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Debate: will a robot steal your job?

18 June 2014

Was Karl Marx right all along about capitalism? One of the subjects I like to bore everyone about whenever I get a chance is the hollowing out of middle-class jobs as a result of technology, squeezing wages just as the old German predicted. It’s the subject of a Spectator debate tonight, which will be well worth attending, and a subject I wrote about for the magazine last year:

‘Jaron Lanier, the Silicon Valley philosopher and author of Who Owns The Future?, has shown how technology and the free-flow of information are removing secure, middle-class jobs. Far from being egalitarian, the digital revolution has reduced financial rewards for those in the middle — and concentrated wealth at the very top. While outsourcing of clerical work is hardly new, it has started to affect the middle office — not just the back office. Once, it was production-line workers who found themselves laid off and their jobs shipped to the Far East. Now it’s research chemists, paralegals and clerks who are finding their jobs outsourced. Firms such as Microsoft, Pfizer and Philips increasingly carry out their research in China.

Most of the fruits of IT-driven productivity gains have been for the wealthiest two per cent, and Lanier’s book is not the only one to focus on technology and the rise in inequality, something of an obsession of the publishing industry (how long will that industry last in its current state?)

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Not that working-class jobs aren’t still being automated, too; the next big thing is going to be automated driving, which is going to throw a lot of taxi drivers, lorry drivers and railways workers onto the scrapheap. Some people will hail this as progress, or at least emphasise its inevitably as part of the future, but what sort of future will this be? What will be done with the large number of people who don’t have the necessary skills nor (a point rarely made) the cognitive ability to do non-mechanised jobs?

This may all be bias on my part. Much of journalism has already gone and maybe one day even columnists, bloggers and other rentagobs will be replaced by some computer program that can automatically turn any event or argument into the subject they’ve been programmed to be obsessed with. To be honest I have my suspicions about a couple of people as it is.

The subject will be discussed at a Spectator event Will Artificial Intelligence Put My Job at Risk tonight at 7pm at Prince Philip House, SW1. Speakers include: Andrew Blake Laboratory Director, Microsoft; Jamie Bartlett Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, Demos; Nicola Smith Head of Economic and Social Affairs, Trade Unions Congress; and the author and journalist Bryan Appleyard.

You can join the discussion by clicking here.

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Show comments
  • Beth Jackson

    I hope not. People always find something to do.If everything goes according to plan, robots will make life easier and more efficient for us.My son is having a robotics workshop at Restech in Bristol.
    Restech is an award winning social enterprise that provides fun robot workshops for schools. They focus on problem solving, which kids love and teachers always give great feedback on their teaching approach. It is female led and works with hundreds of students regularly to teach them about robots and engage them with STEM subjects – this may be of interest:

  • poran

    all this flim-flam about “Cybernats”. Beats having to make a case.
    otomatik kapı Otomatik Kapılarکرکره برقی

  • Owen_Morgan

    “Debate: will a robot steal your job?”

    It probably ought to, if your name’s Delingpole and you are taking a holier-than-thou attitude to the job losses at the Telegraph.

  • Smithersjones2013

    Now it’s research chemists, paralegals and clerks who are finding
    their jobs outsourced. Firms such as Microsoft, Pfizer and Philips
    increasingly carry out their research in China.‘

    Sorry I thought the debate was about robots taking over our jobs not whether globalisation and cheap far eastern labour will leave us jobless. Perhaps when West has stopped conflating such issue he might comeback with and article that makes sense.

  • tjamesjones

    Interesting Subject, Ed. No doubt you’ll reference average is over by tyler cowan. I can’t be there as I’ll be watching the footie but maybe there will be some sort of podcast?

  • alabenn

    This is a warning against any immigration of any kind whatsoever, the country will not need the third worlds surplus citizens especially the kind that Labour imported.
    If you assume that this will happen, we do not need the current indigenous population let alone savages whose mind set is 6th century.
    You could also go the other way with the population becoming more mixed race the will come a time when advances will stop and we shall regress to the lowest common denominator when there is no white races left to drive the advance of civilisation, Africa, the Middle East and most of Asia stood still in time for thousands of years.
    All progress in what we now call civilised society originated in Europe.

  • itdoesntaddup

    It remains a complete mystery to me as to why the UK government considers it to be a good idea to educate 70,000 Chinese a year with the very best of our university education (much of it in technical skills that we shun as our schoolchildren no longer have adequate grounding in maths and sciences) while at the same time talking about being in a “global race”. Likewise our keenness to transfer industry out of our country while offering massive carbon credit subsidies to do so.

    It has not been a case of British jobs for robots, but of British jobs being filled by others, either through immigration or outsourcing overseas to foreign workers, or simply export of the activity entirely. Despite that, employment seems to have been rising, even if productivity has not.

    It is of course a delusion to believe that just because we label nearly half our children as “degree qualified” that they are any more capable than preceding generations. That is why around half so labelled are doing jobs considered not to require a degree.

    It is also notable that automation of particular tasks often doesn’t seem to result in greater efficiency, but rather in excuses to make them or other tasks much more complex and inefficient, requiring effort in a different direction. What real use is there for the vast array of jobsworths and quangocrats that regulations create? It does however keep them off the streets until more productive employment can be promoted – which will wait on politicians deciding not to mandate unproductive investment and disinvestment in productive activities.

    • Colonel Mustard

      “It does however keep them off the streets until more productive employment can be promoted”

      It doesn’t really, though. They are influencing and interfering in public life everywhere. And further they are increasingly encroaching into our houses. Our society is beginning to resemble one of tax-funded, rent-seeking busybodies (nice work if you can get it) regulating and/or hectoring everyone else. It might not be so bad if they were politically neutral but most of them seem to be paid-up members of the Labour party or their fellow travellers.

    • HookesLaw

      Forging links with people at an early age all accross the world is a bad thing then? And cementing english as a lingua franca.
      I suppose it is to a white supremacist. The bad news is that most of the world isn’t. White.
      And of course all these students paying to come here rather than anywhere else is helping support our home grown research in our home grown universities.

      No then, lets just continue to live in the past to make stuff no one wants, to compete in markets we will never be competitive in rather than sell our desirable products like as an example education.
      ‘Nearly 20% of the output generated by universities can now be attributed
      to the enrolment of non-EU students (£13.9 billion of £73 billion).
      Expenditure by international students (EU and non-EU) on fees and
      accommodation amounted to £4.4 billion in 2011–12 … generating jobs throughout the UK: of the 757,268 full-time equivalent jobs generated by the higher education sector in 2011–12’

      Education exports are valued at over £17 billion

      • itdoesntaddup

        Since overseas students are being heavily subsidised by taxpayers according to HESA data it would make good business sense to cut their numbers, as the business is effectively lossmaking. The return on investment in education does not accrue to the UK where the student goes back whence they came. Those that stay are effectively using the student route as a backdoor round immigration rules: whilst some 70,000 bogus students have been stopped, there can be little doubt that many remain illegally. Fewer than 1 in 3 return home, while Home Office statistics suggest that fewer than 1 in 5 obtain a legal right to remain. That implies over half become illegals.

  • manonthebus

    Of course computerisation has removed the need for middle class jobs. It’s plain for all to see. In a way, it has sharpened the divide between the creators and the rest. We have the owners of huge capital who are easily able to weather any storm. We have a professional class doing the jobs which require knowledge and intellect. We do have a smallish artisan class that is essential for keeping the water, gas, electricity flowing. The rest of the workforce are customer-facing operatives on about minimum wage, give or take a few £s. The people who sat in the middle pushing paper around and connecting this with that are no longer required because computers do it more accurately (usually) and cheaper (usually, if you ignore the NHS). On the other hand, we generate much more value in this way and people lead safer, healthier lives provided they don’t eat or drink themselves into diabetes 2 or liver failure.

  • My_old_mans_a_dustman

    What will be done with the large number of people who don’t have the necessary skills nor (a point rarely made) the cognitive ability to do non-mechanised jobs?

    The Dark ages were so called dark not because the light failed to shine, but because people refuse to see it.

    Almost every person who ever lived has the same number of Brain cells as Einstein, the stumbling block comes from what they and their local communities choose to do with that potential. But as time moves forward, so does the proportion of the population with a decent education, so these problems will reduce.

  • El_Sid

    Darius Kazemi ( has some fun stuff along these lines , his day job is working on the Scripto software which automates some of the script management for the Colbert Report that would otherwise be done by humans, for fun he does things like a metaphor Twitterbot that could have entered the recent literary competition :

    My favourite has to be his Amazon random shopper – he sets it to run once a month and buy up to $50-ish of random crap :

    • Fergus Pickering

      It could have entered the competition. But could it have won? This is not just playing chess. This is the antithesis of artificial intelligence. This is creativity. Machines can ape creativity. But they don’t have it.

  • HookesLaw

    One of the many subjects you like to bore people with, I’m sure.

    Automated driving? ho ho ho. Have you ever seen lorries edging out of busy junctions? Have you ever seen lorries reversing? Do you have any concept of the places lorries deliver to? As Mr Clarkson says, what is the point of a driverless car? Is it going to do the work for you when you get there? Will it do the shopping for you, load it in the boot? Is it going to put your deckchair up for you in Margate? Will it enjoy a stiff brandy when it gets you home in the evening and pleasurise the missus?
    But driverless tube trains (running on tracks of course) are already here. Tube drivers are pricing themselves out of a job.

    Word processors and email have already obliterated the short hand typist but probably opened up opportunities for a half decent PA. Its not automation that has wiped out your friendly middle class butcher.

    Robotics of course is nothing to do with artificial intelligence. I wonder if the great and the good will work that one out tonight. A better discussion would be on the dearth of natural intelligence on the Speccy’s blogs.

    • tjamesjones

      Are you weighing in on the side of natural intelligence Hooksie? No, automated driving won’t do your shopping for you or put up your deckchair in Margate [starts backing away carefully]….but it will threaten the 5+ million jobs in Europe (similar in US) for those who rely on driving for their income.

      • HookesLaw

        Like you believe in automated driving? Yes pull the other one. How will an automated delivery wagon deal with my cul de sac and all the parked cars and the small hammerhead at the end? And thats just one example of how varied our street scape is.

  • Alex

    Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

    Before mechanisation came along it needed 70% of the population to work on the land just to keep us all fed. Most of the rest would be doing by hand jobs that are now mechanised, such as writing books by hand, or manual labour.

    So if Ed West’s logic is correct then the vast majority of the UK population is ‘on the scrapheap’ and has been for, say, 300 years. Does that strike anybody as a sensible viewpoint?

    And BTW, inequality isn’t rising, however often people claim it; world Gini has been falling for years, in a large part because of technology. Personally I would consider the ongoing massive drop in world absolute poverty as more important than protecting the jobs of taxi drivers; but hey, maybe that’s just me.

    “This may all be bias on my part.” Yes Ed, it is.

    • Count Dooku

      Absolutely right, though the number of people working in agriculture was closer to 90%. I believe it’s now less than 2%.

      What we have are now massively cheaper goods and vastly more products for every one, including the bottom 10%. Thanks to technology, even the poorest 10% have running water and plumbing. Something reserved for royalty just a few centuries ago.

      I will start to worry the day machines can come up with creative ideas and do hairdressing.

      • tjamesjones

        Gosh, guys, you aren’t arguing with Piketty here or some lefty crazy. This is an important subject: does computing+globalisation mean that the winner take all effect dominates the economy to an ever greater degree. Try ‘Average is Over’ by Tyler Cowan on this subject.

        Count: we’ll still need creatives and hairdressers, but how many of us does that cover? The issue is that it’s not just manual labour now, it’s also middle management jobs (as Ed clearly says).

        • Count Dooku

          I’m sure the Luddites worried about their well-payed jobs as printers when the press was invented. Humans always find things to do when jobs go.

          The UK is currently at it’s highest nominal number of employment EVER. We are 0.2% away from the the highest percentage of economically active adults EVER. We are creating things for people to do.

          As a paleo-conservative, it’s no surprise Ed is worried. They are forever pessimistic and afraid of change.

          • tjamesjones

            You should look into this, it’s an interesting subject. There are solutions that we can imagine from this point, but in essence we’re on the cusp of revolution that will eliminate the white collar jobs that were the bedrock of the post war growth. Take one example – your tax return. For most of us, a £25 program like taxcalc can do a better job of the tax return even today, and as time passes the trend is only 1 way. Try ‘average is over’ – tyler cowan is no paleo-conservative. He might be wrong – but the issues are real.
            I think a healthy debate on this topic is what the politicians should be leading. However it probably won’t happen: the lefties just attack capitalism, and unfortunately those on the right such as yourself are jumping at shadows – nobody here is against capitalism.

            • Count Dooku

              I’m not jumping at shadows, i’m accusing Ed of ignoring the evidence staring at him in the face. I noticed that you also ignored my point on UK employment.

              Automation may cost individuals their jobs, but never society as a whole. People always find something to do. How do you explain how Japan, probably the most automated industrialised nation in the world, has just just 3% unemployment.

              • tjamesjones

                I don’t think you should try to shut down the subject. It’s about the future of employment, not the situation today. Nobody is saying that we want a planned economy, but it’s healthy to discuss and debate the issues that are going to present in the not too distant future. It affects how we think about education, for one.

                • Count Dooku

                  I’m not trying to shut down anything. Our little debate will have zero impact on the effect of technology on future employment.

                  I’m helpfully pointing out that we dont need to do anything. We have seen this countless times and humans always reinvent themselves, WITHOUT government interference. We don’t need any plans or committees. It happens spontaneously.

                • tjamesjones

                  Count, this is part of the process of reinvention. It’s about those of us engaged in the economy, in business, thinking about our next steps. You bring up Government, well the news is governments are already interfering – at cost > 40% of the economy. That’s already happening. So to the extent that government policies will have an impact on future employment, better that the issues are considered. For instance, I personally think it’s a waste of time educating people in 3rd rate universities, and encouraging that with subsidies and loans. This is *especially* true if the knowledge economy simply doesn’t need a bunch of 3rd rate programmers or marketeers. Which is implied by an economy which supports huge scale because any problem solved in software can be solved globally. Until the iphone there were few naturally global products, now, everybody’s perspective is increasingly to view the world as 7 billion consumers. But what are all these consumers going to be doing for their jobs?! Previously you could survive as a business by making the Nth best version of something and relying on people not knowing about the better products available, but this is only going one way.

        • Alex

          Sorry, still think it’s wrong. Don’t care if it’s lefty or righty.

          “Most of the fruits of IT-driven productivity gains have been for the wealthiest two per cent, ” I very much doubt that and would be fascinated to see any evidence. I bet it ignores consumer surplus, for a start.

          He asserts a rise in inequality, which isn’t happening.

          He talks of jobs being thrown “on the scrapheap”, a silly emotive term that ignores that fact that history shows many jobs disappearing. We don’t have hundreds of people spending their day shovelling human excreta any more; yet curiously civilisation has survived, and indeed thrived. The people who would have been doing the obsolete jobs are now teaching, or writing apps, or retired early, or writing for the Spectator, or fitting a hip replacement or inventing a job nobody else has heard of yet.

          “…winner takes all effect…” Wrong; world Gini and absolute poverty is falling, and has been for some time. So we know that the rich aren’t capturing all the added wealth, yes?

          • tjamesjones

            this is daft – the point is to discuss the impact of globalisation + technology (largely software) on the future of employment. How can you dismiss that as ‘wrong’. You can see winner takes all effect in many places – eg football, where most of the riches go to a small number of footballers.

            On inequality – globally it’s come down due to the rise of China, and the developing world, that’s obvious, but within rich western countries, sure, there is a greater concentration of rewards at the top. It’s not “the rich” so much as “the best”.

            The impact so far has been primarily on blue collar workers (wages in the US for blue collar workers have been stagnant in real terms for FORTY YEARS). But white collar has been fine so far, but you can see that changing as technology starts to replace accountants, analysts, any role that can be automated.

            Sure, it might all turn out fine, who knows, but can’t we talk about it!

            • Alex

              “…can’t we talk about it!”
              I thought we were :-)

            • Nkaplan

              “but within rich western countries, sure, there is a greater concentration of rewards at the top.”
              So what? Why should anyone care? This ‘greater concentration of wealth’ even if it is true (and I’m not convinced) hasn’t come at anyone’s expense. Inequality per se is irrelevant – just ignore it. Materially speaking people have a far higher quality of life at all levels of society, that’s what’s important.

    • Nkaplan

      Well said.

      And even if inequality were increasing why should anyone care? It is perfectly apparent that, as you say, levels of absolute poverty have decreased substantially (this is perfectly compatible with inequality increasing – showing it’s irrelevance as any kind of moral concern). Moreover, because of the technological developments Ed seems so concerned about almost everyone across the globe is better off – just consider how much the internet has improved our access to knowledge and information (among other things).

      What Ed seems to be forgetting is that all of us (at least if we work) are both producers and consumers. Although technological change (which increases efficiency) may damage our interests qua producers it is highly beneficial to us qua consumers. Thus even if our income is decreasing (or, more likely, not increasing as quickly as it once was) it is nonetheless able to stretch far further (consider e.g. that the purchase of food now makes up a far smaller proportion of the average household budget than was the case say 30 years ago) and this is to the great benefit of the vast majority of us.

      • tjamesjones

        Ed’s not forgetting anything Nikaplan. Nobody is saying consumers are worse off, we’re just wondering what the future of employment will look like. It’s a great topic.

        • Nkaplan

          It’s an interesting question – but the whole point of a market economy is that nobody can know the answer before it happens – nobody knows how the economy is going to develop in 3 or 4 years time let alone the next few decades and generations.
          The important point is that there is no good reason to be unduly pessimistic – the same worries have been had about every technological development in history and yet the results have generally been beneficial (at least in material terms i.e. economically). Of course the fact that the dire consequences generally predicted following technological change have not come true before, does not prove they will not come true now – but I think we should be sceptical.

          • tjamesjones

            Yes, although I wouldn’t say that is the “whole point” of the market economy (which is to allocate resources as efficiently as possible), but it is true that the path the economy takes over time is hard to predict. But that does not mean we shouldn’t and don’t engage with the direction the economy is taking. To pick one example, if you are advising an 18 year old on which degree to choose at university, you are at least in part doing so by taking a view on where the economy is going. You might advise a linguist to specialise in Mandarin not French. So debating this subject is part of the process of thinking about the future. It isn’t a stealth project to introduce a command economy.

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