Thursday, 15 March 2018

Automation and AI: a late comeback for Luddite machine breaking?

The rise of robotics, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) is being touted as transformational in industry circles. That may be, but is it a force for good? It is almost heretical to say that technology is anything else but a force for good. It transforms lives; it has revolutionised the way we think about the world; most of us hope it may one day help us cheat death itself. 

But automation promises that the world of the future - or at least its richer bits - will be revolutionised by technology that takes up jobs previously performed far less efficiently by humans. Indeed, AI can process tasks in nanoseconds that would take a human team years by manual and mental processes.

This represents revolution. The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) to be specific. Is it a good thing? Most commentators are too evangelist to even pause to pose the question.

Rage against the machine, 1800s-style
Two centuries ago, the Luddites smashed the futuristic steam engines and burnt down the satanic mills that represented the new industrial revolution.

We are accustomed to mocking the machine breakers as foolish and doomed to fail against the march of technology. That may be. Or perhaps they were just ahead of their time.

Nevertheless, did the industrial revolution improve the lot of individual workers? It allowed wealth to accumulate among the middle class and elite; it fuelled a population shift (and population growth) towards cities.

But population growth is now recognised as dangerous, now we appreciate Earth's finite resources. And did it improve workers' lives? I recently read Sapiens, arguing individual humans enjoyed better quality of life as hunter-gatherers than as farmers once they had succumbed to the agricultural revolution. That shift allowed population growth and technological advances, too.

It isn't just me that worries about automation. This year's World Economic Forum (WEF) report took up the theme. And the WEF is pretty much the most tech-friendly, open markets, capitalism-friendly forum you can get.

Nevertheless, 2018's WEF report fretted that the opportunities afforded by automation and profound risks of social instability are dangerously intertwined.

A simpler life
Put frankly, AI might make us more efficient, but is it worth it? Will we be happier?

As more and more careers - starting with working class manufacturing jobs - fall prey to automation, is it still a force for good?

If workers and manual labourers become jobless, presumably they will need to learn new skills. AI is chasing them.

Office jobs are already in the cross hairs. Machine learning can do the job quicker, better and cheaper. So let's fire the team.

In the end, who benefits? I might seem a bit mad, but clearly even the WEF sees risk in strapping the human race to the forces of technology and automation, without considering the societal and socioeconomic costs. An elite might have accumulated sufficient wealth to be waited on by AI, while a restless, swelling majority of squeezed workers will surely question what they have gained and lost.

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