Will a robot take my job?

As was pointed out to me on Twitter recently Betteridge’s law of headlines states that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” That’s not entirely correct, I think. In many cases, the answer is “wrong question”. At any rate, that’s how I treat it in my recent Inside Story review article, where the headline[1] is followed by the standfirst text “Three new books challenge lazy thinking about job-stealing robots and infallible algorithms”. I talked about Ellen Broad and algorithms last time. Now for Tim Dunlop and robots.

Beyond specific applications of AI, the technological progress it generates will have effects throughout the economy. Unfortunately — as happened during earlier rounds of concern about technology — the discussion has for the most part been reduced to the question, “Will a robot take my job?” Walsh and Broad both point to the simplistic nature of this reasoning.

A more comprehensive assessment of the economic and political implications of AI comes in Tim Dunlop’s The Future of Everything. (Disclosure: I’ve long admired Dunlop’s work, and I wrote an endorsement of this book.) Rather than focusing on AI, Dunlop is reacting to the intertwined effects of technological change and the dominant economic policies of the past few decades, commonly referred to as neoliberalism or, in Australia, economic rationalism.

The key problem is not that jobs will be automated out of existence. In a system dominated by the interests of capital, the real risk is that technological change will further concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the dominant elite often referred to as the 1 per cent. As Dunlop says, radical responses are needed.

The most obvious is a reduction in working hours. This has been one of the central demands of the working class since the nineteenth-century campaign for an eight-hour working day. After a century of steady progress, the trend towards shorter working hours halted, and even to some extent reversed, in the 1970s. The four decades of technological progress since then have produced no significant movement.

This is a striking illustration of the fallacy of technological determinism. Under different political and economic conditions, information and communications technology could already be providing us with the leisured life envisioned by futurists of the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, it has become a tool for keeping us tethered to the office on a 24/7/365 basis.

Closely related is the question of flexible working hours. As Dunlop observes, “flexibility” is an ambiguous term. Advocates of workplace reform praise flexibility, but what they mean is top-down flexibility, the ability of managers to control the lives of workers with as few constraints as possible. Bottom-up flexibility, the ability of workers to control their own lives, is directly opposed to this. To put it in the language of game theory, flexibility is (most of the time) a zero-sum commodity.

More radical ideas include treating data as labour and moving to collective ownership of technology. Some of the most valuable companies in the world today, including Facebook and Alphabet (owner of Google), rely almost entirely on data generated by users of the internet. “We are all working for these tech companies for free by providing our data to them in a way that allows them to hide our contribution while benefiting immensely from it,” writes Dunlop. “It is way past time that we were paid for this hidden labour, potentially using that income to offset reductions in our formal working hours.”

Dunlop suggests that taxes on the profits of tech companies could be used to finance a universal basic income, which would provide everyone with an income sufficient to live on, whether or not they were engaged in paid work.

The collective ownership of technology sounds radical, but it is, in many respects, an extension of that same argument. Increasingly, technology is embodied not in large pieces of equipment, like blast furnaces or car factories, but in information: computer code, data sets and the protocols that integrate the two. As Stewart Brand observed back in 1984, information wants to be free. In the absence of legal restrictions or secrecy, that is, a piece of information can be replicated indefinitely, without interfering with the access of those who already have it. As the cost of communications and storage drops, so does the cost of replicating and transmitting information.

Of course, there are many reasons, such as privacy, why we might want to restrict access to information. But concerns about privacy have been largely disregarded under neoliberal policies. On the other hand, strenuous efforts have been made to protect and extend “intellectual property,” the right to own information and prevent others from using it without permission. These rights, supposedly given as a reward to inventors and creators, almost invariably end up in the hands of corporations.

From this perspective, longstanding demands for workplace democracy and worker control are merging with the critique of intellectual property largely driven by technical professionals. For these workers, the realities of the information age are incompatible with the thinking behind intellectual property. As Dunlop says, worker ownership is “another way of changing how we think about technology… not just a means to a fairer society, but a demand that fundamentally changes how we understand the creation and distribution of work and wealth.”

fn1. By long-standing custom, the headline is chosen by the editor or sub-editor, and not by the author.

3 thoughts on “Will a robot take my job?

  1. Under different political and economic conditions, information and communications technology could already be providing us with the leisured life envisioned by futurists of the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, it has become a tool for keeping us tethered to the office on a 24/7/365 basis.

    Nobody is forced to check their emails 24/7, though many apparently lack the willpower not to look. What’s needed is an app that defaults to turning off work-related functions like email outside of normal work hours.

  2. The answer to the question, will a robot take my job, is no, unless everybody’s job has been automated. It seems to me it is the condition to the negative answer, which underlies the proposition, that the question is wrong and this in turn focuses the mind on society – the institutional environment. For, clearly, if all economic activity is carried out by robots, then the obvious question becomes who gets what of the ‘work’ done by the robots, assuming they do produce something that is useful like reducing ghg emissions, replanting forests, growing and processing food and distributing it, building houses, transporting people, ……

    If not everybody’s job is automated, then we are in the world of the subject matter in the body of the post. And there I agree with a lot of it. In particular I agree with getting paid for data collected by IT based corporations. At least 20 years ago if not earlier, Windows asked users to report on a problem and then tell them if their solutions or answers were useful. I must have written hundreds of messages to Microsoft asking them for payment for my work in the form of telling them what isn’t working with their Windows program. I got nowhere. So I am very pleased to note this hidden and unpaid work is now entering mainstream economic discussion.

    It is not only IT corporations that are engaging in unpaid outsourcing of work. Lawyers tell me that Council’s are relying increasingly on neighbours pointing out problems with DAs or shifting enforcement to neighbours. This is all cost shifting. (My private hypothesis is that writing glossy brochures is easier than civil and structural engineering – a bit like Mr Milne, former Chair of the ABC wanting to spend some $750,000 on hiring Kylie Menogue to promote the ABC instead of using the money for investigative journalists.)

    I don’t agree with a guaranteed minimum income as anything more than a band-aid and very short term proposition before new theoretical models of alternative income and wealth distribution have been worked out and tested, as far as possible. There are some fundamental problems with the institutional environment that can no longer be ignored.

    As a very minor point, “To put it in the language of game theory, flexibility is (most of the time) a zero-sum commodity.” is’nt quite right. It seems to me the workplace term ‘flexibility’ is not well defined to begin with and in practice what is done under this heading may often be described as a zero sum game.

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