Sunday, 31 December 2017

Can robot usage be made ethical?

Automation in the warehouse has been on-going since the 1970s but only recently has the scope for robots that can work safely around people sharpened the focus and implications of full robotisation to reveal potentially huge social/ethical issues that could lead to even more inequality unless governments can find a solution.

In January 2015, on this blogsite, under the heading: "Will robots destabilize society?" I referred to the remarks of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to a Wall Street audience that the rise of robots and gene therapy could allow a tiny elite of the super rich to amass more power while almost everyone else grows poorer. But has that not already largely happened over recent years, like in America where in real terms incomes for most are below 10 years ago while the top 10% saw a real rise, leaving a tiny minority controlling most of America's wealth, a shift helped by legal though morally repugnant tax avoidance schemes based on financial artifice rather than honest business models?

The latest warnings have come from the UK-based Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) which suggests that new technology could wipe out jobs generating earnings of £290 billion a year, a third of the British total. This would leave some parts of the country harder hit than the others, like the north-east and Northern Ireland, and certain industries to be hit by job-killing automation would include agriculture, transport, food processing and administration.

The report's authors called for a co-ordinated government response to the economic challenge, with the establishment of a regulator to oversee the "ethical use of robotics and artificial intelligence," while some ministers have spoken airily of creating "jobs of the future" to replace those lost to machines. While the historic pattern of economic development from the industrial revolution may give comfort to those hoping to find new jobs there is one factor in economic history that never existed until now which could dash such hopes, namely the unprecedented growth in job-destroying automation and growing global population.

The IPPR, however, seems sanguine enough to believe that increasing automation has the potential to deliver a boost to UK business to bring "economic plenty" but warned that the change must be properly managed so that the benefits do not remain concentrated in a few investors' hands. It also believed that most jobs would be re-allocated rather than eliminated, while still leaving some people getting a rise while others are trapped in low pay, low productivity sectors. To prevent this it says "the Government should look at ways to spread capital ownership and make sure that everyone benefits from increased automation." Well, don't hold your breath on that one.

There can be no argument that repetitive, unskilled jobs will be taken by robots as their price tags fall and they become smarter and more versatile and nowhere are such jobs so repetitive and low paid than in the warehousing sector. New recruits for this industry, therefore, might like to look elsewhere unless contemplating the more challenging, arcane aspects of logistics, like more efficient control of the global supply chains where, admittedly, this could be rewarding but not suited to the rank and file warehouse workforce.

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