As a teenager, I was fond of reading science fiction novels, and soon I realized that one of the most common types of stories approached in this futuristic genre of literature were tales about the struggles between robots and machines. As the great American mythologist Joseph Campbell would say, those narratives were our modern myths, expressing some of the fears and anxieties of our contemporary times:
“The modern myth has to do with machines, airshots, the size of the universe, it’s got to do with what we’re living with.”
Joseph Campbell, who was a close friend of George Lucas, the producer of Star Wars, and a great story teller, used to ask his students the fundamental question arising from these stories which was if the machine would control humanity or the other way around.
But if a world dominated by the machine used to pertain exclusively to the world of novels and films, it seems like such a scenario is not the case anymore, as technology and “robots” are already ubiquitously present in our world in unimaginable ways.
Recently a new report published by Nesta, the UK leading Agency for Innovation, entitled ” Our work here is done. Visions of a robot economy” addresses how the phenomenon of new robot technologies, will affect the economy, and our conception of what work is. The book, edited by Stian Westlake, maps what are the challenges for society of a new type of economical paradigm that is runned by robots. As Stian Westlake writes, what used to be a fiction, is now a reality:
“Now, as self driving cars take to the streets, and robots fill our warehouses and factories, it is entering mainstream political debate around the world.”
The crucial question remains to think how society can use these new technologies to the benefit of all, and through what strategies, what kind of political decisions, cultural norms and economic choices. The book has contributions from various authors, coming from an array of disciplines, such as economics, engineering, history philosophy and innovation studies. The author try to respond through various angles, to what the author calls as the “Robots Hypothesis” that links in a single question two powerful facts of the world of today: the rapid advance of IT and the exponential growth of inequality.
The Robots Hypothesis asks : “if robots are learning how to do the work once done by humans, will their work destroy jobs, to make the rich richer and the poor poorer?”
One should be aware though that “robot” stands for something that does´t correspond anymore to a tin-man, as the one following Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”. Nick Hawes that contributed to the book with an essay, who is a lecturer in Intelligent Robotics at the University of Birmingham, defines a robot as ” a machine that automates a physical task”. For example, a software that analyses a blood test, can thus be called a robot.
Robot Economy and Inequality
The most haunting fear arising from a scenario of a world “dominated” by robots is the one of labour. What will happen with labour if robots do the work of humans ? How will humans earn a living ? Can the automated devices be the ones responsible for the rise of inequality and the destruction of the middle class that we experience today ?
During the 2000s, economists began reflecting on the effect of machines on labour markets and how technologies can promote inequality in various studies, discovering that the jobs more likely to be replaced by technology were the routine works, that used to be tendentialy middle-income ones, pointing out that what would remain were the “lousy” jobs or the “lovely” ones. One decade after, recent studies conducted by Oxford University suggest that 47 percent of American jobs, and 36 percent in the UK, might disappear, due to the innovations happening in technology. A deep fall in the earned wages of white color professions is a clear indication to all of us, of the striking evidence of this reality and how technology is contributing to the erosion of the middle class.
But are we to blame only robots ? Some enthusiasts about the robots economics, such as Tim Worstall remind us that “we work to live, not live to work” and consider that the disappearance of many loathsome routine jobs, might give space to new type of jobs, certainly more fulfilling. Others point out how inequality pertains to other causes, such as the ones suggested by the recent book written by Thomas Piketty, entitled Capital in The Twenty First Century, that in an incredible work of scholarship showed how inequality results from financialization of economy and other social and economical choices that perpetuate old ways of accumulating capital in the same few hands, generation after generation.
“The robots economics”, is approached in the book in four sections. The first sections, entitled : “the economics of a robot future”, assembles three articles written by various authors, that predict what will be the challenges to a society that increasingly relies on robots to its functioning, analyzing what will happen with work. The second section maps what are the technological possibilities, mapping some of the most striking innovations already here. The third section reviews the history of robots in fiction and how these have constructed a vision for the future and anticipated some of the problems we are living now. The fourth section, entitled robots and justice, addresses the ethical questions that society needs to face, in a world dominated by a robots economics.
These sections will be reviewed in the second part of this article that will be published tomorrow.
Additional resource: Ted Talk talk describing a futuristic (or already here!) robot society, given by Robin Hanson, who is a Professor of Economics at the George Mason University in the US and a researcher at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. He is an expert on prediction markets and the social implications of future technologies, e.g. artificial intelligence and nano-technology and their influence on the economy and society.
Maria Fonseca is the Editor and Infographic Artist for IntelligentHQ. She is also a thought leader writing about social innovation, sharing economy, social business, and the commons. Aside her work for IntelligentHQ, Maria Fonseca is a visual artist and filmmaker that has exhibited widely in international events such as Manifesta 5, Sao Paulo Biennial, Photo Espana, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Joshibi University and many others. She concluded her PhD on essayistic filmmaking , taken at University of Westminster in London and is preparing her post doc that will explore the links between creativity and the sharing economy.