Prepare for the robot revolution

by
02 June 2017

The rise of automation presents society with new challenges, warns Keith Hebden

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Road ahead: driverless vehicles could remove the livelihoods of thousands

Road ahead: driverless vehicles could remove the livelihoods of thousands

TECHNOLOGY both frees and dis­places people.

During the Industrial Revolution, mechanisation took over much agri­cultural and textile work, forcing impoverished people into cities in huge numbers. Today, society
faces an even bigger upheaval than that experienced by its steam-powered ancestors: the rise of auto­mation.

The professional-services firm PwC predicts that “up to around 30 per cent of existing UK jobs are susceptible to automation from ro­­botics and Artificial Intelligence by the early 2030s”. These jobs will either disappear or change beyond recognition, it says.

Two sectors that will be affected are care work and logistics.

With an ageing population, the UK faces significant challenges in providing care to the elderly and housebound. Local authorities have responded positively, in principle, to Citizens UK’s “I care about care” campaigns, which have called for better-quality care, and better train­ing and pay for care workers. But local authorities say that they are constrained by cuts in their budgets from central government: better care will cost more money.

In the not too distant future, how­ever, much of the care of the elderly and housebound will be automated, making care more effi­cient and affordable. The diagnosis of condi­tions, the dispensing of treat­­ment, getting people mobile, and even providing tactile therapy, may in­­creasingly be performed by mach­ines and algorithms.

Another sector in which there is likely to be significant change as a result of technological advances is logistics, the fine art of getting stuff from A to B. Driverless vehicles, which are cheaper to run and are po­­tentially safer, could become the normal means of transporting goods.

In a paper published by the New Economics Foundation think tank, Stephen Devlin suggests that the introduction of driverless vehicles will mean that nearly 30,000 truck drivers in the UK will find that they are “no longer necessary”.

 

ADVOCATES of automation say that Artificial Intelligence and ro­­botics reduce costs, carbon foot-prints, and human error. But it is important to be aware of the potential consequences and challenges that it presents.

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It might be efficient and more cost-effective to provide the elderly with automated care. But it is vital to consider what the con­sequences will be of removing hu­­man touch from healthcare, the accidental hu­­man contact that so many rely on.

The 20th-century philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul warned that if “technique” (automation and scientific method) becomes the only medium of human experience of life, “the whole set of complex and fragile bonds that man has patiently fashioned — poetic, magic, myth­ical, symbolic bonds — van­ishes. There is only the techno­logical mediation, which imposes it­­self and becomes total.” Technology has the ability both to maintain hu­­man dignity and at once remove the hu­­man experience in which that dignity finds its meaning.

If more than a quarter of a mil­lion truck drivers find themselves out of work, vital questions must be addressed: what will they do for income, and social value? How will they respond to this brave new world that has no people in it? Where will they take their sense of outrage?

Having spent four years as a priest to an ex-mining community in Nottinghamshire, I have some sense of the social scarring that is caused by huge and sudden unemploy­ment. I can’t imagine that many of us want a re­­peat of the viol­­ence and dis­cord that was cre­ated by Mrs Thatcher’s closure of the pits. It is important to plan.

Increased unemployment always has knock-on effects in terms of opportunities both for governments to collect income tax and for people to spend money elsewhere in the economy. There could be thousands of people with more leisure time and no fiscal freedom to enjoy it, in a future world of unfundable public services. Britain’s leaving the Euro­pean Union will have economic consequences, but Britain’s leaving employment to robots will have a greater impact still.

 

IF I have painted a bleak picture of the future, it is only one path that the country might take. The robot revolution is probably going to happen — it is predicted by both optimists and doomsayers — but the political response need not be catastrophic.

Bill Gates has proposed that robots should be taxed at a “sim­­ilar level” to humans, to make up the shortfall in the public purse. Some think tanks, and progressive political parties, such as the Green Party, are exploring the shorter working week, so that opportunities for paid work are more widely dispersed. Others champion the Citizens Income, which would give each adult a guaranteed basic in­­come.

But we also need to work out how the rights of workers can be de­­fended, as employment becomes increasingly precarious and threat­ened. We need to have a democracy that respects the rights of working people much more than we do today.

If “humans were made for the sabbath and not the sabbath for humans”, we also need to be mindful of the ways in which the rest we gain from automation serves human flourishing rather than sacrifice the good for the sake of techno­logical and economic gains.

Just as smartphones have freed us but also enslaved us, so, too, will future technologies — if we let them.

 

The Revd Dr Keith Hebden is Director of the Urban Theology Union and author of Re-enchanting the Activist: Spirituality and social change (Jessica Kingsley, 2016).

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