Read more: Are only poets safe from robots?
The image of Private Frazer saying “We are all doomed” in the TV series Dad’s Army is well known. He might have been in Washington DC over the weekend. According to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, machines with intelligence, sight and hearing capacities, and pattern recognition abilities will threaten jobs in all sectors of the economy, including in the world’s oldest profession, and potentially lead to mass unemployment. How should we think about the wave of sombre warnings about robotics, digital technologies and AI demanding our attention?
The AAAS isn’t unique, of course, in sounding the alarm about modern technologies. The Most Reverend Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, has labeled them a life sentence of poverty for most and a divine right to wealth for a few. Professor Stephen Hawking says they could spell the end of the human race.
In the words of a world-famous economist, “We are suffering just now from a bad attack of economic pessimism. It is common to hear people say that the epoch of enormous economic progress … is over; that the rapid improvement in the standard of life is now going to slow down—at any rate in Great Britain; that a decline in prosperity is more likely than an improvement in the decade which lies ahead of us.” But here’s the catch. That economist was John Maynard Keynes and he wrote this introduction to a tract called Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren in 1930.
It sounds pretty familiar, and if you search hard enough in economic and social history, major bursts of technology and human advancement have always been accompanied by dire warnings of doom and destruction. So let’s rephrase the question slightly. What is different about the current digital technology and robotic revolution, and its consequences?
The simple answer is that whilst technology has in the past allowed us to compensate for and complement the limitations of human brawn, modern technology is substituting and displacing human brains and…