The politics of robotics

If Trump really supports the working man, the best thing he can do is put the brakes on automated vehicles and automation

Tags: AutomationAutonomous vehicleRobots
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The politics of robotics Autonomous cars are under testing by many different organisations around the world. (Getty Images)
By  Mark Sutton Published  February 21, 2017

During the World Government Summit last week, the subject of robotics and automation was raised by a number of speakers, including Tesla's Elon Musk, Travis Kalanick of Uber and RTA director-general Mattar Al Tayer, who all focused on automated transport and predictions of making the world a better place through driverless vehicles.

These predictions for transport automation and self-driving vehicles are uniformly bold, but the speakers all definitely agree that the days of driving our own cars, and driving jobs, are pretty much numbered. Truck drivers, dispatch riders, taxi drivers, will all be replaced by robot drivers or drone alternatives, and soon.

It is not just transport. This wave of automation is set to be felt across all sectors - and despite the promises of improved safety and efficiency - virtually everyone also agrees that automation will cost jobs. Analyst company Forrester predicts that even when weighed against new jobs created by automation, there will be a net loss of 7% of US jobs to robotics by 2025. That's not some far-off, sci-fi future - that's eight years from now.

It is clear from some of the speakers at the Summit, including economists, that there is a very real concern about this loss of jobs at a time when booming populations are necessitating job creation, not job reduction. And when even Silicon Valley technocrats starts to discuss whether citizens who don't or can't work are paid a ‘basic income' - basically a recognition that the state and free enterprise can't create enough jobs - it is easy to see that automation is more than just a threat to a few classes of blue collar jobs.

Paying people not to work is no real solution, and unemployment or underemployment brings many negative consequences. In the UK in the 1980s, the government pulled the plug on inefficient primary and heavy industries that had been propped up by the state for decades (to vastly over-simplify the situation). These industries collapsed, and the communities that relied on them were left without employment, no opportunities to retrain for other jobs, and not even affordable leisure facilities to keep the unemployed occupied.

Consequently, not only did government end up paying ‘basic income' in long-term unemployment benefit, but these communities suffered rises in crime, poor health and other issues associated with poverty and lack of long-term prospects. Many still suffer today. Large scale job loss through widespread automation will likely have the same effect, but on a global scale.

In the UAE, it's easy to believe that automation in areas like transport or manufacturing won't have much of an impact on citizens - a significant number of the local population were never going to take up these blue collar roles, so any jobs that will be lost won't be jobs for UAE nationals. The truck and taxi drivers, factory workers and call centre agents can simply go back home and let their own nations take care of them. But what about Saudi, where the problem of youth unemployment is only set to get bigger, and every single job, blue collar jobs included, are needed for Saudis?

There are compelling arguments for automation, particularly in areas like transport where road safety is a huge concern. World Health Organisation figures estimated there are 1.2 million road deaths per year and up to 50 million injured each year. In 2009, the WHO estimated road accidents cost around $518bn. But while it is an easy, emotive argument to make for better road safety, massive, long-term unemployment is not an acceptable consequence of trying to automate the road safety problem away.

It is time for an informed debate at the highest level around automation, the nature of work and what the future of work can or should be. Leaders should also consider a moratorium on automation for automation's sake and the pursuit of short-term productivity gains, and instead consider the long term implications of letting robotics and AI take over so many jobs in so many different lines of work.

Until government and leaders can plan the future of work in a way that doesn't disenfranchise so many people, it is irresponsible to let automation continue at the speed it is moving right now. Once the jobs are gone, they are not likely to come back, and there is precious little sign that anyone knows how to address the widescale unemployment that automation could usher in.

Silicon Valley doesn't seem to have a solution, and when even the people selling the automation solutions admit there is a problem, then you know there is a big problem. Some of the players in this field seem to be pushing ahead with automation efforts even when they know they will destroy far more jobs than they have ever created, and suggestions that large numbers of blue-collar workers can retrain as coders is a classic case of ‘when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail'.

It is time to take Silicon Valley's hands off the wheels of automation, before it's too late, and consider the very real, long-term cost of eliminating employment and people's opportunities to earn money, support their families and advance in life.

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