One of the ongoing challenges of the twenty-first century will be managing the increasing transition from human labour to robotic service across almost all walks of life. This is, of course, hardly a new issue but the dramatic advances in the abilities of Artificial Intelligence (AI) make it increasingly pertinent to the global economy and societies across the world today.
Furthermore, there are legitimate questions over whether the coronavirus pandemic will hasten the adoption of robot workers in many industries. Robots are currently substituting for humans in many work spaces, whether it be as cleaners, warehouse packers, grocery store assistants or a host of other roles currently deemed unsafe for man. Once a company has invested in a robot worker, and it has done a sterling job, then why go back to a human, with all their innate reliability deficiencies?
Large segments of the workforce have been replaced by robots over the past century, particularly on the production line in manufacturing industries, in data analytics, or through shops moving online to name a few examples. There has been periodic backlash, but more in the vogue of perennial discontent rather than a mass upheaval against a changing system.
Those refusing to adapt to ‘modern times’ are invariably labelled as anti-industrialists, technophobes or Luddites, and this latter term is worth taking note of.
The Luddite movement arose in early nineteenth-century England amongst skilled textile workers who feared the encroachment of mechanisation on their livelihoods. Aided by strong communal support and effective propaganda, the Luddites – named after the fictional stockbreaker Ned Ludd – spread from Nottingham in 1811 to large swathes of the country. The Ludd warriors were mainly independent artisans intent on destroying the textile machinery destined to replace them in brazen nighttime raids on local factories.
There was precedent for the Luddite movement, the eighteenth century having seen protests across England and Scotland against technological innovation at the expense of the already-underpaid and chronically overworked labourer. Mass riots by the weavers of Spitalfields in the late 1760s and early 1770s – exacerbated by the immigration of French Huguenot silk-workers and cheap foreign-made products – prompted a brutal response from the London authorities. And so too did the Luddite movement, which by 1816 had fizzled out after many of its leaders and proponents were imprisoned or executed, sometimes in mass hangings.
Though the Swing Riots of 1830 by agricultural workers against new threshing machines briefly revived governing fears of another nationwide revolt, none caused such an alarm as the Luddites which is perhaps why the term has been passed down as a common slur against those fearful of the direction of technological change.
As we know, the Luddites were always fighting a losing battle. Humanity’s story is one of the endless progress of technology, even if it is sometimes to the detriment of its own species. Undoubtedly the vast majority of technological change has been beneficial, improving the lives of even those whose jobs have become redundant. But the question now is how do we ensure there are enough ‘human’ jobs left to support a global population that is already far too large?
Certainly it seems reasonable to put faith in robots that can measurably perform a task better than a human, such as aspects of computing, precision engineering, component assembly etc. A grey area remains, however, with regards to robots serving as replacements for human-to-human interaction. An AI cyborg might be a more efficient checkout assistant than a young man or woman, but does that make them better? Do all customers value speed over human contact?
It seems unfair to label anyone concerned with the pace of robot infringement on society as a Luddite given the limited empirical evidence we have in many sectors, not to mention the lack of agreement on AI ethics and how to manage increasingly sophisticated automatons.
The inexorable march of progress continues apace, but it would be foolish to think that this won’t end violently if the rapidity of AI incursion on our daily lives is not carefully managed. We should also consider the potential for regression within our own species by palming off so many jobs on robots, and by further limiting social interaction, an issue already problematic due to the explosion of social media and remote communication platforms.
Perhaps it was straightforward enough to hang a few troublesome textile workers back in early nineteenth-century England for the technological elites to get their way. Let us hope that our democratic intentions – and thankfully a large proportion of the world still has such aspirations – can ensure that, pandemic or no pandemic, we do not simply cast aside the employment structures that have driven global betterment over the course of the past century and more.