It’s a simple fact now that with the development of Artificial Intelligence, many industries are swapping out human workers for machine ones, and more increasingly in sectors previously thought to be safe from such developments. But this isn’t new information…Tadhg MacCionnaith discusses.
Artificial Intelligence is often seen as a threatening thing largely thanks to the idea that AI will represent something created by humanity with a completely alien outlook. This can be seen in the classics of Sci-fi from I, Robot in how the supposed three laws of robotics come to be interpreted, to the much more sinister and purposeful callousness of the AI displayed in I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. More current popular culture will point to the likes of Skynet from the Terminator franchise as some kind of apocalypse-inducing inheritor of the earth, or the rampancy of the Halo games exploring the potential for degradation of the AI themselves. But for all the drama and pathos of these approaches to the topic, one of the less glamorous threats posed by AI has always been primarily economic in nature.
The industrial revolution in the wake of the Enlightenment has played a huge role in shaping the society we endure today. It is also the point in human history where mechanisation becomes a prevalent societal force, with the efficiency of machines revolutionising production. This brings us to the plight of the Luddites.
Starting out as a band of textile artisans, the Luddites (often written-off as anti-progress technophobes) were those craftspeople made redundant by the ongoing implementation of machines. At first, the craftspeople were enthused at the introduction of machines, with their work being assisted by their use. Even some whose jobs were replaced entirely could find work operating the machinery that changed their livelihood. However, the motivation for mechanisation was not their quality of life. Not only would the cramped and unsafe conditions of emergent industry detrimentally impact workers, craftspeople saw fewer returns for their work. Those textile workers who attempted to operate outside of these early factories found themselves out-competed by swathes of cheap cloth produced in these exploitative conditions flooding the market. Outraged at these developments, artisans armed themselves and went about destroying the facilitators of their exploitation, the machines.
Robotics and AI are increasingly being funded for use in the workplace, with automated assemblies already visible in the likes of the automotive industry. It pays to be aware that a primary reason for this is the efficiency drive for business. The production model we operate under offers the maxim that humans work to live, not live to work. With this in mind, how are we to reconcile this rationalisation with the very real human cost it will have for those who either lose their jobs or have their pay diminished? AI, in particular, has the potential to affect jobs traditionally deemed safer from such things, perhaps even the education sector.
This question is not a new one. 1892 saw the publishing of The Conquest of Bread, an examination of how society is organised with special reference to technology. Machines and systems, which can do so much for so little, have the rewards of their production concentrated in an owner rather than those who operate them or the wider community. As stated in The Conquest of Bread itself;
“Truly, we are rich, far richer than we think;[…] richest of all in what we might win from our soil, from our manufactures, from our science, from our technical knowledge, were they, but applied to bringing about the well-being of all.”
Will the gradual introduction of AI to a working environment uphold the status quo or can we make it more beneficial for wider society, beyond private interests? No matter the outcome, it’s important to consider lessons from the past and have a vision for the future when talking about AI.
Would you like to be educated by an AI? Should the workplace be more democratic? How else will machines affect society going forward? Let us know what you think @MotleyMagazine on Twitter!