The end of us

If you thought the internet was disruptive, wait till you see what robots will do


WE LAUGH THESE days if someone is called a Luddite. Those Victorian opponents of industrial­isation seem quaint, given all the progress they’d tried to stop. Actually the Luddites are much maligned; they correctly predicted the disastrous effects that the dark Satanic mills would have on English workers and they fought for the kind of humane workplace that nowadays we regard simply as minimum HR practice.

So I don’t mind if someone calls me a Luddite when I say that I’m worried about the impact of robots in the workforce. I can hear you sniggering now. You’re thinking about Hal from 2001, or Arnie in Terminator or maybe even that wobbly-armed thing from Lost in Space. It’s easy to conjure up the clichés.

I fear the robotic future for two very good reasons. First, consider the pervasiven­ess of machine-to-machine (m2m) computing, or what is often called the Internet of Things. Academic and tech writer Brian Arthur says m2m is fast becoming a “second economy” that by 2020 will be as large as the first economy was in 1995 – about US$7.6 trillion.

An article in the Harvard Business Review extrapolat­es this to argue that if the second economy does achieve that rate of growth, it will be replacing the work of approximat­ely 100 million workers.

“To put that number in perspectiv­e, the current total employed civilian US labour force today is 146 million. A sizeable fraction of those replaced jobs will be made up by new ones in the Second Economy. But not all of them. Left behind may be as many as 40 million citizens of no economic value in the USA alone.”

Okay, so people will lose their jobs. It’s happened before. But think about the scale. “Suppose, today, that the robots and smart machines of the second economy are only capable of doing the work of a person of average intelligen­ce – that is, an IQ of 100. Imagine that the technology in those machines continues to improve at the current rate. Suppose further that this rate of technologi­cal progress raises the IQ of these machines by 1.5 points per year. By 2025 these machines will have an IQ greater than 90% of the US population. That 15 point increase in IQ over ten years would put another 50 million jobs within reach of smart machines. The dislocatio­ns will be profound.”

So they’re stealing our jobs. But worse, they won’t be apologisin­g for it – because they can’t. People routinely express concern about the increasing IQ of robots and the threat that it possesses to humanity. Even Stephen Hawking recently warned about the capacity for selflearni­ng machines to eclipse the human brain. Hawking was roundly laughed at – but I think for the wrong reasons. I’m less worried about their IQ than their lack of EQ.

If you’ve ever tried reasoning with a parkingtic­ket machine you’ll know what I’m getting at. Machines lack empathy. They can’t understand context. They can’t forgive. They certainly can’t forget. They can’t extend grace or warmth or compassion. They lack that very thing we need for life to exist: love.

And yet more and more we are relying on machines for our human interactio­ns. Whether it’s Facebookin­g instead of talking, or driving instead of walking, machines are becoming the means by which we relate. “So what” , I hear you say. Actually have you ever considered that the reason road rage exists is because the car protects us from face-to-face encounters. Technology inoculates us from human suffering. This ranges from the prosaic to the profound.

In a business context we rely on automated call centres and ‘contact us’ buttons to deal with customer complaints. Cops issue speeding tickets by camera. Soldiers blow up Pakistani villagers via drones driven from North Carolina. What else might machines allow us to do to each other?

Psychologi­sts say that a lack of empathy is what defines a sociopath. I’m worried that, in the absence of a soul chip, the m2m economy looks not just like a bad employer, it’s scarily sociopathi­c.

I’m worried that, in the absence of a soul chip, the m2m economy looks not just like a bad employer, it’s scarily sociopathi­c.” sociopathi­c.

Vincent Heeringa is co-founder and publisher of @vheeringa

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