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You can never automate humanity

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I was in a long conversation about machine learning yesterday that will probably inspire a lot of blogging.  One of the key parts of the conversation was the integration of robotics and artificial intelligence.  When you can make love with a human being that doesn’t talk back, why would you want a real one?  Let’s not go there …

But the big part of the conversation that caught my ears was around the longer-term implications.  In the industrial revolution, people moved from fields to factories; in the services revolution, people moved from factories to offices; in the digital revolution, people move from offices to what?  This is the theme of the Rise of the Robots, a book that I’ve referred to before.  This book claims that there is no next generation job market, and that the automation of the human cognitive capability gets rid of the need for humans completely.

You don’t need human traders, accountants, waiters, cooks, prostitutes, escorts or any of the human capabilities we value today, as a robot can do all of these things, and far better.  That probably will be true within the next quarter century.  If that is the case, that robots can do everything that humans can do and do it better, what will humans be doing?

Well, there are two theories: the optimist and the pessimist.

The optimist believes that work has value, and that a robot cannot do everything a human can do.  A human can write books, music and make movies better than a robot, because that’s an innate part of humanity: art.  Will tomorrows artists be automated?

A human can oversee operations of robots and ensure they maintain the ethics of operations: can a robot recognise when it is doing something that is anti-human in nature?

And a human service is valued in restaurants, on airlines and in lust, far more than a robot could ever deliver … or so we like to think.  Today.

When you get to the point in the next few decades where it will be hard to recognise a human from a robot; when the robot can have attitude; when the robot can think … will we really recognise these fine lines that distinguish us from them?

These are questions raised in a lot of good media from Ex Machina to the TV series Humans, but the optimist really ends up with a belief that humans are required for humanity.  Humans will service humans; humans are required to repair robots; humans will be needed to support space tourism; humans need to provide humanity in the system.

Therefore, there will be new human jobs from data scientists to augmented psychologists, who can coach and counsel the development of automated services.  That’s the optimist’s view.

The pessimist’s view is actually more interesting and, not necessarily, depressing.  The pessimists view is that the robots take all of our jobs.  By the extreme of automation of 2030 and beyond, no one needs to work.  So how will humanity work?

In this vision of the future, those who work choose to work or are selected to work, based upon their ultra-cognitive skills.  There will be robot enhancers, artificially intelligent designers, machine enablers and more, who will be there to continue the development of machines above and beyond where they are today.  In this scenario, we would claim that machines would just make better machines – faster horses – whereas humans would continually rethink the horse.  That’s a good one.

This would however leave a vast swathe of humanity who could do nothing at all.  There would be billions of people who would no longer be useful.  Their cognitive skills are just not good enough to be automation enhancers, and so they have no useful purpose.  Their unskilled and semi-skilled capabilities mean that they have no creative capability to be an artist, and their limitations in cognitive capabilities mean they are technically inferior to their robotic alternatives.  So, what do they do?

I reign it back to Star Trek, as Star Trek has created so many science fictions visions that have become science fiction fact.  In Star Trek, Captain Jean-Luc Picard states:

“A lot has changed in three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of 'things'. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions … the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

Interesting idea.  We no longer are driven by the accumulation of wealth and assets, but by the betterment of humanity.

So, in that science fiction wealth, you work to improve humankind.  Great idea, but I ask myself:

“If you did not have to work, would you?

Think about it: you could spend all your time watching Game of Thrones box sets, engaging in virtual orgies with robots, drinking whatever you wanted and achieving the ultimate hedonistic lifestyle.  Why would you work?

In societies where the choice to work or not to work exists, many end up taking the second option.  In my conversation with the group about this, we picked on Native American reservations where, thanks to the generosity of the US government, many of their young folks do not have to work.  They end up on drink and drugs.  You find the same in other nations like Canada and Australia although, in the latter case, the whole nation does.  Must be their British roots.

What was really interesting is talking to folks in Norway.  Norway is a rich economy with one of the largest Sovereign Wealth Funds in the world thanks to the oil boom.  It is an egalitarian society where, as the guys were telling me, a highly-qualified engineer’s starting package would be paid less than someone from India or overseas whilst a trainee waiter could earn more.  This is because Norway has a society that provides a cushion, thanks to its wealth.  That cushion means you don’t have to work.  You choose to.  And some don’t.  Their numbers are placed into a catchment called those who cannot work due to impairment – as in they are ill – but they are not.  They could work, but choose not to.  I asked what sort of numbers we were talking about, and they guessed that 1 in 10 Norwegian adults were unemployed because of illness or choice.

Lower than the numbers in Spain, Italy and Portugal, although theirs are due to bankrupt economies, but higher than those in the most developed and growing economies.

Just to finish this in the round debate, I was reflecting on a UK debate sparked by our Minister for Work and Pensions, Damian Green.  He contends that businesses need to change their attitudes towards older workers.  Older workers want to work, and lose their will to live when that is taken away from them due to forced retirement at 65.  His contention is that companies should consider hiring old folks, and allow them to retrain, reskill and reimagine themselves for the years to come.

The presenter of the show I was listening to said:  but those old people will be taking jobs from young people?

The Minister turned around and angrily stated that if you have more work, you create more work.  It’s a virtuous circle.  This is what is called the lump of labour fallacy.  As explained by Tim Worstall over on Forbes:

The number of jobs in an economy is set not by the amount of work there is to do. It's set by the aggregate demand in that economy: that is, how much money does everyone else have to pay people to do the things they'd like to have done?

And this is the bottom-line.  If we displace all human workers with robots, do you really think the world will continue?  It will not unless people are:

Forced to be motivated to work, as that is what makes humans enjoy life; and

Remunerated for that work as that is what drives economies.

Replace humans with robots so we can all just kick back and life off a financial cushion will, imho, just make us all addicts living a narcissistic lifestyle in an economy that freefalls. That is why I do not believe the robots will take over everything.  There will always be a need for a human somewhere.


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Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog,, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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