When robots rule the world


The idea that computers rather than people could make decisions about other people’s intentions in the workplace that I wrote about recently – an IBM security tool can flag “disgruntled employees” – may be the tip of an evolutionary iceberg that spotlights a wider and deeper issue facing developed countries like the US and many of the EU member states.

The Financial Times reports on how the US economy is becoming steadily more automated and how manufacturing employment is shrinking (and doing so worldwide, the FT notes) while manufacturing activity rises.

[…] During Mr Obama’s presidency, IBM’s Watson has proved computers can outfox the most agile minds, drones have become America’s weapon of choice, the driverless car is now a reality and the word “app” has been detached from its origin. No longer the realm of science fiction, the rise of robots now poses the central economic dilemma of the Obama era.

See a fuller assessment in this FT Alphaville video discussion.

I wonder how much such workplace automation is behind unemployment statistics for the European Union such as reported by the EU Observer yesterday:

Eurostat estimates 25.926 million men and women in the EU were unemployed in December 2012, with 18.715 million of them in the euro area. In both zones, rates have risen markedly compared with December 2011, from 10.7% to 11.7% in the eurozone and from 10.0% to 10.7% in the EU.

The eye-popping metric – almost 26 million people across the EU (total population over 503 million) are without a job.

The reality may not be dystopian but it’s not a pretty picture.

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Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Javier

    Robots are a good thing, usually. They end doing boring and repetitive tasks, where humans can’t really learn much about. Robots industry will become a massive industry itself, generating workplaces. About unemployment, the general situation is pretty bad an pessimistic, but I also wonder if we are too accustomed to getting all in our hand instead of going out there and find our way. I would be more worried about the big immigration fluxes that are happening right now in Europe, specially from the most crisis stricken countries.

  2. David Phillips

    Neville, I am not sure if automation causes unemployment. I agree that it causes re-deployment.
    As we have adopted more automation over the last half millennia, we have fed a bigger population, provided more jobs, increased personal wealth and freedoms and much more.
    My ancestors had to get up before dawn, break the ice on clay pugging pits and then spend a day walking round and round barefoot to make clay for bricks. Not sure I want to go back to those days.
    There are other arguments used to in a similar way. So many people point a finger at online commerce when they try to explain why so many high street shops are closing.
    Meantime the cost of getting to shopping centres, the charges for parking and the unappealing high street experience is put to one side. Shop fronts often abuse the architecture behind them, window displays are boring and the adventure of the shop floor seems to have been lost completely.
    Another example of selective vision is evident in economic discussions. Over and again, we are told that this or that economy is in recession. It is simple a simplistic view.
    Almost every part of the economy I am involved in is growing in double digits per year. The sectors are exciting and dynamic and new exciting things happen every day.

    Will Robots make decisions?

    I think there is no doubt about it.

    Will they make ‘human like’ decision.

    No doubt.

    Will it be a threat to humanity.

    I doubt it but we will change as a result and probably not have to pug clay with our bare feet either.

    • Neville Hobson

      Maybe ity’s a matter of perception, David. So a factory installs robots, and lays off 100 workers. Whatever the underlying facts, everyone can see very clearly in their own minds what caused the unemployment.

      Progress has a price.

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