By having technology replace human labour, the production of essentials will free up swathes of the workforce. Source: Shutterstock

TEDx: Androids must control the means of production

“Facing Your Fear: Three Steps To Surviving The Robot Revolution”

THAT WAS the title of a TEDx talk given yesterday by Charles Radclyffe, a successful digital entrepreneur and tech industry consultant and commentator. Or, as one un-named detractor would have it, a “tech communist”.

With the (often ill-conceived) scare stories permeating through mainstream media regarding robotics, technology, nanotech and artificial intelligence, it’s easy to come away with portents of doom: technology will overtake us and either destroy us or subjugate us.

It’s refreshing, then, to hear from someone who’s both a businessperson and more than something of an expert in technology – for such is Radclyffe. His ideas about the future of technology in general and robotics and automation in the future are positive and uplifting.

The headline three steps to surviving (read “embracing”) our robotic (read “technological”) future are fairly simple in outline, but deeply fascinating to explore:

Step one: acknowledge that through technology, we will, in the main, become unemployed; machines will do all the work which doesn’t specifically rely on the human touch.

Step two: reimagine the economics of the future. How will we sustain ourselves and our societies in a future where we’re effectively granted more leisure than ever before?

Step three: find the threads in our lives that aren’t our jobs, to weave a new future, for ourselves as individuals and communities. In short, what purpose will we have?

Unemployed

As automation tech advances, both in terms of physical capability and information processing, human jobs will be done by ‘robot’ (we’ll use the term ‘robot’ as a catchall for technology in whatever form and combination).

Questions concerning who owns the robots, therefore, need to be asked. Will they be owned by private capital or workers’ collectives? Can there be a middle ground between capital’s employ of robots to lower costs and drive up profits, and installing robots to free up all workers’ time and lives?

Radclyffe urges us to first incentivize the automation of essential industries: services like power, water, food, transport, and communication.

Once the essentials can be produced at a tiny fraction of their current cost (the greatest cost to any organization walks around on two [human] legs), large sections of society will be kicking their heels.

Herein we could, if we needed, float the idea of a universal basic income – a UBI, as promoted by several left-leaning political parties across the globe.

Economics

Radclyffe states that we could use the absolute cutting edge of modern technological advances to improve our industrial processes, by using methods from the past!

If we consider modern, industrialized practices in farming, for instance, we see they are designed for efficiency (square fields, all growing one crop).

However, despite some savings, we actually are not being as efficient as we might be. In farming’s case, intensive monocultures need pesticides, fertilizers and all the associated environmental and monetary costs. Land even has to be let rest once every few years.

We could feed the world, but we don’t. And we don’t because costs are still too high, despite, or perhaps because of, our efficiencies to date.

By using intelligent robots we can emulate ancient farming methods of diversity – planting crops together and letting powerful, robots sow, weed, care for, and reap.

Labour costs would be nothing, secondary costs of fertilizers etc. would be negligible, and plants and animals could reintegrate in ways that they always were before industrialization.

We could employ intelligent, just-in-time methods on food production, that will enable us to effectively and efficiently feed the world.

While Radclyffe only dwelled on agriculture during his TEDx talk (time for each speaker was limited), it’s easy to extend the analogy to different industries.

Using fossil fuels involves extraction, refinery, distribution, and incurs massive environmental costs. Automated systems working with wind power, solar energy or other inexhaustible renewables could effectively manage power demands. By intelligently networking systems together across continents we could adapt configurations according to demand.

If we incentivize the use of robots in essential industries and disincentivize their use in non-essentials, we effectively empower ourselves as people and communities, not just achieve lower costs for huge multinationals.

Threads

The difference between our work and our jobs is, according to Radclyffe, one of purpose. We have jobs (that involve us working) which we do for pay. But many, many people work for little or no pay – and these people are not ins some distant land, but rather, they are among us.

Many people care for their family members for no recompense, or even for strangers in return for the bare minimum of wages. How many talented artists, poets, musicians, and thinkers are thwarted because they are waiting-tables to pay for food and power?

By using robots in the future in the right way, we all benefit from richer lives that will be granted us as a result of our own technological cleverness.

As you are reading this, breakthroughs in machine learning, internet of things, robotics, nanotechnologies and every other buzzword/phrase are coming from humans working individually, or as a group. Massive corporate empires do not in themselves ‘invent things’ – the entity of Google doesn’t make strides in machine-learning tech.

The human species has the ability, postulates Radclyffe, not only to change our futures with technology but also change the way we let this happen.






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