Don't Fear the Robots

We should embrace the prospect of robots and machine intelligence in our lives – they’ll make us rich and rested

By Roger Bootle

July 25 2019

Believe 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.

Believe the hype about  robots and artificial  intelligence (AI), and we  are about to experience  a revolution
Believe the hype about robots and artificial intelligence (AI), and we are about to experience a revolution

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 putup 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