No "end of jobs": debunking the cyclical AI/Robotics hype

The first recorded prophecies of the “death of work” came in the later days of the Roman Empire where the spread of water wheels led to collapse in the price of slaves in Dalmatia. In the 16th Century clockwork automata (alias robots) were fashionable and about as useful as most of the domestic robots of today, albeit very much more expensive. As a student I enjoyed reading Thomas Love Peacock‘s comments on the similar arguments that accompanied the industrial revolution. Meanwhile his “day job” was at The East India Office, organising the telegraphic communications across India and back to London, helping transform the world beyond the most far fetched dreams and nightmares of  those he satirised.

In 1977 the BBC Horizon Programme “Now the Chips are Down” triggered a series of studies into the “death of work” that would follow the micro-electronics revolution. I represented my ASTMS on that organised by the TUC for the then Labour Government. I was introduced by the General Secretary at one event as “the acceptable face of the Tory Party, he pays the levy”. At the same time I was working, via what is now the Conservative Science and Technology Forum, on policy studies to handle the implications. “Cashing in on the Chips” (published in 1979) was one the best selling CPC pamphlets of all time and I spent nearly an hour on the Jimmy Young programme explaining that “In ten years time when North Sea oil peaks out, the price of energy in the UK will soar. In twenty years time our workforce will shrink as a result of the fall in the birth rate, while the number of senior citizens to be supported will continue to grow. The wealth creating potential of the Chip revolution is our best way out of the combination of crises that loom over Britain.

The key to realising that potential is to remove the fear of unemployment so that change is welcomed not resisted. This requires freedom of movement to enable the worker redundant in one job, trade or town to move without excessive tribulation to another. Government action is needed to: …

Some of the actions were implemented to time, such as “a microcomputer … in every secondary school in Britain by 1982” although the “appropriate teaching material to support staff” did not even begin to arrive until several years later and the budget of the “Micro-electronics support unit” was a fraction of the “ten times the hardware budget” I had specified in the support papers.

In 1982 I was asked to present to the UK technical press on the educational implications of the rise of AI and Artificial Intelligence and I recently put the original paper on “Learning for Change: training, retraining and life-long education  for multi-career lives” back on line – because the analysis and conclusions are once again apposite.

Then in 1984 the first page of “No End of Jobs” concluded with a stark warning: “If we do not make better use of technology to create more wealth and simultaneously release and equip manpower to take better care of the elderly, you and I will grow old and cold alone, in the dark.

We may have addressed the “problem” of a falling indigenous birthrate by opening the floodgates to immigration, but there is still no sign of our making serious progress in deploying the technologies available to help provide humane and efficient care for frail and elderly (about to include my contemporaries and myself) at affordable cost.

Meanwhile I look at the applications of AI and Robotics being hyped today.

In this area, as with most of the so-called “Smart City” and “Big Data” applications “Tomorrow came yesterday”. Many have already been done successfully using earlier generations of technology – albeit often by organisations with little or no reason to spend time or money telling others what they have done.  Many require large numbers of technicians to install and maintain and/or a robust and reliable digital communications infrastructure that we have not yet got. I composed this while my terrestrial broadband was down (fault at the Gypsy Hill exchange). The service has just come back after 16 hours. Were I in the rural area that might not be unusual but for a not very leafy London Suburb …  More-over the outage was “only” over Saturday night … but it reinforced my reluctance to trust business systems, let alone, my personal care to any services that rely on “always on” Internet connections.

Perhaps if we did not have such a chronic shortage of those with the technician level skills (hardware as well as software) to understand, develop, install and maintain AI and Robotics systems we would have less hype and more practical progress. I say technician level, because almost all are akin to those in the old BTEC/HNC qualifications. There is a particular need to include a good grounding in basic statistics and security by design, without which the computer scientists and electrical engineers of today are part of the problem – not the solution. We need to retrain, and perhaps certificate and register, most so-called “professionals” before they are employed in this area.

I get bored talking about professionalism but do make time to blog on the work currently under way to organise level 3 digital apprenticeships – with specialism from cyber and security by design, through AI, Robotics and Big Data to IOT applications. Meanwhile it is interesting to note that, according to a recent Sutton Trust Report leaving school at 16 to get a Level 3 apprenticeship is worth marginally more than staying on to do ‘A’ levels. Meanwhile a level 4 apprenticeship is worth the same as a non Russell Group degree and a level 5 is worth more. I am told, however, that it is harder to get onto some of the leading level 5 digital apprenticeship courses than into Oxbridge!


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