The comeback of the machinery question

The quantum leaps of artificial intelligence are bringing back the old question about the future of our jobs. The question is not new. British economist David Ricardo (1722-1823) already put the “machinery question” forward in the chapter “On Machinery” added to the third edition of his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1821). During the industrial revolution, Ricardo described the opinion of many in the working class, that the employment of machinery is detrimental to their jobs and interests.

And today the “machinery question” is back on stage. The immense progress in the field of artificial intelligence and robotics make this question rise again. Elon Musk, chairman and CEO of car-manufacturer Tesla, even warned in a speech at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that we are “summoning a demon” and pleads in the same breath for more regulatory oversight.

A study from Oxford University in 2013 showed that maybe nearly half of American jobs could be threatened by the advance of artificial intelligence and robots in the coming two decades. But is this all for so sure? The study from Oxford was heavily criticized for being too vague and simplistic in its technic determinism. Critics say that the advance of technology is not a law of nature, but is a progress that has to be formed and shaped.

In the UK, Dyson are the largest investor in robotics and artificial intelligence research, which it sees as massive growth areas. However, the company founder Sir James Dyson has downplayed recent reports that a third of British jobs could be taken over by robots. “I hope that robotics means that we need a lot less human cleaners but to design and make robots you need an army of highly skilled engineers”. So here is a key aspect where the future requires significant investment in the skills of the worker and that must mean governments taking a leading role in training for the future.

Many companies which invest in robots and artificial intelligence are attempting to reshape the cooperation and interaction between the machinery and their workforce, with the intention of gaining higher productivity levels. The qualification level of their workforce will raise. This seems for sure. Machines don’t take holidays or get ill, or at least their downtime due to malfunction is more predictably cured.  Many of the easy and monotonous tasks have been and continue to be replaced and taken over by machinery, but a least for now not the challenging or sophisticated ones. Not in the office, not on the shop-floor.

Maybe this is the point, we should for now a bit more relaxed about this issue, but at the same time be aware of the fact that we have to retain control as we shape and regulate the advance and the input of new technologies. So we might all be better off, thanks to technological progress. Ricardo´s case showed that the many fears may be for now ill-founded. But progress in technology has other aspects that could be even more profound. Everything we do online is monitored and how we interface with commerce is ready to move into a new era.