Rupert the Bear’s warning on AI, robots and jobs

‘He draws on recent dystopian business literature predicting imminent loss of jobs to machines, which talks of 47 per cent of US jobs at risk of replacement in the next 20 years’

A range of business and academic figures defend technological innovation as historically precedented and socially progressive. Photograph: Getty Images

A range of business and academic figures defend technological innovation as historically precedented and socially progressive. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Johann Rupert, head of the powerful Richemont luxury goods company whose brands include Cartier, Piaget and Dunhill, takes a bleak view of how the new technologies arising from artificial intelligence and robots will affect employment and social stability.

Rupert says hundreds of millions of jobs will be lost as they are introduced. Existing social inequalities, on which the luxury industry thrives, will be reinforced, he says.

If much greater structural unemployment results, the social fabric of developed societies will be torn apart by envy, hatred and social warfare as many middle class jobs are destroyed. That would make the luxury sector unsustainable.

A new social pact is required to organise a potentially abundant society and prevent the tiny minority of super-rich taking all the benefits.

The warning seems strange coming from Rupert, but it makes sense if such social unsustainability delegitimises luxury markets and the special craft skills they rely on to make those products.

He draws on recent dystopian business literature predicting the loss of jobs to machines. It talks of 47 per cent of US jobs at risk of replacement in the next 20 years. He is known as Rupert the Bear because he repeatedly predicted the 2008 financial collapse in the two preceding years.

Super intelligence

The rate of growth in applying these technologies and their transition from narrow to general purpose systems throws up such fears. After this year’s victory of a robot over the world champion of the complex Chinese game “Go”, the term singularity is applied to them, referring to a runaway process of change by the 2040s.

In response, a range of business and academic figures defend innovation as historically precedented and socially progressive. Previously, new jobs arose to replace those lost, whether in the 19th century industrial revolution or the 20th century car industry. Digital technology complements existing jobs rather than replacing them, they say, and it also tends to apply to particular tasks, not entire functions.

Companies such as Google are concentrating resources and investment on artificial intelligence projects such as Demis Hassabis’s DeepMind company it bought in 2014 to deepen research on general intelligence by multipurpose robots.

Driverless cars will use such systems, as will applications in medicine, banking, clerical work, retailing, law, insurance and manufacturing.

Listings of these impacts often assume incremental and conflict-free application of the technology, but that overlooks the accumulations of grievances referred to by Rupert. It is wrong to disregard the economic and social context in which technology is applied.

If it is driven by profit maximisation, job displacement, weakening trade union power and reinforced inequalities, dystopian outcomes are more likely. So are the populist mobilisations of previously deindustrialised communities that have been such a feature of European and US politics this year.

That is why the policy debates around technological changes are so important. How can their benefits be distributed fairly? Will the usually prolonged and disruptive delay between job loss and replacement in previous periods of change be overcome?

As for the new social pact called for by Rupert, do these changes in fact herald a post-work and post-capitalist future, as argued by the socialist Paul Mason, in which work would be delinked from wages, the working day reduced and a vast programme of infrastructural investment undertaken to re-employ those displaced? Or is that utopian, given existing political balances of power and ideology?

Political questions

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These are political questions, not technological ones. They are posed by the scale and intensity of change coming in the next generation.

Existing structures of power and inequality will tend to drive them, factors often overlooked in technical discussions. It suits the huge companies dominating the IT sector to narrow policy choices. They have an unprecedented monopoly on much of the technology and pay little in taxation to fund social change.

These issues require broad philosophical and political debate in the coming years. pegillespie@gmail.com

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