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The Rise of the Robotic Workforce

Kiran Daurka and Yavnik Ganguly, of Leigh Day's employment law team, examine the possible implications of advances in robotics and artificial intelligence on the future workforce.

Posted on 21 September 2017

Amongst the numerous cliffs of uncertainty that humanity currently appears to be on the verge of, one of the most widely discussed phenomena must certainly be the acceleration in technological development, specifically how technological advances will affect the workforce. 

Last Wednesday (13 September 2017), during BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Nick Robinson broadcasted from San Francisco to interview different academics and professionals in Silicon Valley, the global hub of start-up culture where exciting and controversial technology is burgeoning. The interviewees had varying opinions on the potential of new technology and artificial intelligence, and varying predictions on how the workforce would be affected by them.

This week the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) released a report titled 'The age of automation: artificial intelligence, robotics and the future of low-skilled work' which was largely optimistic that new technology would cause minimal disruption to employment within the UK.  The RSA supposed that, if used correctly and invested in properly, modern technology and artificial intelligence will be instrumental to solving other looming issues that humanity is facing. In stark contrast, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, claims that job disruption will be much more devastating as robots will eventually become more sophisticated than human beings in every way.

The fear of technology destroying jobs is not new. Throughout modern civilisation, the struggle between workers and more efficient technology has persisted, but recent showcases of sophistication in technology have added fresh frenzy to the discourse.

In October 2016 in Colorado USA, a self-driving truck successfully conducted a commercial shipment, travelling 120 miles to deliver 50,000 beer cans. Amazon have just recently launched ‘Amazon Go’ stores, which use ‘just walk out’ technology to enable customers to simply grab items off of shelves and walk out with no checkout process; the items are charged to their Amazon account through their phones. 

It is hard not to predict that technologies such as these will have devastating effects on service industry employment. However, the frenzy does not stop at clerical and labour jobs. With data analysis systems getting smarter, ‘academic’ jobs are also under apparent threat (including within the legal sector). The risk of a job being replaceable by technology is no longer measured by whether it is ‘blue collar’ manual labour, but rather by the extent to which the role consists of routine activities

In previous technological revolutions (the industrial revolution, the digital revolution) it has always been the case that, although jobs are lost through redundancy, new jobs are created surrounding the new technology and the economy evolves. The question that economists and scientists alike are wrestling with is whether the current technological revolution we appear to be in is the same as we have previously seen.

Unlike previous turning points in technological advancement, new technology will have a broader impact, affecting many sectors of employment as opposed to a select few. Further, the process of replacement may be much less gradual than we have witnessed in the past, as software can be implemented swiftly and easily. 

There have been a number of possible solutions  proposed in the event that a large class of unemployed workers arises, due to technology making large swathes of the employed population redundant. It should be noted that this future is not merely imaginative science fiction, there are academics in the field of artificial intelligence and technology who believe that technology can reach such a level of sophistication in the not-too-distant future that an unemployed class could be a reality.  

In April 2017, the International Bar Association published a lengthy report called ‘Artificial Intelligence and Robotics and their Impact on the Workplace’, putting forth law and policy that should be considered to ensure a fair society is sustained in the face of technology affecting employment. The report is wide in scope, covering how the working environment itself will be transformed with the introduction of certain technologies, as well as discussing how working time may be affected in the technology-platform economy that is emerging. 

In regards to addressing the possibility of inequality and mass unemployment caused by technological advancements, the report puts forward two notable suggestions: human quotas and unconditional basic income.

Human Quotas 

This would involve the state deciding which jobs should only be performed by humans; the report gives the example of caring for children. A further discussion needs to be had about which jobs should not be performed solely by technology or artificial intelligence on ethical grounds, even if they technically have capability.

There are certain jobs which entail making decisions over human life that should always involve the ultimate discretion falling with human beings. The report gives the example of the dangers of autonomous weapon systems malfunctioning, and that decisions to perform fatal strikes should always fall with a human using weapons such as drone technology. This idea that there should always be a ‘human in the loop’ should be reflected in domestic law and policy, in regards to technology used to police domestic populations. 

Even outside life and death decisions, decisions regarding how humans should be treated or punished should always be made by humans. The report points to new technology being used to analyse contracts to save lawyers from unnecessary reviewing, and artificial intelligence systems that have analysed European Court of Human Rights judgments and predicted future outcomes of cases with 79% accuracy. There needs to be a discussion about the extent to which advanced technology can participate in discourses of justice and fairness in situations involving human life.

Unconditional Basic Income

Perhaps the most notable suggestion the report makes is a policy of unconditional basic income for the unemployed class to enable them to buy basic goods needed to live. The concept of unconditional basic income (UBI) is accepted as one solution to the issue of vast unemployment by many in the modern technology community, RSA also co-sign it in their new report. This is a problematic solution for a number of reasons. Firstly, it does not provide an answer to the lack of purpose that many of the unemployed class may feel, because many people find work to be a large part of their identity and self-worth.

The biggest problem with this idea is that it leaves a significant percentage of the population vulnerable to abuse. The employment rights law, in the United Kingdom and around the world, has developed in large part due to workers protesting for better working conditions and fairer wages. These workers were able to protest because they were needed by their employers. The most worrying aspect of the possibility of an ‘unemployed class’ emerging due to technological advancement, is that a significant section of the population will be redundant to the economy. In such circumstances, it is possible that the unemployed receiving unconditional basic income would be at the whim of governments and powerful private organisations. The amount of income they would receive would be at the sole discretion of the provider, and those receiving would have no power to negotiate or protest for their rights over the income or perhaps even their rights overall.

Other suggestions

The report makes a few other suggestions, including retraining workers with the most vulnerable jobs and ensuring students are taught skills which would make them employable in the new market. 

The report also proposes taxing businesses for their use of robots. One has to consider whether these taxes would be an effective deterrent when weighed against the fact that businesses will not have to pay as many workers’ salaries, and can work robots for longer hours with fewer benefits. 

The report also suggests introducing ‘made by humans’ labels, bearing likeness to fair trade identification, to distinguish products made by humans from those made by robots. This will enable consumers to buy ‘ethically’ in support of employing humans, although the products will undoubtedly be more expensive to account for the salaries of the workers. 

The role technology will play in the future could depend largely on consumers being aware of what businesses they support, and consumers deciding their position on the use of robots and advanced technology in different situations. Using the example of Amazon Go, which minimizes human interaction with clerks and shop assistants, does this really improve the shopping experience? 

Perhaps once these stores become commonplace in society, people will start asking themselves whether interacting with humans less increases their satisfaction. Does efficiency always equate with happiness? Does comfort always amount to fulfilment? Is technological advancement necessarily progress in all circumstances? These discussions will have to be had throughout all sectors of society as the horizons of technological possibility expand.

 (This article was made by humans.)