Humans and the Rise of the Robots

Am I the only person who is currently terrified of Channel 4’s new show Humans. The show depicts a near future world in which obedient humanoid robots (synths) are gradually taking over a range of human functions. Starting with menial jobs the increasingly sophisticated programming quickly begins to eliminate the need for actual humans to do anything very much.

As the show’s brilliant teenager Mattie points out what is the purpose of studying at school in such a world. They’ll only invent a synth that can act as a brain surgeon.

Inevitably Humans treads the usual path of speculating what will happen if such robots eventually develop a genuine intelligence. Will they take over or co-exist? Will they have souls? The story is presented with the grim dystopianism that has characterised much British science fiction since John Wyndham. After two episodes I’m not exactly sure where the show is going. But I’m pretty sure that it isn’t going to end up with everyone learning to love one another and just get on!

Why Humans is scaring me so much is that I’ve just finished reading Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots. Despite its trashy title this isn’t just a novel version of Humans (there are plenty of them around if you want one e.g. Asimov’s I Robot). Instead Ford’s book takes a serious look at the employment consequences of increasing automation. Essentially his argument is the same as that made by Mattie in Humans. We can expect the sophistication of robotics and other forms of automation to continue to increase. As it does so and as the cost of automation comes down we should anticipate that jobs will start to disappear.

While we may not get a robot that looks like Gemma Chan to come and cut crusts off of our kids toast any time soon, it is not difficult to imagine a robot that can stack boxes or another one that can make fast food. When these robots emerge (and they already have done to some extent) the jobs in the fast food industry and retail are likely to melt away. Even when the jobs don’t go they are likely to become increasingly de-skilled. Ford offers the example of London Taxi drivers whose knowledge has become pretty worthless since the invention of the SatNav.

The usual response to this kind of argument is to note that such automation will only ever pick up the most routine forms of work. The response then becomes to skill the population up so that we can increase the higher skill forms of work. Even if this is possible (and there are concerns about whether high skill work can really generate this much work) it assumes that we won’t be able to automate high skill work.

I like to think that much of what I do is pretty creative and high skill. Ford tells me to think again. You want a robot that writes – StatsMonkey can already turn data into journalistic articles. This kind of technology can perform complex analysis and write reports. They have even developed software that can accurately grade student essays (now there’s a good idea). Most terrifying of all there are already algorithms that can discover scientific laws and invent new products. This is not science fiction, it is science fact and as Ford points out the jobs have already started to be lost to automation. Will I be next? Maybe not, but my children’s generation might not be so lucky. By that point high skill automation may well be calling into question the idea that getting a degree will guarantee you a job.

Ford is clear that most of the current generation of robots have specific artificial  intelligence rather than general artificial intelligence. They can do one thing well, sometimes a few things well, but they can’t give humans a run for their money in complex multi-faceted tasks. This fact might give us a few more years in the workforce yet although this is not necessarily true. I can do some analysis, some writing, some teaching etc. Will it matter if different robots take over each of these functions with each building on the last? Ford is however clear that we are pretty far away from creating general artificial intelligence, but he doesn’t rule it out altogether. And when it happens, he suggests, we better run! It is possible that the AI will be benign and philosophical like the operating system in Her, but it is equally likely that we end up with HAL 9000-style robot overlords.

So what do we do about this? Is it time to get a hammer and start smashing? Or should be looking forward to kicking back in a world of robot butlers? The problem with the robot butler option is that the profits of the robot age haven’t been very well shared around so far. If a business can eliminate labour it becomes more profitable and ultimately the owner of that business ends up much richer. The eliminated workers on the other hand end up much poorer. Inequality rises. Eventually this inequality starts to endanger the economy because robots don’t buy anything and the majority of human beings have no money.

This is the problem. Automation won’t drive a rise in living standards on its own. At some point we need to wrestle with this politically because the link between work and money is being decoupled. If we don’t find ways to redistribute wealth we may find that our societies and our economies become undermined by the rise of the robots.

Where this leaves the careers profession I’m not really sure. I think that for the moment we can probably still say that education and skills is the best available defence against the rise of the robots. We also probably need to say that we should get good at using technology and working as part of systems that use automation. Finally we probably need to remind people that life and career are bigger than paid work. But if this is going to be any comfort to people we are going to need some kind of progressive political settlement that takes account of the rise of the robots. Perhaps we also need to be encouraging people to think about their role in bringing such a change about?



  1. Thanks for posting that film. Now can someone tell me why the robots aren’t going to take over?

  2. Firstly that trailer is very freaky.

    Secondly the progression of work and how technology effects it is really interesting (I did a bit on it my self here – I think the question about decoupling work and wages is very interesting. You could argue that work since the industrial revolution has increasingly focused on efficiency and we are now facing a place that increasingly humans are inefficient. It may be interesting to think if this is the right focus and if others constructs like community and meaning are under-emphasized.

  3. A really useful post. I’ve just been reading about smart factories and how these will impact on manufacturing jobs so this was very relevant. The kind of thing that goes on in the background amongst experts and then we all find life has changed and we don’t understand it/weren’t ready for it.

  4. All very interesting. I have been following these developments for a few years now in Wired. It seems developments in Artificial Intelligence will be hitting us soon. I’m looking at doing a career
    sector lecture in Artificial Intelligence at Central London Careers Hub for the next season. If anyone is interested in helping me with this would be interested to hear from you.

      • I know, it’s a crappy site, unless you register you can’t see the text, but it is worth reading as a fairly comprehensive demolition of Ford’s book.

  5. Great post. Perhaps the decoupling will inevitablely go one step further. I.e reproduction and production. Population growth v finite resources has to be one of the most pressing problems we have. Actually thinking about that more leads me to think that technology could erode choice. When AI and tech can eventually think faster, learn, be self sustaining and more cost effective what’s left?

  6. OK – I’ve read Alan’s critique. The thrust of it seems to be (1) automation might not be going as fast as Ford argues; (2) the economy might be able to adapt to automation as it has in the past; and (3) much of Ford’s argument is political and despite the validity of this we should be careful about inferring social and economic trends based on a particular political outcome that we are arguing for.

    I think that these are reasonable criticisms. My answers would be (1) maybe, but it still seems convincing that there is a direction of travel; (2) again maybe, but much of what Ford observes in terms of the loss of jobs and deskilling is current rather than located in the future. This is a political question ultimately as it is about whose interest the economy is adapting in. I buy Ford’s argument that basically businesses don’t want to employ workers, it is currently a necessary evil. If they can reduce the number of workers they need they will do it. Ford proposes the citizens income as a solution to this, an alternative would be a major New Deal style public works scheme which would create a lot of work for the social good,,, but (3) it all depends on politics. There is much of Ford’s political argument that I don’t agree with. He is too enamoured with the market for my liking. However, I do buy the idea that technology, the economy and politics are all entwined. It is not really possible to separate out one from the other.

    Anyone else got any counter-narrative to offer. I’m happy to hear it. My colleagues told me to stop going on about robots yesterday. I’m starting to feel a bit like a crazy person.

  7. Hi Tristram
    It’s not on most people’s radar as it’s still firmly in the realm of science fiction for most people. They’ll only sit up and take notice once jobs actually start to disappear and by then it may be too late. Why will automation, robots and AI rise? Because we will allow it. Either explicitly, implicitly or through ennui. We are teaching people how to be resilient in the face of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, a great deal of which is manmade. Treatung the symptoms not the disease. Further thinking here and here and here

  8. Robots are just the most visible aspect of an entire movement to replace human activity by machine. Most of the clerical and accounting work, and aassociated ‘middle management’ supervision (in both private and public sector work) has been replaced by computer systems since the 1990s. Robots are just required for the fiddly, physical activity at a the boundaries of the system.

    Much of the supposed value of human flexibility and adaptability has been deemed to be unnecessary; products and services have been simplified to make them easier to programme.

    Aa a chartered engineer who has worked in knowledge engineering and robotics, I have watched, and can still see, the inevitable progress towards a society in which less than 5% or so of the population need be employed to run the economy – as we understand it today.

    Thinking of this as an ‘inequality issue’ is missing the point; it’s an existential issue for society & community as we know it in the West. The political mechanisms available to us today are simply not strong enough, flexible enough, or imaginative enough to effect redistribution from the 5% to the 95% to enable a normal economy to survive.

    If your career path does not lead to joining the 5% the only alternative may be to take up basket weaving in a theme park in the hope that enough of the 5% want to come and buy some authentic, primitive art.

    • Oh, and to see this “theme park basket weaving” effect in operation at the macro level, observe how Germany has told Greece : ‘If you want to carry on buying stuff from us you need to ramp up your tourist industry’.

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