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.
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).