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“Human made, human served” may be the ultimate pointless product label

I read this today in a report I was sent:

“In an article entitled The Relentless Pace of Automation, the MIT Technology Review indicates that in the United States, 83% of jobs earning less than $20 per hour have a likely risk of automation, compared to only 4% for jobs earning more than $40 per hour. In Technology at Work: The Future Is Not What It Used to Be, a joint Oxford University and Citi report the authors note that while “47% of US jobs were at risk of computerization… the risks of automation are actually higher in many other countries…in the OECD the data shows on average 57% of jobs are susceptible to automation, this number rises to 69% in India and 77% in China”. Other predictions in the report include 77% in Thailand, 67% in South Africa, 65% in Nigeria, 85% in Ethiopia and 35% in the UK.”

Now. Someone who studies this area a lot pointed out to me some methodological problems with the report referenced above.

They mentioned the media coverage of this whole area is pretty Dystopian in tone. That’s completely true. They also mentioned the coverage is not looking at the upside much. I’m struggling to understand the upside though, for many people. Yes the tech companies, bigger firms, some start ups, and perhaps most businesses will do well out of all this over time, but that leaves an awful lot of people disadvantaged, as far as I can see, right now.

Yes we see articles about the potential of a universal basic income freeing up people’s time and allowing them to start their own businesses etc. But let’s be honest, most people don’t want to do that. Most want to do a reasonable job for a fair day’s pay. Work gives us purpose. More purpose than not working, that’s for sure.

I replied the following:

“What’s the upside for the average *Brexit or Le Pen voter I wonder? Predictions on precise numbers aside (all of which are likely to be wrong) that’s going to be key. But it’s not seen as the responsibility, particularly of tech businesses or large ones generally, and so a response will be left to reactive government, lead by weaker and less well informed individual politicians, who are compromised by lobbying. I would guess we’ll see the public, physical trashing of factories, drones, driverless vehicles and even robot assistants within five years. Stirred up by a dying or hysterical media, I imagine.”

“Human made, human served” may be the ultimate pointless product label.

Pointless in that ethical-style labels are largely a failure, in penetration and more importantly, in impact.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with a significant challenge. Not to hold back technology. That won’t work. The challenge will be to push for early engagement in the social impacts of large scale automation and AI technology rollout.

The Wharton School Professor Thomas Donaldson (co-author of a superb book many many moons ago, called The Ties that Bind), wrote about what he called ethical or social “blowback”. It may take a while, he posited, but eventually, companies that are seen to treat society unfairly, pay a price.

Companies can eventually rehabilitate their reputations, mostly. But if this revolution takes place as predicted, the impacts on social unrest and politics will be so extreme we may get that dystopian future media and researchers are currently fond of telling us we are headed to.

The answer to this is spending a lot more time and money thinking about the social risk (and yes the environmental benefits) of the coming Fourth Industrial Revolution and its technologies. The question that remains is how do we do this, prior to a social and political crisis that tech companies, venture capitalists and the big companies that dominate our lives will likely see. As a species we’re pretty good at reacting, but pretty awful at being pro-active risk managers.

Some Tech billionaires seem understand the potential dangers of AI, touted as THE game changing technology, but unless we also think as hard about the other technologies, many coming sooner, those cab drivers who burned Uber driver cabs in France a couple of years ago, will just be the tip of the iceberg of social unrest.

I’ve been thinking hard about what Innovation Forum can do in this space, and whether we can help create useful debate, for once about a problem just before it happens, rather than 20-30 years in. I’ll discuss that in further posts.
In the meantime, I’d value your views. You can comment on this blog, or just email me at tobias.webb@innovation-forum.co.uk if you prefer.
*The poorer ones. I know not all are from less economically successful backgrounds, but most are. 

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