robots and automation

Robots and automation: threat or opportunity?

Andy O’Kelly


The public discourse on technology, and robots in particular, has been getting gloomy of late. A lot of the anxiety is coming from people who have to date been optimistic about technology, and have prospered from its proliferation.

In ‘Player Piano’, published in 1952, Kurt Vonnegut pokes fun at a post-War society where automation devalues human work, and engineering and management are the only remaining positions of status and power.

The novel was partly inspired by his job in General Electric at the time. “Player Piano was my response to the implications of having everything run by little boxes,” said Vonnegut in interview. “The idea of doing that, you know, made sense, perfect sense. To have a little clicking box make all the decisions wasn’t a vicious thing to do. But it was too bad for the human beings who got their dignity from their jobs.”

The manifesto of inevitable revolution towards which the novel and its hapless hero irrevocably slides states:

“Without regard for the wishes of men, any machines or techniques or forms of organization that can economically replace men do replace men. Replacement is not necessarily bad, but to do it without regard for the wishes of men is lawlessness. Without regard for the changes in human life patterns that may result, new machines, new forms of organization, new ways of increasing efficiency, are constantly being introduced. To do this without regard for the effects on life patterns is lawlessness.”

Automation marches on

The higher the saving from automating a workload is, the greater the business incentive to automate it. A 2016 report by McKinsey estimated that 45% of the activity that people are paid to perform in the US could be automated. The report also provided a graphic (recommended to anyone filling out their CAO application) that showed the technical feasibility of this by sector. A recent article in the New Yorker asked us to “Picture the entire Industrial Revolution compressed into the lifespan of a beagle” and considered the ensuing impact on workers as ‘techno-feudalism’.

Vonnegut’s prediction is here, and it does appear to be lawless. The global consequences of jobs across every vertical being automated as a result of business decisions driven by technology-accelerated competition are profound. If a recession is when someone else is unemployed while a depression is when you are unemployed, what do we call it if (when?) the level of work displaced by automation reaches or exceeds that McKinsey 45%?

The technology that underpins automation is Artificial Intelligence. In 2015 a group including Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk signed a short Open Letter on the topic. Having noted that work to date has been “neutral with respect to purpose”, the group urged that “our AI systems must do what we want them to”. The group stressed inter-disciplinary co-operation in the area of AI, with input from the fields of philosophy, computer security and economics.

Does Government have a role to play in the evolution of robots?

In the area of economics, questions are beginning to be asked about the implications of robots on the tax base, with Gates recently weighing in to call out the obvious budgetary gap presented by the replacement of income tax-generating jobs with cost-cutting automation. Given his credentials as tycoon and technologist, Gates’s view that the pace of automation should be checked – and more importantly that it should be an area where Government gets directly engaged in policy and management of societal change – merits attention. He suggests a tax on robots. In response, former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis proposed socialising the property rights of automation, to pay citizens a universal basic dividend on its use.

Given the challenges already apparent in harmonising tax legislation globally, these ideas might be interesting but are hardly moving towards execution at anything close to the pace of automation. If Governments are to intervene with a view to cutting costs and improving service levels of public sector IT, how will they reconcile their objectives with those of technology entrepreneurs, for whom disruption is often considered their route to business success?

At the upcoming eGovernment Summit at eir HQ on 26th May, I’m looking forward to discussions and debate around the area of AI and the Government’s role in its progression. Find out more about the eGovernment Summit and Awards.