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?

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From a Hangar in a Field to a Global Transport Hub: the necessary expansion of Heathrow

The proposed third runway at Heathrow is moving ever close to becoming law, sparking the protests and debates inevitable with such large infrastructure developments.

Climate change activists at the forefront of anti-expansion protests. Many have the support of their local MPs

There is little argument that Britain’s airports need greater capacity and that Heathrow’s location close to London – where most international businessmen and tourists wish to visit – made it a logical candidate for expansion. Of course there will be significant costs, not least the destruction of good chunks of the villages of Longford and Harmondsworth.

Yet such brutal decisions have precedent when it comes to Heathrow and, indeed, have helped transform the airport from an inauspicious beginning to the global transport hub that it is today.

Great West Aerodrome

In 1929 the Fairey Aviation Company purchased 60 hectares of farmland near the hamlet of Heathrow to establish a factory airfield.  A hangar was subsequently built on the land, which began operating as Great West Aerodrome in June 1930.

The airfield was used to test aircraft that had been manufactured at the Fairey Aviation Factory in Hayes.  These aircraft included the Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bomber and Fairey Hendon heavy bomber aircraft.

May 1931: the rather limited facilities of Great West Aerodrome; a single hangar and grass landing ground

In 1939 the airfield increased in importance, as Fairey aircraft production was stepped up to meet the wartime requirements of the Royal Navy.  In the early years of WWII the airfield was used to disperse aircraft from Royal Air Force (RAF) Northolt, a fighter station in west London.

In 1943 the airfield and surrounding countryside was requisitioned by the Air Ministry for the creation of RAF Heathrow.  This was intended to host United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) long-range bomber aircraft.  Construction work began in May 1944, requiring the total demolition of the hamlet of Heathrow.

Now you see it, now you don’t: the disappearance of Heathrow hamlet

Alas, the USAAF never required Heathrow and the airfield ended WWII having done little to turn the tide of war.

An international airport of the future

With the military having no requirement for it, Heathrow was slated as a new civilian airport for London. This was at a time when many former RAF bases were being put forward for civilian development.

London Airport, as it was known, opened in May 1946, albeit much of the airfield facilities remained under construction.

Unlike many of the wartime RAF bases, Heathrow had huge tracts of farmland surrounding it that was ripe for development. What’s more, it had never been used as an operational military base and therefore did not have to go through a decommissioning process like many others. It was, in essence, a blank canvas.

13th November 1946
1st June 1951

A convenient location on the outskirts of the capital was bolstered by the construction of the M25 to its west, resulting in a rapid expansion of Britain’s new international airport.

By 1966, the renamed Heathrow Airport was firmly established as the country’s pre-eminent international gateway. It has subsequently been progressively redeveloped, with new east-west runways and additional terminal buildings constructed.

What next?

Along with High Speed Two (HS2), the Heathrow expansion is the major infrastructure development of its generation. It is understandably controversial, likely to cost an exorbitant amount of money and turf people out of their homes.

Nevertheless, as with HS2, this is a positive statement from the British government which has demonstrated its willingness to invest in the future of a country many around the world now see as irrelevant. We want people to visit our country, to be able to access its more remote parts with convenience and at speed. That means big decisions have to be taken.

What’s more, the development will create and sustain thousands of jobs across a multitudinous supply chain.

The proposed expansion

One can obviously not take the destruction of property lightly and over-the-odds compensation should be offered to those whose homes lie in the path of the proposed third runway. Re-housing opportunities should be provided as close as possible to original dwellings at reduced prices. There cannot be a repeat of the regeneration of the East End, where residents have been turned out to the rural outskirts of the London/Essex border in the name of progress.

Distasteful to some, this is necessary. Whether the Fairey engineers back in the early 1930s thought their little aerodrome would see such expansion and cause so much controversy, I very much doubt it!