Like many of you I have certain celluloid guilty pleasures, films you just have to watch when they’re on TV irrespective of how many times you’ve actually seen them. T’other night one was on, I Robot, where an uber-intelligent man-made machine goes off the rails to dramatic effect and it got me thinking. It slowly dawned on me that many column inches in the new year’s press appear to have been dedicated to the burgeoning topic of Artificial Intelligence with driverless cars, killer drones, automated shopping malls and robotic surgeons being all the rage. In short, 2018 has been dubbed the year of the robot.
AI has been around for donkeys and even I can recall recruiting for a Hertfordshire based start-up, AI International Ltd, that were pioneering a medical diagnosis service that ‘learnt more about you’ with every conversation, way back in the late 80s. But thanks to considerable improvements in machine learning, speech & visual recognition, detailed mapping and computing power, AI has now made the transition from sci-fi to wi-fi. Being tagged in Facebook photos, an Uber being available when and where you want it, your Netflix recommendation, the continued YouTube watch and the suggested Spotify playlists are all about the savvy commercial use of artificial intelligence. This is, however, the tip of the iceberg and the proposed future deployment of AI is being termed by many as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, similar to those before (steam engines, power and computing) but massively different in terms of speed, adoption, scale and impact.
The good news is that this will ultimately mean we’ll all live longer, wealthier and more enriched lives. RoboDocs will perform ever more complex surgery and keep us alive for longer. Automation will reduce costs and our increasingly profitable corporations will pay more to support society. Electric cars will diminish pollution and on-demand driving will reduce congestion. Driverless cars will result in deaths behind the wheel being a thing of the past. Not needing a car will lead to the reclaiming of our streets – more park spaces as opposed to parking spaces. Defence and surveillance drones will keep us safe & sound. Probably. And in any event, who actually wanted to work in a call centre anyway!
Sadly, Big Tech has traditionally turned a blind eye to the negative impact it has upon existing industry and community. There’s a significant catch to all this good and worthy innovation and it’s been the problem since before my dim & distant relatives began smashing up Spinning Jennies in northern mill towns a couple of hundred years ago: jobs. Yes, AI will generate economic growth and employment opportunities for the few but, it is entirely conceivable that redundancy looms for the many. The additional of each robot into a production line results in the ultimate loss of six human jobs and current estimates are that a third of existing UK jobs are at threat from imminent automation. Will the fourth industrial revolution lead to even greater social division than exists today?
Don’t panic, Mr Mainwaring, the radical solution has already been developed: universal basic income. Notwithstanding tech companies current reluctance to cough-up their fair share of levied tax, UBI will allow governments to increase the scope of their welfare state based upon increased tax receipts from globalised automation. Everyone, irrespective of circumstances would receive a universal amount allowing them to live the rewarding life they warrant. Has there ever been such ‘blue-sky-thinking’ less likely to make it from the white-board to the white-collar? Free cash to support the lifestyle of your choice, willingly paid-for by Silicon Valley? The lunatics truly are running the asylum.
Call me old-fashioned but I’ve always considered undertaking meaningful work, and being rewarded and respected for it, as a universal human need. For good or bad, we remain largely defined by what we do and the removal of this right will diminish our self-worth. I’d hazard a guess that back in prehistoric times an individual’s confidence, position and status was probably determined by their role in the hunting pack or usefulness to the tribe. Removing this cannot be good for society as the creation of a non-productive ‘underclass’ can only lead to major social revolt. Artificial intelligence can be of great value but its widespread, unfettered and indiscriminate use could lead to it being society’s Pandora’s box. And the bad news for me is that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch the film in the same light, ever again!