Monday, July 20, 2015

Man versus Machine - Should We Worry?

If we accept there is a tipping point for any trend or fad, that is now for this conversation about man versus the machine, or, more specifically, what impact automation would have on jobs. This is an old conversation, dating back centuries (Luddites, Ricardo, Marx, Keynes and Leontieff - all made their point), and the fear that machines will take over our jobs is not new. And, indeed, the counter-argument, what the Economists call the Lump-of-Labour fallacy, or the mistaken notion that there is only a fixed amount of work to be done (and, therefore, a job for a machine means one less human job), is extremely well-known. So, one may ask - what is the fuss about?

Indeed, it is quite a fuss if you call it so. As The Atlantic visualises a World without Work, the Foreign Affairs says Hi to Robots and wonders whether humans will go the way of horses. Harvard Business Review tries to look beyond automation and allows Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, the High Priests of the Second Machine Age, to explain the Great Decoupling, where GDP growths may not mean jobs any more. Reading all this, one may think that old Marx is laughing in his grave - and I am planning to visit Highgate to check if that could be true - because this may be that Marxian moment when Capital wins over labour, by making it completely redundant! 

Some Londoners are thinking the battle is not over yet, as they struggle through some of the tube strikes, and wish it would be soon, so that they can enjoy the night tube without having to lose some of the day services on working days. But even there, the jobs, like the Train Drivers, which earned respectable wages, are increasingly becoming redundant. The entire London Waterloo station has lost all its manned ticket offices last week, and it did not need a Robot, just some computers and software, to make an army of ticket office staff redundant. It is indeed a lump of labour as the Ticket Offices are concerned.

But while this is an important conversation and worth watching, at the heart of the current conversation, there are two misplaced emphasis. First, the entire debate is being carried on around Robotics, which gives this a sci-fi flavour and makes common people treat this as a distant, nerdy staff. However, automation is far more pervasive than AI - the ticket office staff at Waterloo station did not need a humanoid multi-function Robot to replace them - and this is reaching a tipping point to affect today's jobs and careers, not just tomorrows. Even the innocuous Microsoft Word is capable enough to wreck middle class homes and lives.

Second, the entire debate is framed as a man-versus-machine one, and being drummed up for that apocalyptic moment of arrival of the self-aware Skynet! One should really see what this debate really is, one of priorities. Technology itself is value-neutral, and entirely dependent on what we employ it for. Indeed, we should step backwards one step and ask - why is it more important to fund algorithms to better match dating profiles than to put the funding on developing Ebola vaccines? Seen this way, one can possibly see that this fighting against technology is a ruse, and the issue here is really one of prioritisation, of asking what really matters and how we decide what matters.

Once framed this way, we should figure out real reasons for us to worry about. The Technological Unemployment - the term Lord Keynes used - is not a distant event, but is already here. And, the machine is not the enemy! For all those who lost their jobs for automation, their righteous rage towards machines is as misdirected as the Luddites pointless battles were. At the core of it, it is about democracies and how we prioritise social decisions. All of us can indeed participate in a grand scheme of a few, owners of Capital and Technology, at the end of which they take all the winnings home, or we may become self-aware early and start to understand the game we are in. Technologies, still very much a tool, a creation of and for human will, do not shape our world by themselves, and the losses of work are not due to them.

It is rather connected to democracies, those systems that get rigged for people not to pay taxes and free-ride on public services (the banks are indeed the biggest benefit scroungers when you consider all the costs of defence and policing that protect their interests). The priorities of building a more human world - as Steve Hilton is suggesting - must be put back in the public agenda, and we should be the ones to put it back. The question is indeed who will own the Robots, as MIT Technology Review, joining the rest, asks. If we are able to answer the question democratically and for greatest social benefit, we can perhaps continue the cycle of prosperity that we have seen in the past. Otherwise, when this process is rigged and benefits skew towards a few, the dystopian possibilities may come to be.

It is not man versus a new machine, but man versus man, as it always has been.

 





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