If an automated future is inevitable how will we take charge of the robots (ethically)?

As a techno optimist I ran headlong into developing stuff on the internet, convinced that we were doing ‘good’. 20 some years later the results I would say are mostly good. However, fake news and cyber warfare are giving my optimism a beating. No more so than in the cry of ‘automation will take our jobs and leave humanity destitute’.

One scarier scenario I read on a blog that I can’t find now suggested that the elite would invest in automation. Then the one per cent would control the rest of us via these robots. Since reading this I have been torn by two questions. My ‘lefty’ side is asking how do we reorganise work and governance to ensure the future is fair and my alter ego is desperate to know how do I become the one per cent in an automated future?

In this piece, I work through these two questions...in the hope of gaining some sanity...

The basics - what do we mean by automation?

The term is applied to any replacement of a human task by a machine-enabled task. The idea has been around since antiquity. The Robots exhibited in the science machine shows machines dating back hundreds of years. In reality it was the automation of the car manufacturing process by Henry Ford that started the search for all things automated from fast food to driving.

Open and closed automation; who is in control?

There are two types of automation control. Open and closed. Open requires ‘settings’ by an external entity, for example, manually setting the temperature on a boiler, which then automatically switches on and off. Closed systems self-regulate, adjusting the program to regulate its rules. A bizarre example of this is when bots edit other bots on Wikipedia and end up in fully- fledged war over page updates.

So it appears that automation is already here and we can confirm this in tasks such as cleaning, driving and investing.

If the automation has been around forever why all the outcry now?

The building of the internet has given rise to jobs that didn’t exist before. At the same time we are seeing certain types of jobs disappearing. This may seem normal to us technologists who have adapted from punch card to mainframes to home computers, frequently reinventing our roles. For example, take journalism, Oxford University research suggests it isn’t very likely to be replaced by a machine in the near future. Yet, a few years ago, NPR set a challenge for a robot to race a journalist and, besides a few clever word choices, the difference between the two sources were negligible, although the robot was much faster.

So maybe it is just that journalists are now noticing. Or maybe it is because the technology has changed?

Over at SXSW last month the debate was all around how AI-enabled machines would take over. I am not convinced that AI has changed that much since we studied it in our computing courses. Companies such as Blueprism who spoke at the BCS HQ late last year reinforce that view for me. However, I concede that the availability and ability to process complex data, which is all around us, has certainly advanced.

So, if we can’t point to technology trends, let’s check out what the experts are saying (just not Michael Gove). Studies over the last few years by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne examined the probability of computerisation for 702 occupations and suggest that 35 per cent of the workforce for Britain are in danger of automation, but this is higher in countries like America and Japan who have less ‘creative jobs’.

The realistic view

The Economist suggests that the truth is somewhere in the middle between ‘pessimists (many of them techie types), who say this time is different and machines really will take all the jobs, or the optimists (mostly economists and historians), who insist that, in the end, technology always creates more jobs than it destroys.’

That sounds to me as if we humans will need to adapt to the change that automation is bringing and this is our chance to suggest an exciting and fair vision of the future to channel my inner optimist. Be part of the one per cent. Ensure technology is good and make the BCS proud (it is our motto after all).

Tax the robots to fund human adaptation?

One suggestion for a fair society was put forward by the European Union last summer and supported by Bill Gates. Tax the robot owners. No really. The idea was ultimately rejected, but I suspect there will a few similar proposals, so watch this space.

Life-long education

The idea is that the tax would pay for retraining workers who lose their jobs. This space of retraining is worth looking at closely. Humans are living longer and will need to adapt as work changes. Things like apprenticeships (BCS is involved), which will be funded in the UK by a levy on business, are set to change how young people are prepared for work or how older workers learn new schools.

We shouldn’t consider just work. Humans hopefully will have more leisure time when things are automated. Humans might use this time to learn. We see this with popular apps such as the gameified language learning Duolingo or the popularity of online crosswords at the Times. We, at Tido, for example, help people play music with a fabulously tactile iPad app.

To be part of the one per cent it is certainly worth looking at the learning market more closely.

The artisanal entrepreneur

Also called the 'flat white economy', by author Douglas McWilliams, these are also worth watching closely. Small niche companies that focus on skill or craft can be seen across the world. Propelled by the financial crisis of 2008 these companies are enabled by the internet, but run locally.

At a recent Fabian debate on the high street and retailers, we talked about how the local strategies could help market towns around Britain recapture their local community. This would augment the rise the big American technology companies such as Amazon.

I recently advised Walking Red, a leading mobile on demand beauty and fitness service. What I love about this digital start-up is how they picked plug and play services to get the company of the ground. The company is playing to its strengths and automating areas like marketing and sales.

My one per cent strategy will be to watch these online retail and marketing technology sectors carefully. I see technologies take business to the first million, and help multi-million businesses, but the mid-tier is missing. I agree with the Fabians, a little help is needed to give all businesses a level playing field.

The digital nomad

Which is sometimes called the portfolio life-style. Think George Osborne. This is my world. I am writing this from an airport in Dubai working remotely for a client in Swindon and another in London who want me to meet some people online, based in Mumbai. We are a generation of people who have a range of jobs that we can do remotely.

Technology such as Dropbox, Slack, Basecamp, and a productivity enhancer that I am designing currently, are all brilliant technologies. This space will be disrupted again with AI. As companies experiment with automated scheduling and various tasks that we used to do, the key will be to be creative in the processes.

My guess the one per cent of the future will certainly be one of these types of technology owners in the Forbes list. It would be wonderful if more companies were home-spun, embedding our equality values into the software.

To conclude

Is the threat real? Yes, we live in changing times. My research has taken me from pessimism to optimism. There are a lot of pit-falls that I have not mentioned, but let us focus on the optimistic side.

Where should invest our time and money? In my opinion invest in technologies that enable learning, the artisanal entrepreneur or the remote worker. Look to our changing political landscape to ensure these technologies are fair(ly treated).

About the author

Kavita Bcs(Hons) Msc MBCS is a programmer, software designer and technology strategist. Although she has won a BAFTA she isn’t a Bollywood star, yet! She looks after Asia strategy for Tido Music, is CEO for What’sMySize, and a published author and a charity trustee for CORECIC. She has previously held positions at London 2012 and at Channel 4 television. kavitakapoor.org

 

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