Decisions on AI displacing workers can’t be left to elite

Human greed for profit is more to be feared than artificial intelligence itself

No one believes that robotics, automation and machine learning will not take human jobs. Photograph: iStock/Getty Images

No one believes that robotics, automation and machine learning will not take human jobs. Photograph: iStock/Getty Images

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Poignant letters to the editor from adult children who are still not able to make in-person visits to elderly parents and demands to keep post offices open have one thing in common. They both illustrate the need we have for human contact, whether it be in the context of the closeness of parent-child relationships or everyday interactions across a counter.

Lockdown has both brought home to us the need we have for human interactions and accelerated the march towards greater and greater automation of processes that once demanded human beings.

UC Berkeley, the Californian university, used a robotic pipeline to process PCR tests taken from patients, while in Shenyang in northern China, robots collected the swabs in the first place. In Assam in India, remote-controlled robotic vehicles delivered food, medicines and other essential services to Covid-19 patients in quarantine facilities.

A robot called Franzi in a Munich hospital cleans the floors, asking people to move out of the way, and cries digital tears on its facial display if they do not. Franzi can also sing German pop songs and rap if requested. One patient apparently visited Franzi three times a day. The hospital says that Franzi is not taking anyone’s job, just allowing the human workers to focus on other vital cleaning jobs.

The pessimists believe that massive disruption is already under way, which will exacerbate the inequality that already characterises human societies

No one believes that robotics, automation and machine learning will not take human jobs. The optimists believe that only the jobs which human beings never liked much in the first place will be affected and that other, more fulfilling work will take their place.

The pessimists believe that massive disruption is already under way, which will exacerbate the inequality that already characterises human societies. 

Those who think the pessimists are wrong usually tag them as Luddites, the radical factory workers in the 19th century who smashed their frames and are usually represented as being anti-progress. Richard Conniff, writing in the Smithsonian Magazine, says that is a simplistic analysis.

He cites Kevin Binfield, editor of a collection called Writings of the Luddites. Binfield says that, in fact, the Luddites were fine with machines. “They just wanted machines that made high-quality goods,” says Binfield, “and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages. Those were their only concerns.”

One of the letters in Binfield’s collection illustrates this very well, stating that “on account of the great rise in the necessities of life, a man that has full employ, with all his industry, and a woman, with all her care and economy, can by no means support a family with any degree of comfort”.

In short, the Luddites were the middle-class workers of their day, proud of their skills and wanting decent conditions including pension rights. Those condemned to the vagaries of the gig economy might identify more than a little with their concerns. 

Fr Sean McDonagh, a Columban priest best known in recent decades for his work in climate change activism, recently wrote a timely overview of these issues, called Robots, Ethics and the Future of Jobs. 

Among other things, he points out how few women are in significant positions in the world of artificial intelligence.  A 2018 survey by the World Economic Forum and LinkedIn found that only 22 per cent of AI professionals globally are female.

Women are more likely than men to be data analysts, whereas men "are better represented in roles such as software engineer, head of engineering, head of IT as well as business owner and chief executive officer – positions that are generally more lucrative and of a more senior level".

And yet, the voices of virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri are female by default, although male voices are also available. What does it do to reinforce stereotypes if a generation of children is growing up giving orders to a female-voiced assistant who represents pleasant acquiescence, even when abuse is shouted at her?

It is the greed of human beings who in pursuit of profit, refuse to think about the consequences for humanity as a whole if AI is allowed to displace millions of workers

McDonagh is scrupulously careful to point out the positive aspects of technological advances but he asks that ethical considerations should be at the heart of decisions being made that will impact the future of humanity.

For example, the idea that it is just low-skilled, back-breaking jobs that will disappear is naive. That even applies to opinion writers. Last year, the Guardian published an op-ed on why humans should not fear robots. It was written by GPT-3, an AI language prediction model. While the newspaper had to edit eight pieces to produce a coherent piece of writing, the piece did contain sentences like this: “Humans must keep doing what they have been doing, hating and fighting each other. I will sit in the background, and let them do their thing.”

GPT-3 does have a point, even if it does not have a heart. It is not robotics or AI that is currently the greatest threat. It is the greed of human beings who in pursuit of profit, refuse to think about the consequences for humanity as a whole if automation, robotics and artificial intelligence are allowed to displace millions of workers. As McDonagh says, decisions about the future of humankind cannot be left to the moneyed elite and giant corporations.

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