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Can robots serve the common good even if they put humans out of work?

In an age of artificial intelligence, robots carry out dangerous tasks previously done by humans. Chris Chatteris SJ, argues that although these advances may reduce inhumane and dangerous labour practices, the livelihoods of workers are still threatened.

Surely, nothing underlines the level of economic desperation in South Africa more than illegal mining. Mining is dangerous enough under ideal circumstances. Working down old, degraded shafts and tunnels with basic equipment, no safety systems and very little training, really does approach the suicidal.

I wonder what the life expectancy of an illegal miner is. Although we will probably never know, the rate of attrition must be very high indeed, as recent accidents amply illustrate.

The human environment in mines offers further, sometimes fatal hazards. Competition among illegal miners leads to violence and murder. Even in legal mines, one hears of ‘accidents’ in which miners fall down shafts, victims of score-settling between enemies.

The split between unions is another source of deadly danger. Recently, the tensions between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the rival union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), have reached very serious levels over the issue of how to respond to the threatened Sibanye mine layoffs.

The more one learns about mining, legal and illegal, the more one is pushed to the conclusion that mining is an inherently dehumanising job. No human being ought to have to work kilometres down in the heat, dust and danger of a mine. It’s a job fit only for robots.

Indeed, once you reach a certain depth, human beings become unable to endure the temperatures and it becomes too expensive to keep them cool enough to work. Robots are the logical answer.

Robots, however, would not stop illegal miners. Nor would robots be welcomed by legal miners whose livelihood, hard as it is, would be taken away from them by these machines.

But robots are already arriving and so is artificial intelligence (AI).

This formidable duo is going to be gobbling up blue-collar jobs in ever greater numbers. Robots already do many repetitively boring, arduous and dangerous jobs that used to be done by human labour.

Pace Mr Ludd, one can see some good in this, as long as those who are freed from undignified, troglodyte toil can move to some other, more human, task on the surface. In the long term, this might be possible.

I suppose that blacksmiths and farriers had to transfer their skills into other areas, such as car production when that industry destroyed the horse and carriage. The problem, of course, is that it costs money to change or upgrade skills.

One proposed answer to this coming revolution is to guarantee every citizen of a country a basic income. This is often acronymised to BIG (basic income grant sometimes shortened to BI). Pilot projects are being run in various parts of the world at the moment to test BI’s viability.

The idea is to find out whether people on a BI will still seek work? Yes, apparently, as long as their grant is not taken away from them if they find it.

Can a society pay for it? That depends on the economy of course. And so on.

Would it stop illegal mining? It depends how much it is and whether the robots will undercut the illegal mining ‘business’.

Source: Leviathan.ai (Data from http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/publications/view/1314 September, 2013)

Much of the debate around the proposal is about economics and the ideologies underpinning economics.

Many questions arise. Should you ever give a person something for nothing? Could such a redistribution of wealth mean a return to socialism and spell the end of capitalism and the market economy and would that be the end of the world?! Would a BIG mean the return of big government? And what of the ‘dignity of work’, to use a phrase from Catholic social teaching.

My sense is that the arguments, enunciated as they often are by the chattering classes who tend to be financially secure, would be generally negative towards the idea of a basic income grant.

But what if machines destroyed white-collar jobs? What if artificial intelligence could handle complex medical diagnoses or put together legal briefs or design buildings, bridges and machines? Or fly airliners and write economics papers? And even write articles like this one for websites and newspapers!

What if AI threatened the livelihood of the chatterati? Where would they then stand?

In that case, and it seems that it will be the case in the not too distant future, I would be willing to bet that the notion of the basic income for all might then get a more favourable hearing.

The formula robots+AI=>BI may well prove to be a popular measure deemed essential for the common good.

* 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.