Trumped by Robots

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Inside every ATM lurk the ghosts of three bank tellers. In South Africa visitors are amused to hear us refer to traffic lights as ‘robots’, but we’re not that far off the mark; they are indeed robotic systems and inside each of them is the ghost of a police officer directing the traffic. We may think of machines taking over our jobs as something that will occur in a remote, dystopian future, but the ‘ghostly’ bank tellers and traffic officers will tell us that the future has already arrived.

We may also think that robots are machines which do the drudge jobs like mining and cleaning the streets. Here we would be right but only partly so. Consider the example I heard recently from a confrere and IT whizz. In New York, it is now possible to contest your traffic fine using only artificial intelligence. You go online and a clever computer program will take down the particulars of the case and present it to the traffic department for you. How many ghostly lawyers will such systems produce one wonders?

If law-bots are going to replace lawyers and other professionals then it’s likely that the issue of automation and the destruction of jobs will receive more coverage, since professionals’ voices normally have more access to the media. When miners’ jobs are automated, I suppose one reaction is to say that, well, mining is a dangerous, dehumanising job anyway, so maybe getting mine-bots to do it is a blessing, as long as the retrenched miners can be retrained for other work. And anyway, there is a limit to the depth at which miners can work thanks to the very high temperatures underground, and so on.

However, if doctors were replaced by machines, most people reading this might feel a little more alarmed as we probably identify more with the class of doctors than miners. But in fact, it’s already happening. Few of us who have access to the internet have not Googled their symptoms at some time or another. There are already robots that do preliminary diagnoses. One called ‘Sophie’ (Wisdom?) apparently ‘talk(s) with patients, reading their body language (including things like gesture, posture, tone of voice and facial expressions) to determine their status – and suggest whether a trip to the doctor is actually necessary’. The system is supposed to ‘triage’ patients and ultimately give them ‘more time with the doctor’, but one can see that Sophie might eventually make many doctors and nurses redundant. The survivors would be those health professionals who have also studied IT and can also program Sophie. In other words, a very small and specialised group.

One of the reasons put forward for the current rise in political populism is job-insecurity. This includes not only people, like miners, who have actually lost their jobs, but those who feel that their jobs are threatened. This now includes the professional classes. The threat emanates from a number of quarters – competition from immigrants of course, and also the moving of jobs offshore thanks to technological innovation, in particular the internet. But the next big wave is set to be automation and automation in conjunction with the internet. Expect a robot-driven jobs bloodbath in the next decade.

Observers of this apparently inexorable movement have pointed out that populists such as Donald Trump will be pretty powerless to arrest it. In fact, the Trumps have been complicit in the process because business is constantly trying to maximise profits by reducing the number of workers and automation is one of the ways of doing this. Robots do not answer back or form unions or go on strike (yet!).

So, the rise of robots, artificial intelligence and automation signals the demise not only of manual jobs, as in the past, but of white collar desk jobs as well. What does this do to the bottom line? In advanced economies, it on balance, destroys jobs while producing more goods and services. Jobs disappear while the economy grows. The problem, to put it in Marxist terms, is that a smaller and smaller number of people controls the means of production and therefore these people prosper while those without work go to the wall.

This is not a new problem. How to share out the fruits of the economy is a challenge as old as humanity. The rise of these incredibly powerful and efficient machines is just another phase in the ‘creative destruction’ of the advance of technology. What happened to coachmen and blacksmiths when horses as a means of transport gave way to the internal combustion engine? Some were retrained as chauffeurs and mechanics, no doubt, but there must have been many casualties who were unable to change. That was in a time when change was much more gradual than today.

The political problem, it seems to me, is that our leaders are simply too terrified to face this brave new world and to talk to us about it honestly. They continue to make silly promises around jobs. Not only are they going to create jobs but they are going to create ‘good jobs’. Or, in the case of the Trumps, they are going to ‘bring back’ jobs that have gone to Mexico or wherever. Some economists predict that Trump will fail to keep his promises simply because all his efforts will be undermined by the inexorable technological juggernaut of automation in ironically which some of his own businesses are involved.

There are some countries tentatively seeking alternatives. One alternative is the so-called ‘basic income grant’ (hereafter denoted ‘BIG’). The idea is that every citizen of the country receives a grant which is enough to meet one’s basic needs. They receive this whether employed or not. The difference between the BIG and the dole is that when you find work you lose the dole, whereas you receive the BIG whether you work or not. This difference highlights a problem with the dole, namely that often it is not worth seeking work because the improvement in one’s income is marginal. In some cases it actually means a loss of income, so there is no incentive to work. However, with the BIG, finding work results in more income. Therefore a BIG may turn out to be an incentive rather than a disincentive to work, although of course there will always be some who choose to make do with it.

Some countries, like Finland, are running pilot programmes to see how the BIG functions in reality. One can predict other problems and criticisms. A country with a BIG would be a magnet for economic migrants, so it would be almost certain that the BIG would be restricted to citizens only and this would give rise to an inequality which, perversely, the system is designed to minimise. And of course, there would be ideological criticisms. In the US, with its philosophy of self-sufficient individualism, and fear of anything smacking of socialism, many would see it as an undiluted commie doctrine. However, in European countries where there is a healthy tradition of social democracy, it will be interesting to see how the BIG experiments work out.

There is a sense in which a BIG would be just what societies in the developing world need if we could afford it. With our high levels of unemployment, a universal safety net would be a godsend to the poor. The problem is that a BIG is obviously extremely expensive and requires a highly-developed economy and bureaucracy to support it. To provide every person in, say, Zimbabwe with a monthly grant sufficient to live on, is almost unthinkable. The Zimbabwean government struggles to pay its teachers and soldiers because the economy has collapsed except for the informal economy which the Government finds difficult to tax. But perhaps Zimbabwe is an extreme case.

A BIG has been mooted in South Africa but there is a lot of nervousness in economic and political circles about it. First of all, it is a new idea and we do not yet know how it will work. Secondly, the local economy is struggling to raise enough revenue to handle the millions of social grants to which the Government is already committed. Probably, the only way a BIG could work here is if it replaced most of the existing social grants and it would have to be done in such a way that present recipients of welfare grants did not end up with less money than before or there would be serious political fallout. The question for developing countries is whether a BIG can only work in an advanced economy or whether perhaps it could somehow be implemented in a developing economy, perhaps incrementally as the economy grows.

The BIG is but one of a number of new economic ideas which are being forged to handle a world in which full employment is history. Another idea, put forward by a UK organisation called Positive Money, is for governments, when they put money into the economy to stimulate it, to pay it directly into the accounts of the people rather than, as a present, lending it to the banks who then lend it to us. Bankers wouldn’t find this idea attractive but there is an interesting argument for it from the point of view of the common good. In this view ‘money is a common resource, which should be should be created by Government for the benefit of the People’. Obviously, this is a dangerous view from the point of view of those who profit from the manipulation of money, but every now and then it is important for us to look at something very familiar and ask ourselves what it is for. If we conclude that money is something which is at the service of the common good, various conclusions flow from this which would be very much at variance with our current financial arrangements which seem, more and more, to favour the 1%.

Some may object that this vision of the rise of automation is far too gloomy and that technological progress will eventually create the new jobs we need. Certainly, technological innovations do produce new jobs, for example in the new climate-friendly energy systems. But even so, it seems that with economies everywhere slowing down, the world’s population continuing to grow and the rise of automation, the full employment promised by politicians is a chimera in the foreseeable future.

How the Church should respond, I suggest, is to urge citizens to pressure politicians to stop making their wild promises and tell us the truth. Genuine political leaders could take a leaf out of the book of Vaclav Havel, the first post-communist President of Czechoslovakia, who in his acceptance speech, famously said, ‘I presume you did not elect me to this office so that I too should lie to you’. And he then proceeded to tell his fellow-citizens about just how dire the economic situation was in his country. Perhaps he had in mind the Confucian idea that the roots of social disorder were to be found in the failure to name things correctly.

It is hard to imagine an ANC or DA or EFF leader following Havel or Confucius. Perhaps it is true that we get the leaders we deserve. Therefore to deserve better we need to seek and support politicians, and economists, who will treat us like adults and stop telling us fairy tales about endless economic growth, an endless rise in living standards and that a return to post-war full employment is just around the corner. We should them to tell us that we understand that we are in a brave new world that has to be bravely faced; that it is very possible that we will not be able to have a higher standard of living than our parents and that for the sake of economic justice and political stability it will be necessary to redistribute the wealth in new and more radical ways. One of these ways will almost certainly be that some of us will have to be paid even though we do no traditionally productive work, i.e. that, pace St Paul, even though some do not work they must still be given enough to eat.

The rise of the robots requires the rise of a new generation of leaders who will find and forge ways to establish economic justice and political stability in the age of automation. But first they must find the courage to speak candidly to their constituents. SA

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

 

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Trumped by Robots