"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.

Show Hide image

Theresa May can play big fish with devolved nations - in the EU she's already a nobody

The PM may have more time for domestic meetings in future. 

Theresa May is sitting down with representatives from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales on Monday to hear their concerns about Brexit. 

For the devolved nations, it is the first chance since the seismic vote in June to sit down at a table and talk to the Prime Minister together. 

May has reportedly offered them a "direct line" to Brexit secretary David Davis. It must be a nice change for her to be the big fish in the small pond, rather than the small fish in the big pond that everyone's already sick of. 

Because, when it comes to the EU, the roles of Westminster and other nations is reversed. 

Brexit was small potatoes on the menu of Theresa May’s first European Council summit. It may hurt British pride but the other 27 heads of state and government had far more pressing issues on their plate to worry about.

So, it was an awkward debut Council evening meal of lamb and figs for Prime Minister Theresa May and dinner was served with a large reality check.

As May was later asked at her press conference, why would anyone listen to someone who already has one foot out the door?

Britain is in limbo until it triggers article 50, the legal process taking it out of the EU. Until that happens, it will be largely and politiely ignored.

May’s moment to shine didn’t come until 1am. She spoke on Brexit for “five minutes maximum” and said “nothing revolutionary”, EU sources briefed later.

May basically did that break-up talk. The one where someone says they are leaving but “we can still be friends”. The one where you get a divorce but refuse to leave the house. 

It was greeted in the way such moments often are – with stony silence. Brexit won’t be seriously discussed until article 50 is triggered, and then the negotiations will be overseen by the European Commission, not the member states.

As became rapidly clear after the vote to leave and in sharp contrast to the UK government, the EU-27 was coordinated and prepared in its response to Brexit. That unity, as yet, shows no sign of cracking.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel later damned May with faint praise. She hadn’t said anything new but it was nice to hear it in person, she told reporters.

Merkel, as she often does, had a successful summit. She needed Council conclusions on migration that would reassure her skittish voters that the doors to Germany are no longer thrown wide open to migrants. Germany is one of the member states to have temporarily reintroduced border checks in the passport-free Schengen zone

The conclusions said that part of returning to Schengen as normal was “adjusting the temporary border controls to reflect the current needs”.

This code allows Merkel and her Danish allies to claim victory back home, while allowing Slovakia, which holds the rotating Presidency of the EU, enough of an excuse to insist it has not overseen the effective end of Schengen.

But Merkel’s migration worries did not provide hope for the British push for immigration controls with access to the single market. The Chancellor, and EU chiefs, have consistently said single market access is conditional on the free movement of people. So far this is a red line.

Everyone had discussed the EU’s latest responses to the migration crisis at a summit in Bratislava. Everyone apart from May. She was not invited to the post-Brexit meeting of the EU-27.

She tried to set down a marker, telling her counterparts that the UK wouldn’t just rubberstamp everything the EU-27 cooked up.

This was greeted with a polite, friendly silence. The EU-27 will continue to meet without Britain.

Francois Hollande told reporters that if May wanted a hard Brexit, she should expect hard negotiations.

Just the day before Alain Juppe, his likely rival in next year’s presidential election, had called for the UK border to be moved from Calais to Kent.

Hollande had to respond in kind and the Brussels summit gave him the handy platform to do so. But once inside the inner sanctum of the Justus Lipsius building, it was Syria he cared about. He’s enjoyed far more foreign than domestic policy success.

May had called for a “unified European response” to the Russian bombing of Aleppo. It was a break in style from David Cameron, who is not fondly remembered in Brussels for his habit of boasting to the news cameras he was ready to fight all night for Britain and striding purposefully into the European Council. 

Once safely behind closed doors, he would be far more conciliatory, before later claiming another triumph over the Eurocrats at a pumped-up press conference.

May could point to Council conclusions saying that all measures, including sanctions, were on the table if the Russian outrages continue. But her victory over countries such as Italy and Greece was only achieved thanks to support from France and Germany. 

The national success was also somewhat undermined by the news Russian warships were in the Channel, and that the Brexit talks might be in French.

But even warships couldn’t stop the British being upstaged by the Belgian French-speaking region of Wallonia. Its parliament had wielded an effective veto on Ceta, the EU-Canada trade deal.

Everyone had skin in this game. All the leaders, including May, had backed CETA, arguing the removal of almost all custom duties would boost trade the economy. Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel was forced to tell exasperated leaders he could not force one of Belgium’s seven parliaments to back CETA, or stop it wrecking seven years of painstaking work.

As the news broke that Canada’s trade minister Chrystia Freeland had burst into tears as she declared the deal dead, everyone – not the first time during the summit – completely forgot about Britain and its referendum.

Even as the British PM may be enjoying a power trip in her own domestic union of nations, on the international stage, she is increasingly becoming irrelevant. 

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.