- June 26, 2017
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On the Edge of Being Replaced by Machines: are Humans the New Horses?
The video above is admittedly bleak; comparing present-day humanity to the state of horses in the years preceding the takeover of motor vehicles. It’s easy to be sucked in by the convincing narrative and become fearful of the rise of robots and the usurpation of, not just the menial work, but every single human occupation.
It seems even doctors and artists aren’t safe from the steady march of automation with doctor-bots already in operation and tech researchers tirelessly testing and building the creative abilities of AI.
All of this may be true. But you can relax because it doesn’t make you a horse.
Horses were never in charge. They were a meaty tool replaced by a mechanical one; in the same way we moved from sticks and stones to metals and alloys, mechanisms and machines.
What it means is, we get to take a step back from using ourselves, and each other, as tools. Karl Marx (of Communist Manifesto fame) saw all human labour as prostitution; the use of another as a tool. He predicted both actual prostitution and his extended definition of the term would eventually come to an end. Does this mean automation will herald in a sort of neo-socialism? Depends who you ask.
Elon Musk, and those pushing for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), are writing a whimsical, hybrid socialist-capitalist future for humanity. One in which everyone is taken care of but personal property and wealth are still encouraged. However, there are just as many people claiming such an approach will be unnecessary as robotics will drive capitalism to greater heights, boosting employment along the way.
The ‘nothing to see here’ argument
Recent research from the International Federation for Robotics (IFR) suggests any concerns about job-stealing robots are unwarranted. The IFR claims evidence is mounting that robots will create more jobs than they take. In fact, these robot lovers say the existence of service machines will suck up the work we don’t want to do and free us up for tasks more suited to the creativity and complexity of the human mind.
The IFR argues:
- The biggest threat to employment isn’t automation but the struggle to remain competitive;
- Robots increase a company’s productivity and competitiveness;
- This leads to increased demand;
- Increased demand leads to more job opportunities;
- These factors combine to free up companies in high-cost countries (like Australia) to re-engage domestic workers rather than sourcing cheap labour overseas;
- Therefore, robots = more jobs.
They admit some jobs are lost to the bots but claim the total number of loseable jobs is less than 10%. And the jobs that remain are higher-skilled, therefore liable for wage boosting to encourage humans into them. This, however, requires a commitment to re-skilling and retraining. The IFR concludes:
“Governments must invest in robotics research and development to reap the employment benefits of this rapidly growing sector. They must also provide the policy incentives and education systems to support the acquisition of skills necessary to secure and thrive in jobs that are created or changed by the deployment of robots and automation.”
If you’re thinking something called ‘the International Federation of Robotics’ probably has at least a bit of a bias in favour of robotics, well, we see your point. The IFR did cite 47 independent research projects in their report—from publications including Harvard, the Boston University school of law, the World Economic Forum and the ZEW Centre for European Economic Research—and they found the argument for robots creating more employment opportunities unanimous.
However, rather than providing rock solid evidence, such unwavering agreement has the appearance of cherry-picking: ignoring the studies that offer potential counterpoints and focussing on the ones that support a pre-determined argument that robots are going to be good for employment. So, for the ardent skeptics, here’s a real world example of automation creating jobs.
AI that predicts the future
A company called Blue Yonder has created a deep learning AI system so powerful it can predict the future action of customers on a website with an accuracy of around 90%. This technology is being put to use in the online retail sector because, well, we live in a capitalist society. You get a future-predicting robot, what’s the first thing you think of? How can I make money off this thing.
German retailer, Otto (who own a stake in Blue Yonder), implemented the system in their business and have reported astounding results. The system is so accurate they allow it to automatically purchase somewhere in the region of 200,000 products a month. They don’t even bother having a human check over its purchases anymore.
While that may seem like a lot of trust to put in a machine, the Blue Yonder system has proven itself reliably superior to its mammalian predecessors. There’s just no way a human could get the right nuance of products, sizes, colours and variants to suit the changing desires of website users. But the machine-learning system has the ability to analyse and see patterns in far more data than our pudgy minds can comprehend.
While this may seem like an introduction that would lead to job cuts, the massive spike in efficiency actually led Otto to hire more employees to keep up with the demand. From its data analysis, the machine learning system gave them feedback on how quickly items needed to ship to avoid returns and ample other profit-saving ideas. Apparently its demands necessitated, and allowed for, human workers. So its implementation did, indeed, lead to more jobs for people, not less.
So what should you believe?
Basically, what you have here, are different people, with different agendas, selling you different narratives. And, as we live in a capitalist society, you get to buy whichever one you want. Whether you think the robots are job thieves or useful augmentations to your workforce, one thing’s for sure: they will be no fun to play foosball with in the lunchroom.