Should we fear the rise of the 'machines'?
Writing on The Guardian's website last week eminent economist Robert Skidelsky considered the impact that automation is likely to have on wages and employment in the next few decades.
Professor Skidelsky acknowledges that intelligent machines including robots and the use of technology increasingly based on software that can take 'intuitive' decisions will reduce the demand for human beings. His analysis seeks to answer the question as to what will be the typical working pattern for people who exist in a world that is increasingly dominated by machines.
There is no doubt that such machines will play an increasingly dominant role in our everyday lives. For those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 70s we live in a world that would have seemed futuristic and, of course, unthinkingly use devices that featured on that wonderful BBC TV programme Tomorrow's World which ran for 38 years between 1965 and 2003.
There was a sense that new technology and computers would liberate us from the mundane chores and allow greater freedom to do the things that we enjoyed in our leisure time.
This chimed in with a zeitgeist that with sufficient ingenuity and investment science and technology was capable of achieving almost anything; exemplified most obviously by the 'space race' between the USA and the USSR which, of course, was won by the former who got a man on the moon by 1969.
There were, as always, voices of caution who suggested that the new wave of technology and computers would lead to job losses as had been the case by the Luddites who fought so violently to resist the use of machines in textile mills.
Anyone familiar with car production in the 1960s and 70s and who visits a modern factory will be struck by the massive reduction in people employed.
Many tasks are now routinely carried out by machines that can achieve continuous output within levels of tolerance that are almost impossible for a human being.
The build quality of even the cheapest model is superb. It is to be noted that it is now much less likely that you someone living in Birmingham will be employed in the automotive sector.
So, the belief by some commentators that robots and computers will replace many of the occupations which still require human input and intervention should, as Professor Skidelsky recommends, cause us to think about skills required by workers of the future (and how we educate future generations).
Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine makes a prediction that within a century it is highly likely that 70% of jobs currently carried out using human effort will be replaced by automation. He bases his assumption on the fact that 200 years ago 70% of Americans lived and worked on the farm. Now, he explains, because of automation, only 1% of Americans do so.
As Kelly recognises, even though what he describes as a 'second wave of automation' will result in the replacement of not just the traditional manual aspects of work but, utilising 'artificial cognition, cheap sensors, machine learning, and distributed smarts', be used to carry out knowledge-based work.
Skidelsky explains that even in China, where labour is still comparatively inexpensive, there is increasing automation using robots.
Foxconn which makes the iPad has decalred its intention to have a fully automated plant within a decade.
Though there will not be grounds to criticise Apple on the way that people are believed to be exploited by Foxconn it does also beg the question as to what will those people currently employed at Foxconn will do when their services are no longer required?
Kelly contends that the potential for increasing automation will probably consist of using robots in ways that are far more innovative than they currently tend to be (carrying out routine operations).
So, he suggests, there is a likelihood of robots dispensing prescriptions in pharmacies, cleaning after hours and that increasingly they will be used to replace those employed to driver trucks, taxis.
Undountedly the potential for automation is almost limitless.
Significantly, though, Kelly argues, it is the inroad into 'white-collar' professions that we will see the most radical change:
We already have artificial intelligence in many of our machines; we just don't call it that. Witness one piece of software by Narrative Science that can write newspaper stories about sports games directly from the games' stats or generate a synopsis of a company's stock performance each day from bits of text around the web. Any job dealing with reams of paperwork will be taken over by bots, including much of medicine. Even those areas of medicine not defined by paperwork, such as surgery, are becoming increasingly robotic. The rote tasks of any information-intensive job can be automated. It doesn't matter if you are a doctor, lawyer, architect, reporter, or even programmer: The robot takeover will be epic.
Interestingly Kelly provides a summary of the way in which he believes that jobs will change.
So, in terms of existing jobs there are those that we (humans) can do but machines will eventually do better. Then there are jobs that we cannot do, perhaps because they are too hazardous, which machines can achieve.
But, like any good futurologist Kelly peculates on new jobs that may emerge.
In terms of jobs that may be created by automation Kelly believes these to be the 'greatest genius' of the robot takeover. As he rightly points out, our imagination is limitless and there will be products and services available in the future that we cannot yet even consider (like our grandparents would never have imagined the use of hand-held devices to communicate with others almost literally anywhere on the planet).
He passionately believes that automation and technology provides us with ways of developing novel ideas and innovative products:
It is a safe bet that the highest-earning professions in the year 2050 will depend on automations and machines that have not been invented yet. That is, we can't see these jobs from here, because we can't yet see the machines and technologies that will make them possible. Robots create jobs that we did not even know we wanted done.
Kelly also speculates on new occupations which, at first, only we can do but which eventually may be taken over by clever machines that, using artificial intelligence, can think for themselves.
This of course, becomes the stuff of nightmare visions such as seen in The Terminator films where the machines develop their own algorithms for sentience and, potentially decide they no longer need human beings!
This sort of apocalyptic musing is, I would hope, simply science fiction.
More worrying in the immediate future is the fact that increasing automation will, as Professor Skidelsky points out, result in fewer jobs for all concerned.
This is the message contained in a book written by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy (published by Digital Frontier Press, 2012).
Based on their research at the MIT Center for Digital Business Brynjolfsson and McAfee show that whilst technological advances and innovation in artificial intelligence have undoubtedly provided us with significant benefit (certainly in developed countries), many workers are being left behind in terms of their skills and potential to earn.
As Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue it is incumbent on society - especially through what is taught to the current and future generations - to ensure that they have the ability to cope with and, more crucially, embrace the 'waves' of innovative change that will continue to occur; the authors of his book assert that technological progress is 'accelerating'.
Professor Skidelsky's analysis is that unemployment is inevitable and that we should be willing to redefine what the purpose of work really is and that any additional wealth which is created should be redistributed to ensure that we place greater societal emphasis on leisure and family:
Rather than try to repel the advance of the machine, which is all that the Luddites could imagine, we should prepare for a future of more leisure, which automation makes possible. But, to do that, we first need a revolution in social thinking.
I fear that Skidelsky's advice will not be heeded and that there will be even greater demarcation between those who have access to technology and the ability to use it to their advantage and those who do not have access and, as a consequence of being excluded fall further behind in terms of wealth and their skill base.