"Rise of the robots": about intellectual property as well as machines

What do you do if an algorithm takes your job?

If large parts of society automate at the same time, it causes problems. In the end, once those problems have shaken out, society is normally better off for it, but the transition can take generations. The classic example of that problem is the Industrial Revolution. There is no doubting that it was better to be a factory worker in 1900 Britain than it was to be an agricultural labourer in 1750; but in the midpoint, the era of 18 hour days, Corn Laws, and the Peterloo Massacre, that clarity breaks down.

The two big problems that such a shift can bring are a concentration of wealth and skills mismatches which leave millions unemployable. The former comes as ever more of the returns to production accumulate to the owners of machinery (and in the modern reprisal, intellectual property), rather than the labourers; and the latter comes from the impossibility of rapidly retraining an entire population if their skills have been rendered obsolete.

But neither of those problems are resolvable through standard macroeconomic thought. The former isn't even seen as a problem at all by most economists, and the latter is seen as just a bigger example of the normal churn in the job market, ignoring the fact that a country where 2 per cent of the country is stuck with obsolete skills is very different from one where 20 per cent is.

FT Alphaville's Cardiff Garcia runs through these thoughts in a more methodical manner:

If the robots do displace middle class jobs, then presumably the capitalist robot owners will have a lot of extra change lying around. The immediate impact is yet another surge in inequality. But presumably they’ll be looking around to spend their surplus on something, and that something might be the goods and services of an industry that will hire the newly jobless to produce them. This is traditionally how technological displacement goes. Reasons for pessimism notwithstanding, it can’t be entirely discounted that things will turn out this way again.

Anyways, just because we’ll have to wait a while to know anything for sure is no reason to ignore the anecdotal evidence, or for that matter to refrain from speculating about the potential consequences of a big economic transformation. Best to be prepared and so forth.

Something Cardiff misses, though, is that this revolution in automation isn't just affecting physical labour. Automation in the form of algorithmic creation has hit journalists and lawyers, just as actual robots have hit doctors and researchers. That may seem like a technical distinction, but there's an important difference: the concentration of capital which is fairly inevitable with physical machinery isn't inevitable at all with software.

Consider two worlds, one in which every solicitor is fired to be replaced with Microsoft Word 2015 and its new "auto-write legal letter", and the other in which every solicitor is fired to be replaced with the open-source (and so free) Open Office 2015, with the same feature. In the former, almost all of the gains will go Microsoft, with a little bit more going to businesses which can afford the license taking custom from businesses which can't; in the latter, where the importance of having capital to pay for the software license is diminished, the concentration may not be quite so big. Either way it's not great for solicitors, but if the savings were passed on to customers rather than recouped by Microsoft, that's probably the better outcome.

All of which is to say that if the rise of the robots continues, reassessing our intellectual property regime may be important not just because it could boost innovation, but because it could be the only way to deal with the new world.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.