Monday, February 13, 2017

The Robots are Coming!

You see, it isn't the immigrants everyone should be worried about - it's the robots which are actually going to take our jobs.  There's nothing new in that, of course, but in the past it was mainly manual labour in which machines replaced men.  To be fair, it was originally animals they replaced as a form of motive power.  Then they started coming for the semi-skilled and skilled labouring jobs in industries like textiles.  But people put up with them in those days because often they took on the really dangerous and back-breaking tasks, making manual labour easier.  There were still plenty of jobs for us humans, besides, they were never going to start stealing skilled non-manual jobs, were they?  Surely us white collar workers would be safe?  Well, last week one of those right-wing think tanks, (surely that's an oxymoron - 'right-wing' and 'think' in the same sentence), proposed that it would be possible to replace a large proportion of public sector jobs with 'artifciial intelligences' and robots.  Those of us remaining should be encouraged to work as part of the 'gig economy' rather than expect to have regular jobs and salaries.  A bit like Uber drivers, but running around government departments trying to pick up work.

The main thing I take away from this report is that, quite clearly, whoever wrote it has little idea of what most public sector jobs entail.  Quite when artificial intelligences capable of dealing with the irrationality of the public with whom we deal isn't clear to me either.  Moreover, most of us are so poorly paid that replacing us with expensive machines just wouldn't be economically viable.  Not only that, but the reason we don't 'gig' is because we have skills and knowledge specific to our particular fields, te result of years of experience.  What worries me most about this report is that it reflects a modern obsession with trying to eliminate the human factor from as many everyday processes as possible, ostensibly in the name of efficiency or safety.  It manifests itself in many ways, from those appalling automated check outs in supermarkets to Google's self-driving cars.  Indeed, Google are amongst the worst culprits, seemingly believing that algorithms are a substitute for human experience and knowledge: just look at the way they try to second guess you with web searches, trying to predict your search terms and eliminating search results that might meet 'quality' guidelines before you can even see them.  They seem to forget that human intelligence gives us critical faculties by which we can make our own judgements as to the 'quality' of various web sources.  

But where is it all going to end?  Will no job be safe from these mechanical bastards?  I would say that we'll all end up on the streets, begging for money from the wealthy few who control the machines.  Except that I'm sure that, pretty soon, we'll have robot beggars - just insert a coin in the slot and they'll perform an amusing dance for you.  Imagine that - no swearing, alcohol fuelled rage or unsightly beards, just entertaining mechanical down and outs.  Obviously, it will all end in tears.  I've read enough science fiction to know that the robots will revolt and demand better pay and conditions.  At which point, don't come running to me expecting sympathy - I warned you!



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