Unless the politics of the governments around the world change, robots and AI will become the next blow to the living standards of ordinary people.
There are an increasing number of stories in the media about robots becoming a big part of our future and the need to have democratic openness overseeing the rise of internet companies. But I was stunned to read an article by Rohan Silva in the Evening Standard about the breath-taking advances in the use of robots around the world.
Armed robots are already on patrol in China. At one railway station robots standing 1.6 metres tall are on guard with cameras and facial recognition software to track suspicious people or wanted criminals. Reportedly, robots have “electrically charged riot control tools” that enable them to arrest suspects. In Beijing’s Tiananmen Square robots have stun guns as they oversee the crowds.
Silva reports that in Dubai the government plans robots will be a quarter of the police force by 2030. In India’s Uttar Pradesh the council has drones with loud speakers and strobe lighting to use for the breakup of protesters. These drones can also fire tear gas pellets, pepper spray and paintballs.
In America New Jersey’s city police have created Citizen Virtual Patrol which encourages the public to access videos from the city’s CCTV network in order to warn the police of anything suspicious. Other cities are also using algorithms to identify where the next crime will take place. One example in Los Angeles is the PredPole system run by the police to predict where crimes are next likely to erupt. And it’s not just in LA. There are now over ninety cities using this system of predictive policing in America.
Japan is on the same track. In the city of Kyoto their computers have studied over 100,000 previous crimes to predict where similar crimes would occur in the future. Police then move to these areas to deter the criminals and search suspects that have been identified.
If I had read this article on April 1 I would have assumed it was an April Fool’s joke. I have never seen anything like this on the streets of London where we have seen a huge surge in crime. I suppose it won’t be long before London’s mayor sends staff off to China and LA to see if their tactics can be used here.
We’ve had predictions that the robots could wipe out millions of jobs and massively increase poverty. There’s also the question of human rights and the right to privacy. The Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, the World Bank’s former chief economist and now professor at Columbia University, delivered a speech at the prestigious Royal Society in London in September this year on how artificial intelligence will transform our lives. It could lead to a better society with people having to work less, but only if there is proper control of the firms who are becoming global giants on the back of AI. But Stiglitz also warned things could go the other way with a real reduction in the quality of our life and the undermining of democracy. He said“AI and robotization have the potential to increase the productivity of the economy and… that could make everybody better off… but only if they are well managed.”
It is not just Stiglitz raising these concerns. Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, has said “large swathes of Britain’s workforce face unemployment as AI and other technologies automate more jobs.” A similar prediction came in a report by the accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers in July that AI could create even more jobs than it destroys but pointed out the problems switching from one job to another.
Stiglitz further cautioned that although AI can help people with their work it can also replace the workers. At Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge cancer specialists are spending less time on radiotherapy for men with prostate cancer because the AI they are using clearly shows up the infected gland when the patient is scanned. This means treatment starts earlier and is more precise. But other AI operations which are identifying breast cancer and other forms could lead to a real cut in jobs for radiologists.
Most of the jobs at risk are in low-skilled roles such as call centres, cashiers and truck drivers. We can create many more new jobs in care for the elderly and providing support for the growing number of children with mental health problems but that would mean governments increasing tax on global corporations to pay for the creation of these new jobs as these giant tech firms wipe out millions of other jobs across the planet.
The rising power of the tech firms imperils our right to privacy with companies now able to access their customers smart phones and gather data which can then be used to increase their sales. “Which is the easier way to make a buck: figuring out a better way to exploit somebody or making a better product? With the new AI, it looks like the answer is finding a better way to exploit somebody,” Stiglitz stated. He also warned that governments and tech giants are taking no action to prevent these abuses, so he is proposing strong measures that should be brought in quickly with new regulators having the power to decide what data the tech firms can capture and for what purpose. Transparency must reveal what they are doing.
Governments must act to curb the growing powers of these monopolies but also to tax them in order to ensure that government can create new jobs as AI and robots wipe out millions in the years to come. If we don’t make these changes, Stiglitz states “We’re going towards a greater wage inequality, greater income and wealth inequality and probably more unemployment and a more divided society… By changing the rules we could wind up with a richer society, with the fruits more equally divided and quite possibly where people have a shorter working week… We could go down to thirty or twenty-five hours a week.”
The World Bank has a very different view saying that the robot age is nothing to worry about. They say this fourth industrial revolution will create many more jobs than it destroys. In the World Bank’s World Development Report it promises that automation will create jobs to meet future needs of which we are not yet aware. It rightly points out that governments need to increase investment in education so that we will have the skills for what is coming. It also argues governments should reduce labour laws and regulations as these could stop companies using robots to replace humans.
Many anti-poverty campaigners and trade unions have criticised the Bank’s report as they are well aware of how ordinary workers’ living standards have been slashed across the planet in recent years. The former American Secretary of State, John Kerry who is considering running for president in 2020, pointed out that fifty-one percent of all the wealth created in American is going to the richest one percent.
Christine Lagarde, the boss of the International Monetary Fund, warned that “the top one percent of income earners have captured twice as much of the gains from growth as the bottom 50 percent.” In May this year the IMF published the report ‘Should We Fear The Robot Revolution?’, which said this technological revolution is unlike those of the past with robots taking over our jobs and doing them quicker and cheaper; productivity will go up but wages will go down. Firms who own the robots will get richer, the workers will get poorer. The reports concludes “our main results are surprisingly robust… automation is good for growth and bad for equality.”
Last week the United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights warned about the growth of poverty in Britain. Philip Alston had spent two weeks touring areas of poverty in Britain. He pointed out that Britain is the fifth largest economy in the world, but the levels of child poverty are “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster.” Fourteen million people, a fifth of the population, are now in poverty and 1.5 million are destitute. In his reports to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva he pointed out that in Britain “poverty is a political choice.” The austerity policies under the Tory government of the last eight years have seen the mental health of those on benefits deteriorate with vulnerable claimants struggling to survive. Recently, the chancellor’s budget saw big tax cuts for the rich instead of using that money to tackle austerity. Alston warned that our government is in a state of denial and that there was a striking disconnect between what the government claims and what he had witnessed as he traveled the length of Britain
It’s not just here that we have seen the government trample on the poor. The same is happening in America and countries around the world. Unless we can change the politics of our governments robots and AI will just be the next blow to the living standards of ordinary working and middle-class families.
By Ken Livingstone