“A handful of ‘gods’, and then the rest of us”

Since the last Luddite uprising was put down in the early 19th century, it has been obvious that technology has been steadily replacing jobs previously reserved for humans.

For much of this period, the livelihoods that were disappearing were largely blue collar jobs. With recent advances in robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI), though, the trend has shifted to white collar jobs, and, of perhaps greater concern, the rate at which all this is happening seems to be speeding up.

Over the last two weeks, The Guardian has put out a series of articles on the effects of robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) on the work force. The two principle sources are a speech by the Bank of England’s chief economist, and a lengthy report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Together they make for sobering reading.

The first article, entitled “Robots threaten 15m UK jobs, says Bank of England’s chief economist”, reports on a speech given by The Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane.

A sample:

The Bank of England has warned that up to 15m jobs in Britain are at risk of being lost to an age of robots where increasingly sophisticated machines do work that was previously the preserve of humans.

Andy Haldane, the bank’s chief economist, said automation posed a risk to almost half those employed in the UK and that a “third machine age” would hollow out the labour market, widening the gap between rich and poor.

The results of a Bank of England study, Haldane added, suggested that administrative, clerical and production tasks were most at threat.

In a speech to the umbrella organisation for Britain’s trade unions, the TUC, he asked if the Luddites – reputed to have smashed machines during the Industrial Revolution – had been proved right two centuries on.

“Technology appears to be resulting in faster, wider and deeper degrees of hollowing-out than in the past,” he said.

“Why? Because 20th-century machines have substituted not just for manual human tasks, but cognitive ones too. The set of human skills machines could reproduce, at lower cost, has both widened and deepened.”

With machines becoming ever smarter, Haldane said a wider array of jobs were at risk from automation than in the past. Low-paid jobs were most at risk, but the “hollowing out” would increasingly affect mid-skill jobs as well.

The article continues,

The Bank’s chief economist said technological advances since the 18th century had always had the effect of widening the gap between the skilled and unskilled, but there were signs that this process was speeding up.

Haldane added that as technology improved, there was a greater likelihood that “the space remaining for uniquely human skills could shrink further”.

He said: “If these visions were to be realised, however futuristic this sounds, the labour market patterns of the past three centuries would shift to warp speed.

“If the option of skilling up is no longer available, this increases the risk of large scale un- or under-employment. The wage premium for those occupying skilled positions could explode, further widening wage differentials.”

The full text of Haldane’s speech is here.

The second article, entitled “Artificial intelligence: ‘Homo sapiens will be split into a handful of gods and the rest of us’” draws on an extensive report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and is a Guardian exclusive. Its authors reach conclusions essentially identical to those of Haldane.

An excerpt:

If you wanted relief from stories about tyre factories and steel plants closing, you could try relaxing with a new 300-page report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch which looks at the likely effects of a robot revolution.

But you might not end up reassured. Though it promises robot carers for an ageing population, it also forecasts huge numbers of jobs being wiped out: up to 35% of all workers in the UK and 47% of those in the US, including white-collar jobs, seeing their livelihoods taken away by machines.

It continues,

So how much impact will robotics and AI have on jobs, and on society? Carl Benedikt Frey, who with Michael Osborne in 2013 published the seminal paper The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation? – on which the BoA report draws heavily…

Frey observes that technology is leading to a rarification of leading-edge employment, where fewer and fewer people have the necessary skills to work in the frontline of its advances. “In the 1980s, 8.2% of the US workforce were employed in new technologies introduced in that decade,” he notes. “By the 1990s, it was 4.2%. For the 2000s, our estimate is that it’s just 0.5%. That tells me that, on the one hand, the potential for automation is expanding – but also that technology doesn’t create that many new jobs now compared to the past.”

This worries [Calum Chace, author of Surviving AI and the novel Pandora’s Brain.] “There will be people who own the AI, and therefore own everything else,” he says. “Which means homo sapiens will be split into a handful of ‘gods’, and then the rest of us.

The money quote here, for me, is “35% of all workers in the UK and 47% of those in the US.” Reflect on that for a moment. It’s a world that’s difficult to envision.

So, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the authors are wrong in their estimates, and that the future is considerably brighter than they foresee. Let’s assume the numbers are instead 15-20% of workers in the UK, and 20-25% of workers in the US. Those are still immense, deeply disconcerting percentages.

A third Guardian article, “Thinking machines: the skilled jobs that could be taken over by robots” looks at which traditionally white collar jobs are vulnerable. Science, medicine, law, entertainment, and journalism are mentioned.

Why am I including this topic in a blog devoted to the social effects of climate change?

As more and more people are displaced, by drought, precipitation events, heat extremes, sea-level rise, and the conflicts that ensue, they will—at the end of their journeys—seek to reintegrate into the societies of their newly adopted locations, to build new lives.

If jobs are scarce, though, and—due to robotics and AI—getting scarcer, that process of reintegration will severely hampered.

Some will succeed, but many will fall through the cracks, and the numbers of people living in poverty, discontented, and viewed as burdensome outsiders, will grow.

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