Do you fear being replaced by robots? Instead think how machines can make life and work better

January 5, 2017

Search for “Tesla crash” and you’ll see a real-life video taken from a Tesla speeding down a motorway. You can hear the bleep of the car’s autopilot applying the brakes as it predicts, correctly, that the car two ahead is going to crash. No human driver could have anticipated the accident. Other cars plough into the pile-up; the Tesla avoids it.

It’s the most powerful demonstration I’ve ever seen of the speed with which computers are overtaking people. It brings sharply to life the need to think about the implications for the way we organise society.

Humanity is, in the title of an influential book on the subject, running a “Race Against the Machine”, and losing. As a result, machines are doing more and more of the jobs previously done by people. You can see it in the supermarkets, where most of the checkouts have gone from being manned to unmanned in the past couple of years. Next year Amazon will be opening shops that have no checkouts at all, just sensors that can tell what you’ve taken from the shop and charge your Amazon account. The British Retail Consortium predicts that by 2025, a third of the three million jobs in the retail sector will have gone.

But surely, I hear you say, this has been happening ever since the Luddites went round smashing up textile machinery three centuries ago? Automation destroyed some jobs, but made others more productive, which increased prosperity, which increased demand, which created new jobs. Why should it be different now?

Because the rate at which computers are getting cleverer has speeded up. The machines are accelerating away from the people. Computers don’t just drive cars, they do so better than people do. Computers don’t just make the tools that make workers productive, they eliminate people from the chain. It’s not just low-skilled jobs that are vulnerable: according to a Bank of England study, 15 million of the country’s 30 million jobs could be at risk from automation.

This is the beginning of the age of leisure, which Keynes predicted a century ago, when machines will supply our needs. But it poses a huge challenge, for our society is organised around work. Work is how we provide for our families. It is how we prove that we are full, productive members of society — the “hard-working families” that politicians speak of with approval, not the “scroungers” derided by the tabloids. It is how we acquire skills, gain status, make friends and find purpose in life.

If humanity is indeed losing the race against the machine, we need to start thinking about how to organise society a different way — about how to deliver the benefits of work to everybody in a world in which there isn’t enough of it to go round. That’s why the idea of a guaranteed minimum income is gaining currency. It’s a pretty simple notion: the state pays everybody a certain level of income. You don’t get it for being unemployed, or for looking for a job: you get it just for being alive. It’s not all that different from the dole, except that it isn’t conditional on trying to find work, and collecting it doesn’t carry the stigma of being a scrounger.

This sounds like a piece of crazy leftist Utopianism, but Charles Murray, high priest of the American right, has been promoting the idea. He reckons it offers the opportunity to sweep away the infinitely complex web of benefits that enmeshes people at the bottom of society, along with the bureaucracy that implements it. He maintains that America could save a trillion dollars a year by paying all its citizens $10,000 (£8,000) a year, no questions asked; others prefer a more generous version, which wouldn’t save money, but which people could live on. It would be taxed away from those who earned a decent whack, but at an initially low rate so as not to discourage people from working.

Part of the appeal to the right is that the system reduces the power of government, for the state will no longer chivvy people to find work. They will be free to make whatever they want of their lives. If they want material wealth, they can scurry around making lots of money. If they want other sorts of riches, they can study newts, write music, paint pictures or look after their elderly parents. If they want neither, they can sit on their sofas playing video games.

This is what’s really radical about the scheme: it decouples income from work and work from occupation. In a society that regards hard work as the principal source of moral worth, that sounds like a bad thing; but when full employment is no longer an option, it’s good. And it has a further virtue: by eroding the boundary between “hard-working people” (who make money) and “scroungers” (who take benefits), it will raise the status of the occupation that should be the most highly regarded of all, but on which our work-centred system places no value: looking after people we love.

People tend to react to the prospect of losing the race against the machine with terror. Sure, it poses a huge challenge, but the potential upside is also tremendous. Over to Keynes: “For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to use the leisure, which science and compound interest have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

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