At the Hannover Messe robotics fair in Germany yesterday, UK company Mobey Robotics launched the world’s first robot chef, capable of watching and mimicking the kitchen skills of a human chef and recreating them with superhuman consistency. There is already a restaurant in Soho with touch-screen tables where you can place your order and pay your bill, and restaurants in Japan where robotic waiters serve food. As these new technologies become cheaper and more widely available, they are likely to replace the need for human labour in restaurants altogether.
If you find this a bit unlikely, remember that we’ve already accepted robots at the supermarket checkout, the airport check-in, the train station, the cinema and the bank. Start-up culture is expressly geared towards what it calls disruption, which chiefly involves identifying redundancies in existing systems and working out how to replace them. The more jobs lost the better.
Agriculture and manufacturing jobs now tend to exist in countries where the labour force is willing to work below the cost of a machine capable of performing the same function. With robots like the hyper-dextrous Baxter (an ‘alternative to outsourced labour’ capable of working non-stop twenty-four hour shifts) now available to buy for less than £20,000, repetitive manual jobs everywhere will become a thing of the past fairly soon.
There is nothing new about technological unemployment. Since the loom-smashing weavers of the early nineteenth century, Luddites everywhere have decried the deletion of human jobs by machine automation. It is a persistent feature of any technological society that human workers pay the price for increased efficiency, with the benefits accruing back to the owners.
Traditionally, technological innovation has been seen as part of social and economic progress, with more jobs created over the long run than are lost in the first wave of human redundancies. It is often argued too that only menial, repetitive jobs are lost, and that the increased productivity leads to higher incomes and new forms of employment.
But are we reaching a point that John Maynard Keynes predicted back in 1930, with ‘our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour’? After all, it isn’t only low-skilled work that machines are learning to perform.
Word processors, spreadsheets, and email have already replaced the Sisyphean clerk-work that dominated twentieth-century office life. A venture capital fund in Hong Kong has appointed an algorithm to its board of directors with equal voting powers to its human counterparts.
IBM’s Watson can understand a patient’s reported symptoms and run an instant search of medical data to provide highly accurate diagnoses. Medical robots already analyse blood samples and perform certain kinds of surgery with great precision.
Law offices are emptying out as sophisticated search bots replace researchers and paralegals. The trading floor scrums of the 1980s have been replaced by enormous banks of servers which make buying and selling decisions a thousand times faster than any human. In journalism, sports and financial reports are already written by computers, which automatically search for results and write them up in natural language.
A UN conference taking place this week is debating the future of Lethal autonomous weapons systems (under the unbelievable acronym Laws), hoping to agree on how development of ‘killer robots’ can be controlled.
As more and more jobs at all levels of the economy are automated, what kind of society are we creating? Keynes predicted that automation would create the conditions for us all to enjoy a fifteen-hour work week. This hasn’t materialised, but with the pace of innovation increasing, the future of work is highly uncertain.
Will we all become artisan designers of 3D-printed trinkets and sell them to one another, fulfilling Napoleon’s rebuke of our nation des boutiquiers? Will something like Natalie Bennett’s widely derided citizen’s income become a necessary solution to a world in which only a tiny fraction of the population is needed in productive work? The LSE’s David Graeber fears that we may be heading blindly towards a new techno-feudalism. Let’s hope he’s wrong.