The Upheaval of Economy: Artificial Intelligence and the Highland Clearances

One of the biggest challenges facing the next few generations is how to respond to the increasing sophistication and proliferation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics in their daily lives. Most significantly, how this will impact on employment.

Advanced AI offers up wonderful opportunities for development and efficiency, eradicating human error to enable perfect production and services. Yet it will inevitably lead to – and already has – widespread job losses, as workers get replaced by robots capable of performing their tasks better and for a cheaper price.

Many production lines are already populated with robots

How these workers will be absorbed into the economy – indeed whether they even can be – is a conundrum that few leaders are willing to face up to. Will paternalism win the day? Or cold-blooded capitalism?

A striking example of a similar situation in history is provided by the Highland Clearances. This process saw the gradual eviction of the Scottish Highland peasantry from their communal lands, as estate owners sought increased rents from new sheep farming tenants. For the majority of castaways, there was no ready replacement to resurrect their lives.

Although it received significant public attention and sympathy in the mid-19th century, the Clearances were a gradual process that had begun more than 100 years before. Traditionally, cottars and crofters had lived in small hamlets on the estates of their landlords, tending crops and rearing cattle.

By the early 1700s, however, it was realised that sheep (particularly the Cheviot breed) were well-suited to the Highland climate. As demand for wool rose across Britain, and new textile mills sprung up in industrial towns, a potentially lucrative source of income made itself apparent to the lairds.

Sheep farmers with ready capital could pay far higher rents than the peasants who had traditionally lived on their lands. By enforcing their removal, they were increasing profitability for themselves; a simple commercial calculation.

The arrival of black-faced and Cheviot sheep spelled doom for the Highland peasantry

The main misery stemmed from the lack of sympathy the majority of landowners had for their lowly tenants. Many were simply turfed out of their homes – often forcefully with the help of the local militia – and sent off into the wilderness with little money, few possessions, and no prospects.

Unfortunately, the Clearances coincided with a period of rapid population growth which had made the precarious position of the peasantry even more perilous. With more mouths to feed and no upsurge in productivity, food was being imported from the south. Times had to change.

Compounding matters was the Highland geography. Rural, mountainous and remote, it had little chance of becoming a manufacturing centre. Whereas tenants evicted from estates in the Lowlands had been absorbed into the factories and industry along the River Clyde or in Edinburgh, there really was little else the Highlanders could do.

The remains of a crofters dwelling

Many chose to emigrate to North America and Australia. Some chanced their arms on other estates, where the occasional benevolent landlord took pity on their plight. Others eked out a living on the fringes of society, often through fishing the rugged coastline or establishing cottage industries like kelp processing. Several families simply succumbed to destitution, poverty and famine in what was one of Europe’s biggest social dislocations.

So what will the CEOs of the future decide? And how will redundant workers – both in terms of their employment and skill set – survive the radical changes likely to come?

Plans must be formulated now, raised awareness and training provided to the school-leavers and apprentices whose futures look most bleak. With a rampant press and inescapable social media, there will be support for the downtrodden.

A robotic conductor at the Verdi Theater in Pisa. It’s not just production line jobs at risk

But what will this look like in practice? Profit trumps all and business is nasty. A competent and compliant robot shines brighter than an argumentative and reluctant worker.

As with the Highland Clearances, the probability of emigration is high, the likelihood of families relying on charity or meagre subsistence in fringe industries strong. It will strike everywhere, coming down harder on the poor and uneducated, but certainly not exclusively on these people alone.

So, what will the year 2070 look like?

Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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