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We should embrace the prospect of robots and machine
intelligence in our lives – they’ll make us rich and rested
Chairmamn of
Captial Economics ,
columnist for the
D a i l y Te l e g r a p h
elieve the hype about
robots and artificial
intelligence (AI), and we
are about to experience
a revolution. The trouble is, it isn’t
clear whether this will be a good
or bad thing. The pessimists say
almost all of us are going to be out
of a job. According to the optimists,
however, we may well be working
less but that is because the robots
and AI will be doing most of the
unpleasant and boring things,
leaving us a combination of more
interesting jobs and more leisure.
Both visions sound to me like a
good reason to visit Boisdale. In the
first case we will need to drown our
sorrows, and in the second we will
need to find something useful to do
with all that leisure time. So cheers!
There is an important difference
between these two visons, however.
In the first scenario, ordinary bods
won’t be able to afford to go out
much because they will have lost
their primary source of income.
Even the rest of us might not be able
to afford to do very much in the
future. The consequence of
widespread poverty for the masses
will be much higher taxes on the
better off, perhaps even to fund the
establishment of a universal basic
income (UBI), a once fanciful idea
that is already enthusing many
thinkers on the political left.
Nor is it going to be easy to avoid
this fate by escaping our fair climes
for pastures new. If it comes for our
jobs, the robot revolution will be
no respecter of borders. The effects
will strike just about everywhere.
What’s more, the tide of opinion
in favour of increasing taxes on the
rich is likely to sweep the globe.
Unbelievably, there was recently
a referendum on introducing a UBI
in Switzerland, of all places. It
didn’t win, but the proposal earned
the support of almost a quarter of
voters. You may feel even more in
need of a drink now.
If you believe the ultras on this
subject, there won’t be much
employment at Boisdale, either,
because robots will be dispensing
the drinks and taking the money.
And there is another key category
of redundancy of close interest to
us Boisdalers – cab drivers. Without
needing to pay a human driver,
they will be even cheaper than
Uber. And we won’t have to put
up with the driver boasting about
having that so-and-so in the back
of the cab last night, or telling us
about all the people he would like
to have hung, drawn and quartered.
Well, you can believe all this
stuff if you like, but I don’t. Not that
I underestimate the importance of
Artificial Intelligence. I just don’t
buy this Death of Work idea, not
least because it has been doing the
rounds ever since the Industrial
Revolution. Since that era onwards,
there has been a succession of
individuals who have seen their
jobs become surplus, and trades
that have disappeared altogether.
But new jobs have always appeared
to take the place of the old. And,
although average working hours
have fallen, increased productivity
has simultaneously delivered rising
real incomes. So people have been
able to enjoy both more leisure time
and more money to spend during it.
Why will the robot and AI
revolution be any different? Some
ultras say that there will be nothing
that humans could do as well as
robots and AI. I think this is
rubbish. Although robots can do
many things, their manual dexterity
is, in actual fact, extremely poor
and is not improving much. For all
its abilities, AI cannot match the
flexibility, intuition and creativity
of the human mind. I believe that
it never will. For the mind is
something far more than a complex,
powerful computer.
And robots and AI will never
be more human than we are. This
is extremely important, because
humans like to interact with other
humans. Let’s take Guy serving at
the back bar of Boisdale of
Belgravia. Can you really imagine
Guy’s artificial replacement serving
you as well, complete with broad
French accent and applicable
charm? Hardly. Put a robot behind
the bar, and pretty soon the
customers would all be robots too.
This prospect is too awful to
contemplate. Frankly, I wouldn’t
bother yourself with such thoughts.
It’s all going to be just fine. In
general, as a society we will carry
on getting richer even as we enjoy
a further reduction in average
working hours; and that includes
three-day weekends becoming the
norm. More time to spend at the
bar, being served by humans.
Thanks for offering. Mine’s a glass
of Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay!
Roger Bootle’s latest book, The
AI Economy – Work, Wealth and
Wellbeing in the Robot Age,
is published in September by
Nicholas Brealey

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