societal phenomenon. His work stated, “that when one makes a moral choice there is a sound reason or justification supporting that choice and that the reasons underpinning it will outweigh the best reasons supporting the counter argument” – the justification in this case being that the further development of robots would increase the number of economically inactive, especially given the rapid population increase. 

Therefore this would also suggest the government must follow Samuel von Pufendorf’s ‘absolute duties’ as a consequence of these rational reasons. The philosopher argued society as a whole is better when ‘moral rules’, such as the duty to avoid wronging others, treat people as equals and promote the good of others, are implemented. By regulating robot implementation, society can still advance.

However, as the last decade has seen, immigrants have been unfairly scapegoated because of their supposed threat to British jobs. Are robots merely a substitute for immigrants in this new chapter for humanity?

The suspicions towards them points towards another philosophical concept: anti-rationalism. This contrasts Baier’s theory, instead suggesting that, “We need a distinctly emotional reaction in order to make a moral pronouncement.” For example, the government banning robots entering the workforce might be backed by rational reasons, but the actual declaration and action is still shrouded in sentiment - one that appeals to those fearful of the potential dangers of robots. 

So perhaps robots can be like immigrants, who contribute heavily to the British economy and social services. Developments in technology could mean robots can be of assistance to the west’s ageing population, which is surely a good thing. UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn claimed in October that workers should be the ones exploiting robots, rather than vice versa, suggesting that workers should control them instead of bosses and CEOs. He said, “We should be putting the ownership and control of the robots in the hands of those who work with them. The technology of the digital age should empower us both as workers and consumers, allowing us to co-operate on a scale in a way that wasn’t possible in the past.”

So perhaps robots can be like immigrants, who contribute heavily to the British economy and social services.

Alternatively, Microsoft’s Bill Gates has offered the idea that more social care jobs for humans could be funded by a robot tax. Regulations to force the private sector to pay for their innovations would mean more financial support for schools and health systems without the payee needing to use them. Robot tax could initially be implemented indirectly - like it has been proposed in South Korea – Meaning companies receive fewer tax breaks for investment in automation. 

The general mood towards a more robot future is an ominous one. Whatever happens, the government and the private sector must be rational and regulate reasonably, not emotionally. The UK is at a political, financial and cultural crossroads, so as the clock strikes twelve and a new day begins, the next revolution must make society better. 


Oliver Sirrell is a Journalism undergraduate at Bournemouth University with an interest in politics, current affairs and football. You can follow him on Twitter @OliverJSirrell

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