The rise of the robots need not spell downfall for humans
We shouldn’t be afraid of the technological revolution. A politics that engages with it, rather than playing catch-up, can ensure it benefits us all.
The robots are coming. They’re going to take your job and destroy your life – and there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s the hype: we are facing a dystopian future in which human labour is about to be rendered obsolete. The announcement last week that a robot had been granted Saudi Arabian citizenship – a gimmick, admittedly – was nevertheless reported as yet another step in the direction of our much-anticipated demise.
I am a tech evangelist. I like to say I went into politics for exactly the same reason I went into engineering, two decades earlier: to make the world work better, for everyone.
It’s true that we are going through a period of intense technological change, with data, algorithms and automation uniting to revolutionise much of what we currently take for granted. That is not hype – it’s for real. As we live and breathe, we excrete data trails that giant web crawlers digest into business opportunities that neither we nor our government can grasp. Brains far bigger than ours are working to replicate everything we do, whether it’s kicking a football or empathising with a sick friend.
Yes, there is a chance that all these changes will end up making our lives worse. That future generations will inhabit a surveillance society in which humans are controlled by jailers they have bought – smartphones – while an army of slave robots maintains a narrow elite in extravagant luxury.
But it does not have to be that way. There are choices to be made, and we can make them well – if, instead of running scared, we face up to the responsibilities of this new era.
In other words, we need to establish a social compact that defines our relationship with technology. It should start with the question: who is in charge?
For instance, is it ever appropriate for an algorithm to take an important decision about a human without a right of appeal by that human? US teachers who are performance-managed by algorithm are not allowed see the “commercially sensitive” basis for its decisions. That, to me, offends both employment and civil rights.
And shouldn’t we put people in charge of their own data too, so it’s not a commodity to be bought and sold but an agent of empowerment and a source of income? As the digital economy bill goes through parliament, the Labour team is looking at an individual copyright model for data ownership.
Bill Gates and Elon Musk have spoken favourably of a robot tax to ensure the dividends from increased productivity are shared. I am all for the fair distribution of wealth, but I hope there is a more effective solution than a robot poll tax. We need to incentivise businesses – and governments – to invest in people as well as machines. At the moment, in this country, after the age of 24 you are effectively abandoned to autodidacticism – there is no such thing as free education for adults. Of course that puts people at a disadvantage, when robots can be reprogrammed at will. But human programming is so much more versatile and valuable. The model has to be one of assisted rather than purely artificial intelligence.
People have an amazing ability to create fulfilling work for other people. I don’t think that capacity is anywhere near exhausted. If we can build the right system of rules and responsibilities around technology, we can rise with the robots, not fall below them.
If we get ahead of the game as a nation, we will be able to set an example to the world of how people can be the winners when the power of innovation is placed at their service. It is striking that the world of Blade Runner 2049, like that of its predecessor, has a police force but no government. The first industrial revolution took place before working men and women had the vote. It took decades before its rewards were effectively distributed. Let’s make the robotic revolution different.
• Chi Onwurah is shadow minister for industrial strategy
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