"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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt