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The auto-revolution

James Evans considers the automated future which awaits us

Let’s not delude ourselves—the robots are coming, and nobody is truly safe.

Today, robots aren’t all that impressive. They’re expensive, prone to breakdown, and often require teams of skilled professionals to ensure their smooth operation—particularly in industrial settings. It would, however, be madness to argue that this will never change.

Technology improves all the time, especially where economics provides a huge incentive for innovation. Start up costs aside, automated production is cheaper than employing human beings. Robots don’t need to sleep, or eat, and they don’t get sick; they don’t make mistakes (well, not as often as humans), require holiday pay, or set up pesky trade unions.

The capitalist dream of a perfect, compliant, workforce is on the horizon; and while there are always weaknesses in long term economic speculation, there can be no doubt that a massive proportion of jobs (with estimates ranging from 35-50% in the next couple of decades beginning with the lowest skilled and most repetitive), will be entirely replaceable. It is not a question of if but when.

This isn’t something contained to manual labour either. Improvements in AI, in conjunction with the growing presence of bots (as has already been seen on the stock market), will undoubtedly gnaw away at white-collar employment as time goes on. We are on the cusp of a massive structural change to the economy – and we are not even close to being prepared.

Even now, the silent rise of the automation is happening. Robots are used in factories, warehouses, and perhaps most noticeably in the transport sector. Driverless cars have already clocked hundreds of thousands of miles on the world’s roads, driverless railways have sprung up, and as the recent Southern strike shows, the era of the guard on commuter services is drawing to a close—all thanks to new technology.

This phenomenon is of course not new. Stone working was superseded by bronze, workshop manufacture replaced by mass industrial production, and the horse-drawn cart by the power of internal combustion—but the scale of this is different. Despite the cheeriness of Deloitte’s “From Brawn to Brains” report, in which they noted that while lots of jobs have vanished, more (and on average better paid) jobs have been created, we are only at the very tip of the automation iceberg. Within our lifetimes, technology will cease to augment modern work and begin to entirely replace it.

But then what? To what are economies supposed to turn? In a future that is far too close for comfort, policy makers are going to have to devise solutions to an unprecedented problem: how do we ensure growth and good living standards in an economy where a significant proportion of the workforce (if not most of it) is not just unemployed but fundamentally unemployable?

The first instinct, as seems to be the pattern of 2016, will be to fight. For unions, political parties, and populist movements (as has been seen on issues such as migration) the natural response will be to pull up the drawbridge and banish the automatons to protect jobs; but the historical precedent and nature of the world economy will not make this easy. Take manufacturing, a sector not only quite vulnerable to automation but also responsible for 44 per cent of UK exports. Even if Britain, in the name of protecting livelihoods, put legislative constraints on the use of automation, there is no guarantee that any other nation would. In fact, it would be in their interests not to. The free market would render British manufacturing totally impotent and uncompetitive as other nations automated; decimating the industry we were trying to protect.

While this is just one example, it is clear that in the long term there can be no hiding from the auto-revolution and the mass unemployment it will inevitably create. How the unemployable workforce is supposed to house itself, eat, and ultimately live happily in an economically sustainable way will be perhaps the greatest question for a generation of policy makers. Right now, massive state intervention seems to be the only realistic option. But from where this will be funded is of course less clear. Businesses too must expect to be squeezed, not only by the pressures of taxation but equally by the inevitable falls in consumption increasing unemployment will bring. The interdependent nature of our economic system makes the rise of automation a universal headache.

But beyond economics, perhaps the greatest question is a philosophical one. In a world where a great many have become totally state dependent, have no profession as a source of fulfilment or pride, and have incomes that will fund little more than their basic needs, what value is there to the system? And more directly—what are those who have been left out in the cold to do with their lives?

In the case of the latter, any notion of welfare on the condition of constant pursuit of work will have to be abandoned. The former is much more complex. To use an overused adjective, our economic system is ultimately a construct, and the society of the future will be forced to decide whether it is a construct that needs to be altered to meet the challenges of the age.

Some may argue that time has already been and gone; that particularly in the cases of Trump and Brexit we are already seeing what happens when large sections of the population feel left behind—but the economic realities of the present do not compare. Nowhere in the western world has truly experienced the entrenched, long term, and seemingly insurmountable structural unemployment that is to come.

This is a depressing topic, but sadly it’s an unavoidable one. The forces that dictate the path of the free market and its drive to ever greater efficiency will bring the automatons whether we like it or not—and these forces are already at play. Some comfort can be taken in the knowledge that this silent revolution will not happen overnight, but it would be foolish not to prepare. The sooner we begin to grapple with this challenge the easier the transition will be.

After all, the robots are coming.

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