Humans and Robots

Robotics is advancing rapidly. Probably within the lifetime of most people now living – and conceivably within the next ten years – there will be general purpose robots (GPRs) capable of doing the vast majority of the work now undertaken by human beings. When that happens, international free trade and free market economics even within a closed domestic market will become untenable. The final crisis of capitalism will be the development of technology so advanced that it makes capitalism in the Marxist sense impossible because machines make humans redundant.

Robots are already undertaking surprisingly sophisticated work, but almost all are designed to undertake a limited range of tasks. None is a true GPR. That makes them expensive because of the limited nature of their possible uses and the restricted production-runs they can generate. Many of the most sophisticated are either one–offs or counted in single figures. A GPR will change that. They will be able to work across a wide range of tasks which will both enhance their utility and result in massive production runs. GPRs will become cheap; much cheaper than human labour.

The cost of GPRs will also fall because GPRs will sooner or later reach a stage where they can replicate one another or design and build new types of robot. This is potentially startling in terms of what might be produced. Let us say that it takes one week for one GPR to create another. At the end of the first week you have two GPRs. At the end of the second week you have four GPRs. Let us suppose you keep on doubling up every week. In thirty three weeks you have more GPRs that the entire present population of the world. In thirty four weeks you have more than twice the population of the world. The only restrictions on production would be government curbs or a shortage of materials and energy to build and run them.

Economic history to date shows that technological advance creates new work. It may have very painful consequences for individuals whose livelihoods disappear – the hand-loom weavers of the early industrial revolution are a classic example – but new opportunities for employment arise as an economy becomes more sophisticated and variegated. The hand-loom weaver found work in the new factories; the redundant western factory worker of today in a call centre. At worst they might only get a MacJob but at least it is a job.

But if the GPRs can do the MacJobs as well as the more demanding work, then there will not be any new jobs for humans, not even much supervisory work because GPRs will need little supervising, and less and less as they become ever more sophisticated. Hence, this technological advance will be like no other. GPRs will not only take away existing jobs, they will devour any new work; the easier work first, then the more complex.

The normal human response to such ideas is not reasonable scepticism, but rejection based on a refusal to accept the reality of change, a rejection expressed with ridicule along the lines of the Victorians’ response to the car: “It will never replace the horse”. Mention robots and people commonly scoff “Science Fiction” to get rid of the matter without further debate. This type of response is natural enough because human beings, apart from disliking change, do not like to think of themselves as dispensable or redundant. Moreover, incessant propagandising by western elites has made it a received opinion of the age that work is becoming ever more demanding and requires an increasingly educated and knowledgeable workforce, something which seems to most humans to make them uniquely capable of doing the jobs of the future and, by implication, this excludes mechanisation (and robots) from the majority of future human employments.

If that were true the dominion of GPRs might be at least delayed. Unfortunately, the reality is that the large majority of modern jobs, in both the developed and developing world, are non-skilled or low skilled. Just sit and ponder how many our jobs need a great deal of intelligence or knowledge. Think of the huge numbers who are employed in call centres, shops, cafes, cleaning, driving car, on farms picking fruit and vegetables or assembling items on production lines which require no more than a repetitive task to be performed. These may be hard work but the training or innate skill required is small. Even work whose nature suggests that it is more demanding of education, training and knowledge such as much clerical work can be readily done by anyone with a reasonable facility with the 3Rs and a familiarity with basic computer operations, such as using a word processor and a search engine, something which the large majority of those in Western labour markets at least should possess. If twenty per cent of jobs in a developed country require an above average IQ or a long period of specialised training I should be surprised. In places such as India and China it will be less as they have taken on much of the repetitive factory production of the advanced world and are less inclined to substitute machines for labour, which is still by western standards very cheap.

The overproduction of graduates in both the developed and developing world is a strong indicator of the predominance of simple jobs. In Britain there is a target of getting 50% of school-leavers to university. At present that does not look like being achieved because the figure has been stuck around 40% for years and the recent massive increase in university fees for UK students is likely to cause even that figure to drop in the future. But even with 40%, experience shows that is far too high a figure because large numbers of graduates are either unemployed or employed in jobs which do not require a degree-level education. The latest Office of National Statistics figures show 20% of recent UK graduates are without jobs, but even before the present recession began in 2008, graduate unemployment was twice the UK unemployment average at 10.6%. The figures are worse than they look because graduates in employment include those in jobs for which a degree is unnecessary. In 2010 one in three new graduates were forced to take menial work.

The picture is similar elsewhere. In China there are more than six million unemployed graduates; the USA had 2.4 million unemployed graduates as of June 2010. and the Eurozone generally experiences a high level of graduate unemployment. The position in less developed countries is considerably worse because the number of graduate-level jobs is meagre and often only available in government funded positions.

Employability also varies according to education below degree level. Take the country which started the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings, Egypt, as an example. In 2011 Egyptian high-school graduates accounted for “42% of the workforce, but 80% of the unemployed.”  Most startling, a 2007 report found that the rate of unemployment in Egypt is ten times higher in the educated section of the population than among illiterates. In Egypt education equals disadvantage.

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