The irresistible rise of the robots

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    Consulting Scientist
  • Future of Work
  • Health & wellbeing

Artificial intelligence threatens to remove the very work that gives us purpose, status and financial security. So why, asks Derek Bates, are we plunging headfirst into the future without asking first what we stand to lose?

When people meet, almost the first question is ‘What do you do?’ Work gives us purpose, status and income to support our lifestyles and families.

But the rapid growth of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics poses a threat to employment, whether we are surgeons or labourers, shop workers or lawyers, delivery drivers or accountants. That matters hugely, not least because redundancy is one of the prime causes of feelings of emptiness and mental breakdown.

And yet on we relentlessy go. The Bank of England now says almost half of jobs are threatened by AI and robots. To take just one sector, in the UK, the number of bank branches fell from 17,840 in 1990 to less than half that by the end of 2015. And it doesn’t just hit those who lose their jobs; AI allows companies to reduce their staff until they are unable to give satisfactory service. Yet those companies’ mission statements will likely boast that their primary goal is serving the customer. Bank executives claim online banking is better. Sceptical customers will suggest its real purpose is to increase profits, bonuses, shareholder dividends and stock market value.

There are many fields where AI is beneficial: medicine is one of them. However, when we have a problem, say, with utility suppliers, then wait half an hour or more on the phone listening to Coldplay, having to endure the repeated assurance that ‘your call is important to us’, we may wonder. Then, when eventually we get to a human, we are told we have come through to the wrong department.

We know we are recorded when using the web. But not everyone is aware that mobile phones, and devices such as the Amazon Echo, even when on silent, are listening to our conversations. One recent purchaser could not get hers to work and said: ‘Alexa you’re a bitch.’ She was filled with guilt when Alexa replied, ‘That is not a nice thing to say.’

In future, we could be given a free personal robot as a servant but programmed to encourage us to buy the products of the robot suppliers. When we reach for another whisky, it could tell us we are not in a fit state to have another drink – even lock the drinks cabinet. Already, the Echo is learning to anticipate our needs and act on them without our requests. More ominous still is Themis, to be used in meetings or classrooms to sound an alarm when any politically incorrect statement or joke is made!

For every innovation there is a benign and a dark side it seems – facial recognition cameras are justified as a tool for reducing crime and terrorism, but governments might see them and AI as the means to control populations.

Robots and AI will of course be programmed by humans, supposedly so they remain our servants. But what if robots that are more intelligent than humans learn to dominate us? Of course, we hope for a benign future, where programmers will act only in our interests, and not be employed by criminals using robots to commit crimes or acts of violence.

And, of course, the algorithm designed to (to take one example) select a candidate for a job will have been devised by a human analyst who may build in a bias against, say, Oxbridge graduates or people of colour. A robot, let’s call him Robert, coded with responsibility for reducing climate change might soon conclude the following:

Central heating and air conditioning should only be used when health is at risk. Humans should only eat plant-based foods. Property is underused so no new buildings should be constructed. Homeless people and asylum seekers should be housed with home owners and every room should have at least two occupiers. Water and food should be rationed and the resulting surplus sent to the hungry millions in underdeveloped countries. Entertainment must only be via digital transmission.

Meanwhile another robot, programmed for human happiness, might oppose Robert with physical violence.

The situation is like thousands of builders designing new and different bricks while we have no one capable of devising the building where they will be used.

Some of us want to stop the progress of AI but it is too late to ask for our freedom back. Too many people, universities and business organisations see it as a money spinner. There may well be rioting against AI but it will be as ineffective as Luddism in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

To cope with the revolutions we face, we must undergo the most dramatic cultural and social change ever. The biggest enemy for many of us will be boredom as we live like the aristocrats who had servants to tend to their every need and were so bored that they filled their lives with excess consumption. For the less fortunate, there will be increased poverty.

And even if we are lucky enough to be one of those idle rich – what will we do when we are without the work where we met many of our friends, lovers and future partners?

The advertising industry works on the basis that we are selfish creatures, wanting to demonstrate that we are doing better than our contemporaries by wearing designer clothes, living in better houses, driving better cars. In reality we all have well-developed selfless natures. The Swedish blood transfusion service encouraged donors to give more blood by paying them – the opposite happened, blood donations dropped but returned to the original level when payments were withdrawn.

It is this side of our personalities which we must develop. In future, we will have time to work with those who are lonely, lacking in sustenance and living in poverty. Instead of rushing to a future no one understands; we should now be debating internationally what future we want for mankind.

Derek Bates is a consulting scientist. He is the author of the novels Shadows in the Wall and Dance in an Empty Room and the non-fiction book Agenda for the Future

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  • Hi Derek, yes we live in challenging times. However, tech and new methods are not new. It can become painful. I've seen the last steel mill at Consett, the last ship launched on the Weir. ATM's introduced in Banking etc. AI is not new (1988 was my earliest). However the pace of creating a digital equivalent of the physical world is causing potential harm to many. The like button introduced by Facebook and retweet by Twitter in 2009 has caused untold harm, increased suicides and body issues for many, especially young women and girls. So I think its wider than just the Robots. One initiative I have become aware of is https://corporatedigitalresponsibility.net/ , it impacts all business and not for profit organisations. Ethics and responsibility e.g. retraining those individuals impacted, how do you regulate (self regulate) and stop bad actions (will Facebook ever remove the like button?).Much is about ensuring this is at C level accountability not left with the techies (as it often has been) - i would welcome to meet and discuss with other Fellows on this and to include in a digital innovation initiative i am working on with a few others. Lastly and especially with public sector e.g. health, is there not a moral case to ensure you run all services not just fairly but also as efficiently as possible (public money)- circa 40% of DR diagnosis are wrong, if you can reduce that with a common decision 'bot' and it's in the patients interest - isn't it morally wrong not to automate (or augment the human decision).

  • This is excellent - I am working on similar thinking in the healthcare area www.openclinical.net and www.care-enabler.co.uk - Derek I have sent an e-m hoping we can meet at The House to discuss and take forward. Im sure many other Fellows could contribute to how RSA has much to offer in terms of implementing beneficial change! (disruptive change is OK if managed better!)

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