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Am I too dumb to be a droid? Part two

Authors: Geoff Mulgan Geoff Mulgan

10 June 2013

Why haven't robots taken all our jobs yet. Read part one of Geoff's blog here.

But History suggests that change happens in much more dialectical ways than futurology usually recognises.  Changes elicit other changes. Trends generate countertrends. New concentrations of power prompt coalitions and campaigns to weaken them.

As a result, simple linear forecasts in which technologies just wipe out jobs are pretty hopeless and misleading. This is partly a matter of economics. To the extent that robots do replace existing jobs, relative price effects will kick in. Those sectors where productivity dramatically increases will see price reductions, and spending will shift over to other fields which are harder to automate: personal coaches, tour guides, teachers, carers, craft workers. Their relative price will probably rise (as will that of highly skilled jobs in supervision - making sure the robots work, though these too will diminish over time).  Labour markets have proven to be pretty dynamic over the last two centuries, coping with massive destruction of jobs and equally massive creation too.

There is no obvious reason why a much more automated society would necessarily have fewer jobs. Some very thoughtful economists are now arguing that 'this time is different', and that even if the warnings were wrong in the past, they're now right. The nature of communications and information technologies means that they really will scythe through professional jobs. They may be right. But given how wrong comparable analyses have been in the past, we should start from a position of scepticism.

We also need to think dialectically about demand. Experience suggests that what we want in a more automated economy won't be the same at it is today. We may well be willing to spend a lot on truly smart robots to serve us, drive us or guide us. But automation will also raise the status and desirability of what's not automated. Craft is booming in part because of robots. At the upper end, designer crafts fetch high prices for their imperfections as well as their perfections. Handmade is now desirable. So is hand grown. These can now charge a premium where at an earlier stage of economic development they were seen as substandard. We should expect even more of a shift towards valuing people. Face to face services are already a lot more expensive than commodities, yet at one time they were cheaper. But there is no sign whatsoever that demand for coaches, trainers, masseurs, beauticians is saturated. Indeed, to the extent that automation further releases disposable income for other tasks it will shift the balance of the economy even further towards services, and in particular high touch ones.

But the most important reason to think dialectically is politics. This is hard because the great majority of technologists and futurologists have no feel for politics (and often no feel for history). Implicitly they often assume that the public are dumb and passive - rolled over by big trends which they have no hope of influencing. But two hundred years of technological revolution should have taught us that technological determinism is always misleading - mainly because people have brains, as well as interests.  

In practice people campaign, lobby, argue and organise. It may take them some time to get the measure of a new bunch of technologies. But before long they become agents rather than victims. That's why the simpler stories of singularity are quaint fantasies but not much more. And it's also why the conspiracy view of the spread of robots as the ultimate capitalist dream - an economy with only consumers and no workers - is equally fanciful (though it is intriguing to ask why governments give such favourable tax treatment to investment in robots compared to employment of human labour). 

If no one was paid, no one would buy the products produced by robots. Henry Ford had to pay his workers enough to buy his cars. Similarly, a seriously automated economy has to work out some way of generating demand. In theory, every citizen could become a capitalist - and just enjoy a flow of dividends from robot companies which they then spent on consumer goods produced by robots. Or they could rely on handouts from the state. Alternatively, rewards could be concentrated in the hands of a very few. The point is that in any scenario, questions of distribution quickly come to the fore and open up very obviously political choices.

This highlights the broader point. Any new technology sets in motion political battles over who benefits and who loses.  The internal combustion engine prompted new rules and regulations like speed limits, and new kinds of provision like public buses. Electricity prompted great utilities and public service guarantees as well as a huge apparatus of safety rules. Robots too will prompt similar discussions not just on regulation and law, but also on such issues as their use within public services or even the right to have one. 

The number of variables involved make it hard to predict where we'll end up on questions of ownership, privacy and provision. But I expect that the most likely result of heightened political argument will be that we demand not just that we have robots to serve us, but that we also demand to incorporate some robot strengths into ourselves.  We may conclude, in other words, that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Indeed, if humans have any sense they will demand the best of what robots have: prosthetic limbs; synthetic eyes; expanded memories - so that they can keep the interesting jobs, and the status and pay that goes with them, rather than allowing these to be parcelled out (a topic covered at a recent Nesta Hot Topics event).

Since, as I pointed out earlier, robots are best thought of as disaggregated capabilities, we will surely want the best of these for ourselves, with our own brains doing the aggregation. That's why a movement for human enhancement is more likely than any kind of singularity, and will make much of the current debate about jobs look anachronistic.

So when my son says I'm too dumb to be a droid, my answer is: yes, that's true for now. But I hope that I'm just smart enough to take the best of what the droid has, and that the droid is too dumb to stop me.

This article was originally published at Nesta. Read the original article.