For the past week Sky News has been running a series of reports on the rapid and ongoing development of ‘smart’ robots, thereby prompting a discussion upon the potential threat to jobs represented by the possibility that one day there’ll barely be a reason for human beings to work at all because robots will be able to perform all productive tasks that need doing.
The implications arising are many and fascinating.
Should not we now be contemplating a future in which our lords and masters urgently need to be ‘teaching’ all human beings how to occupy their time in a world in which nobody need ever work again, or indeed perhaps ever from cradle to grave?
Currently we have a society in which people go to school, university, whatever – learn a ‘trade’ – then work at it for forty or fifty years, then retire and, in their declining years, either rest up and/or begin ticking off all those things they’d stored up to place upon their ‘bucket lists’. What would happen if things changed so that each of us could all begin our ‘bucket list’ phase at the age of twenty-one?
We’re talking in theory of course at this stage – but you never know.
For those of a leftist persuasion – which assumes that all property is theft and that the biggest wrong in the world is that capitalism is built upon the conceit that those who own the means of production should be allowed to ‘exploit’ the ordinary workers who actually do the work – this brings some new issues to bear.
Because, if nobody actually needs to work anymore – let’s assume for this purpose that in the brave new (robot-driven) world every adult would receive £50,000 per annum to spend upon whatever they like – then surely nobody is exploiting anyone?
Thus, perhaps, since nobody actually needs to work anyway to put bread upon the family table, those who might formerly have described themselves as ‘workers’ need only work if they want to – whether that be for self-respect, having a constant purpose in life, simply having something to do other than play X-Box games, use their smartphones, watch television, go clubbing, or just generally socialising and interacting.
Would there be a backlash against the new situation, echoing the early 19th Century Luddite protests by textile workers and weavers against the primitive labour-saving (machine) devices that were then being introduced, resulting in violent protests against the hordes of smart robots that were now ‘taking our jobs’?
Indeed, just how does the time-honoured plea “Give us jobs” pan out when there’s no longer any need for anyone to have one?
Would those who (in former times) would have been workers now band together in a new form of co-operative societies, simply in order to re-connect with the joys of being employed and the camaraderie of ‘working class’ culture?
And what about those who are adherents of capitalism – the former ’employer’ class. How would they react to the conditions that might apply in some future ‘Robotsville’?
Quite possibly with glee and enthusiasm, I’d venture to suggest.
I’ve met not a few businessmen in my time who have counselled that, as a general principle, to succeed in business you should engage as few employees as possible, simply on the basis that ‘people mean problems’.
These guys would be like pigs in muck in a situation in which robots could do everything.
Just think of the advantages. No need for trade unions, pensions, employee relations, annual holidays, employee sickness, maternity/paternity leave, on-the-job training, firm outings, discussions over pay rises and conditions, equal opportunity legislation, career development issues, or worries about good employees being poached by competitors … what would be not to like … well apart, perhaps, from the occasional chore of maintaining your current robots, oiling their moving parts and making sure that you put as much as necessary into research & development of future robotic technology to remain abreast (if not ahead) of your business competitors?
It all seems very fanciful and ridiculous, surely a scenario that would never happen.
Or could it?