"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 chlorine chicken row is only the beginning – post-Brexit trade deals won't be easy

The real problem isn't the bureaucracies of the EU, but the fears of voters.

What's wrong with a little bit of chlorine in the chicken? That's the question splitting the cabinet as far as a US-UK trade deal goes. It also goes to the heart of Britain's post-Brexit dilemma.

As far as public health goes, both chicken slaughtered and sold the American way and chicken in the United Kingdom and the European Union are just as hygienic by the time they end up in supermarkets. But banning chlorine-washing means that the entire production chain, from farm to abattoir, has to be cleaner in the UK and the rest of the EU than in the States, where farmers know that no matter what happens to the chicken, that chlorine bath will absolve all manner of sins.

The EU's own research concedes that there is no public health difference. The problem, both in the rest of the bloc and the UK, is voter resistance: among French farmers and shoppers across the EU27. We all know how British people are about animal cruelty – not that they're so het up they won't actually eat them you understand – and any change that makes it easier to treat animals worse is going to be politically painful for the government.

In the long-term, changing our regulations to US standards also makes it harder to sell into the European Union. It's not a choice where you can have the best of both worlds but one where ultimately one market may preclude the freest use of the other.

And without wishing to offend any poultry farmers among our readership, this is a fairly small issue as far as the average British voter goes, even allowing for the UK's thing for animals. Just wait until things like “the NHS” start to be used in the same paragraph as the words “trade deal”.

One criticism that Brexiteers make of the EU is that it takes such a long time to strike trade deals. But the real problem isn't the bureaucracies of the EU – but the fears of voters. A cabinet clash over chicken is only going to be the beginning. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.