I, Robot

July 30, 2017

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A world where human beings become obsolete cannot be humane. Sacrificing human compassion at the altar of technological innovation solely for profit maximization is to annihilate the noblest aspect of the human spirit, which differentiates us from machines. Progress that holds human beings in lower esteem than machines diminishes both the value of human life and the stature of humanity as a whole. If unbridled technological innovation improves the lives of a few at the cost of the many, all are worse for it. The problems of the poor can easily become the problems of the rich, as desperation crosses borders or violates rights. Taking the reins of the future means preemptively acknowledging and addressing today the issues that will affect us tomorrow, issues such as automation. Analysis conducted by the Martin School at Oxford University estimates that 47% of the jobs in the US, 69% of the jobs in India, 77% of the jobs in China and 57% of the jobs across the OECD are at risk of disappearing due to automation over the coming two decades. The time to tackle this issue is now.

 

Automation is an electronic process that reduces or eliminates human participation in the performance of an activity. By rendering manual labor obsolete, automation disrupts the lives of unskilled workers. The resulting unemployment leads to social, economic and political unrest aggravated by the lack of public safety nets. With the rise of automation, poor countries can no longer attract foreign industries based solely on local supply of cheap labor. What was once an enticement for the creation of international supply chains has ceased to be. Even when foreign industries setup in poor countries to satisfy local demand, automation minimizes the employment of local workers. This takes place in countries afflicted by abject poverty where unskilled labor is the norm. Industrialization, which once lifted so many from abject poverty, no longer does. In Ethiopia alone, automation currently threatens 85% of all jobs.

 

In rich countries, automation has also hurt the poor. Although it allows industries to relocate supply chains back home, it does not generate demand for local unskilled workers. First, unskilled workers in rich countries were rendered obsolete by workers in poor countries. Now, local robots have done the same. Whichever the case may be, automation has reduced labor costs for corporations at the expense of the unskilled worker. While production costs decreased, profit margins increased. The unskilled worker rendered obsolete has experienced a loss of income, source of much social unrest and political polarization.

 

All of this is unfortunate. In an ideal world, automation would be a blessing. It would spare human beings from the most tedious and repetitive tasks imaginable, allowing them to work at more meaningful jobs. But when unbridled profit maximization is the sole driving force behind technological innovation, the well-being of the most vulnerable members of society is largely ignored. Since the market will not address the extreme social inequalities created in the process, the state has a civic and ethical responsibility to intervene. The future will be unforgiving towards the unskilled worker, so universal education must be a top priority. While the unskilled jobs taken for granted today will be automated, the new jobs created will require high skills.  

 

The state must provide a safety net for the unemployed workers commensurate with the level of technological disruption. For rich countries, this may go as far as providing a universal basic income. The requisite funds to address the ensuing disruption may come from the source of the problem itself. Machines should serve human beings, not the other way around. Taxing robots would attain greater redistributive justice because technological innovation would then truly serve the needs of the many, not the few.

 

For the poorest countries, the need for development has never been so urgent or equally troubling, as international supply chains reliant on cheap labor become less appealing. Though no immediate solutions are apparent, states must combat corruption, adopt development policies and implement democratic reforms necessary to create egalitarian societies. Rich countries should also offer all necessary development cooperation out of rational self-interest, if not compassion. Otherwise, the abject poverty, famine, war, radicalization and ensuing migratory problems of the poor will become a nightmare shared by the rich.  

 

Despite all this, some may still find a pressing concern with the impact of automation laughable now. When Martin Niemoller offered his admonishment, the reception was just the same. No one is laughing now. With the advent of advanced artificial intelligence, automation will also overtake many skilled occupations in the future. If you refuse to speak out in defense of those suffering today, the same silence will ignore you when your moment of pain arrives tomorrow. Either we take the reins of the future or it takes the reins of our lives. If automation erradicates poverty by erradicating the poor, everyone becomes a robot.

 

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©2017 by Andre Lamartin