By Ryan Browne.

The science fiction author Isaac Asimov was a prolific writer on the subject of robots, having written numerous short stories addressing the problems and benefits they could bring.

He was also vocal in the world of science generally, having written non-fiction and speaking on the subject. Perhaps the most interesting topic he addressed was robots, and their social consequences:

“What is going to happen with robotics in the future? Well, as we all know, it’s going to create a certain amount of economic dislocation. Jobs will disappear as industries become robotized.”

Asimov issued a caution over how computers would become integrated into society during a lecture sponsored by NASA and the College of William and Mary in 1983. The sci-fi writer recalled a sensationalist news story about a robot allegedly “killing” an engineer at the Kawasaki Heavy Industries plant in Japan. Of course, this wasn’t exactly the case – the gear-grinding robot merely malfunctioned, and Kenji Urada, unfortunately, was in the wrong place at the wrong time.



Decades have passed since this tragedy, and we now find ourselves at a curious stage of history. Last year, a technician fell victim to an industrial robot at a Volkswagen plant in Germany, sparking a conversation about human safety in the era of robotics. However, anthropomorphising robots like this is a fundamental mistake, as Blay Whitby, an artificial intelligence researcher at the University of Sussex, has noted: “Robots are not yet at a level where their decision-making allows us to treat them as blameworthy.”

In fact, what is curious about robotics and AI in the 21st century is that the technology is at such a high standard of sophistication now that, not only are robot-related deaths extremely rare, but it is likely that robots are one of the main contributing factors for the overall reduction in factory worker deaths since the beginning of the century. The health and safety benefits of workplace assistant robots – to put it in the crudest way possible – far outweigh the shock of a tiny amount of robot-related deaths (less than one a year).

This sophistication however has its downsides, and it gives rise to an issue which is likely to lead to growing societal frustration in the coming years – robot labour overtaking manual labour. According a study by the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University, roughly 4.8 million US manufacturing jobs were lost between 2000 and 2010 because of technology. That’s 85% of the 5.6m jobs which were lost in total. The other 15% was lost due to trade and other factors.

While concerns about trade and outsourcing may be genuine, our world leaders will soon have to come to terms with the increasing decline of human productivity output, as the prevalence of machines – which provide much cheaper and more effective solutions for companies around the world – poses a deeply unsettling challenge to the way we model our society. Last year the BBC published an interactive graphic based on Oxford University research, which you could use to find out whether your job will become automated. Administrative jobs topped the study in terms of risk of automation, whilst health sector occupations such as nursing and psychotherapy had a less-than-one percent chance of being replaced by robot labour. According to the research, 35 % of jobs were at high risk of computerisation – in the US, one study has put the figure as high as 45%.

One interesting suggestion to overcoming the rapidity with which technology is making human labour redundant is to implement a fully fledged universal basic income. A basic income would scrap all existing state benefits and provide a universal standard of income distribution in which people would earn a monthly allowance to cover basic expenses, whether in work or not. This idea has been touted increasingly by liberals, particularly across Scandinavia, as a means of alleviating poverty. Some – myself included – are sceptical of the idea, and wonder where exactly the money to fund it will come from. But with the pressure from AI and robotics developments, we must now consider radical solutions.

Basic income enthusiasts point to past experiments as evidence of the benefit of implementing unconditional cash transfers, explaining that a basic income replacing social security would mitigate poverty rather than exacerbate it. Research published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics for instance showed that unconditional cash transfers to poor households in rural Kenya had “significant impacts on economic outcomes and psychological well being”; while MIT research found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work”, debunking the idea that such a wholesale reform of income distribution would be incompatible with current economic models.

The latter is a promising remark for those worried about economic dislocation and job losses. Because, despite the loss of 4.8m jobs in the US owing to the rise of technology, and the general problem of unemployment, the US unemployment rate currently stands at 4.6%, the lowest it’s been since August 2007. American businesses have also created a total of 15.6m jobs since early 2010. From a bipartisan perspective, the current picture suggests that technology’s influence in the economy could even supplement rather than undermine human labour. While the volatility of these jobs remains to be a serious cause for concern, it is possible that – with more robots performing jobs for us with ease – people could continue to find other opportunities of employment.

As well as other opportunities of employment, the spread of technological applications in economic productivity and the labour market provides opportunity for increased leisure activity. Although Asimov’s robot stories illustrated social tension with the introduction of robots to society, the author did share optimism about the future of computer integration:

“What’s going to happen as robots take over and people are put out of jobs? I am hoping that that is only a transition period and that we are going to end up with a new generation that will be educated in a different way and that will be ready for a computerized world with considerably more leisure and with new kinds of jobs.”

The problem with this optimistic futurism however is the ongoing economic disparity that exists in society. Once such sophisticated technology becomes increasingly available to wider society – and by this, I refer to robotics and strong AI applications – the attached price tag will not be accessible to begin with. And it is the rich who will essentially be able to afford such leisure (like Asimov’s “Spacer” colonies). Nevertheless, there is an opportunity to address this, and the idea of a Universal Basic Income – an idea with proponents on both the left and right – might be a place to start.

By Ryan Browne

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