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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Prisoner of War: the conundrum of a commodity from Sun Tzu to ISIS

The term Prisoner of War (PoW) has strong emotive connotations; the trials and tribulations, the mistreatment and summary executions, the heroism and futile resistance. Not only during the World Wars of the 20th century – when the scale and reporting of enemy imprisonment reached a global audience – but from the first pitched battles to the urban warfare currently ensnaring the Middle East, the fate of the PoW has sparked debate and controversy.

The first use in the English language of the term ‘Prisoner of War’ has purportedly been discovered by a Southampton-based academic. It is ascribed to Bernard, Count de Ventadour, captured by English forces at the Battle of Poitiers (1356) during the Hundred Years’ War.

The Battle of Poitiers, along with Agincourt, marked a high point for England in the Hundred Years’ War

Court documents relating to the Count’s imprisonment show that far from humanitarian concerns, what seemingly prompted the use of the term ‘Prisoner of War’ was commercial consideration. The Count was a commodity, his captor being entitled to his property and assets and hence this new ‘legal status’ was conferred upon the prisoner.

Indeed, de Ventadour was ultimately bought by none other than King Edward III, who paid the Count’s ‘legal’ owner, Lord Burghersh, £5,000 for his acquisition. This was a staggering sum of money for the time and can be explained by the fact that King Edward used the Count to strengthen his hand in the ransom negotiations aimed at securing the release of French King John II, who had also been captured at Poitiers. By 1360, the Count de Ventadour was a free man. All legal and above board it seems.

The capture of King John II

Of course, the exchange of PoWs hasn’t gone away, even if their value is now chiefly of political, rather than economic, significance. Prisoner transaction remains common currency in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and there has been controversy over the United States’ decision to swap Taliban prisoners for their own captured soldiers.

Theoretically, we have clear global regulations about how to treat PoWs. The Geneva Convention of 1929, born out of the horrors of the First World War, set a standard for maintaining prisoner well-being and was followed in 1950 by the 143-article long ‘Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 75 U.N.T.S. 135’.

‘In particular they must be protected from acts of violence, insults and public curiosity; in addition, it is forbidden to carry out reprisals against them’.

PoWs suffering at the hands of their German captors during WWI

Yet laws mean little in times of war. PoWs in the days of de Ventadour were hardly assured of their survival after capture, Joan of Arc being a particularly notable case in point. This vulnerability has not diminished in the modern era. From the concentration camps and death marches of WWII, through to the ISIS rampage across Iraq and Syria, the life of a PoW often hangs in the balance.

Ultimately, PoWs present a conundrum to their captors; what value they  hold and what to do with them are rarely easy to fathom.

American PoWs suffer at the hands of their Japanese captors during the brutal Bataan Death March in 1942

There is no space to go into depth here on the legal, ethical, economic and military dilemmas surrounding the acquisition, treatment of, and exchange of PoWs. So one prominent thinker will have to suffice.

Sun Tzu (544-496BC), the famed Chinese strategist of the Eastern Zhou period, pondered, amongst a myriad of considerations in his monumentally influential treatise Art of War, the fate of prisoners.

In the section of his treatise entitled ‘Waging War’, he suggests:

The captured soldiers should be kindly treated and kept. This is called, using the conquered foe to augment one’s own strength.

Sun Tzu is perhaps second only to Confucius in the pantheon of Chinese thinkers

So, treating prisoners with decency may win them over to your side, a useful tactic when trying to sustain lengthy campaigns over vast tracts of land.

Similarly, in a later passage, Sun Tzu remarks:

It is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.

Countless times through history we have heard tale of surrendered battalions put to use for their captors’ benefits, whether it be for fighting, labour or more nefarious purposes.

Meager rations for Soviet PoWs enduring forced labour under the Nazis in WWII

In a less overt reference, Sun Tzu addresses the issue of spies:

It is through the information brought by the converted spy that we are able to acquire and employ local and inward spies. It is owing to his information, again, that we can cause the doomed spy to carry false tidings to the enemy. Lastly, it is by his information that the surviving spy can be used on appointed occasions. 

Military prisoners have proven to be a mine of information. Why rid yourself of an asset whose knowledge can both supplement your own and undermine that of your enemy? As Sun Tzu summarises:

The end and aim of spying in all its five varieties is knowledge of the enemy; and this knowledge can only be derived, in the first instance, from the converted spy. Hence it is essential that the converted spy be treated with the utmost liberality.

It is interesting that a man who advocated plunder and merciless suppression in vanquished territories could simultaneously appreciate the subtlety of warfare, the bigger picture beyond the battlefield. In no place does he advocate the maltreatment or execution of prisoners. Knowledge and allegiance can be won by patience and kindness.

But as he shrewdly acknowledged:

All warfare is based on deception.

Why trust your enemy, even if he is a prisoner whose survival depends on your goodwill? Is this not the reason why so many PoWs are tortured for information, a misconception that only under duress will they speak the truth?

Guantanamo Bay remains open, the Trump administration repealing Obama’s failed promise to close the controversial facility. What good has torture played in the American War on Terror? Would it not have been better to follow the advice of the sage Sun Tzu?

The difficulties of what to do with PoWs – however you wish to define such people – will continue to perplex and antagonise. Humanitarian concern will duel for supremacy with political and military gain in the mind of the captor, the occasional bloodthirstiness not withstanding. Those in command of the key to the prison exercise all-encompassing power.

Eunuchs dance attendance at the Persian court of Shah Abbas I. Ancient Greek historian Herodotus reported that in the 5th century BC prisoners of war, especially “boys of unusual beauty,” were often castrated and sold to the “barbarians” (Persians), who considered them more trustworthy than other males (Persian Wars 8.105).

It is a topic that has consumed the greatest minds, and those with the greatest intentions, for thousands of years. No simple answer awaits and none will be proffered.  For the Prisoner of War, fate trumps all.

Further Reading

Sawyer, R.D. (1994) Sun Tzu: Art of War