Robobacklash: do we even need to worry about automation in the workplace?

Where there's a popular view, there's always a backlash.

The trendy view that robots — or the ever increasing automation of human labour, at least — are going to cause major economic problems in the near future has started getting its backlash.

The argument is that we are entering a period when automation will very quickly replace huge numbers of jobs — some estimates say up to 70 per cent of existing American jobs won't exist by 2100 — and that that shift has already begun, explaining a number of concerning economic phenomena over the last 30 or so years, including the declining labour share of income, increasing inequality, and the decoupling of the median wage from GDP.

That analysis has led to some strange contortions from mainstream economists trying to conceive of capitalism in a world in which work was not necessary, leading some, myself included, to suggest that in that extreme example, it might be worth re-examining the basic tenets of economics.

But once the robots problem hit the mainstream, as evidenced by the Financial Times' Edward Luce writing that Obama must face the rise of the robots, it started being re-examined with a more critical eye. 

The Atlantic's Derek Thompson argues that our problem now is "a deficit of demand", and our problem in the future can be dealt with in the future.

Matthew O'Brien, writing for the same publication, points out that what that deficit of demand means is that in the near term, automation won't lead to job losses, but it will keep pay well below where we'd like it. He concludes that "globalization, mechanization, and the decline of unions have all helped capital and hurt labor, but so has inadequate demand the past decade."

The TUC's Duncan Weldon has addressed the case of robots in the present day, and came to much the same conclusion. He writes that the rising profit share of income is concentrated almost entirely in the finance sector, and argues the likely cause is that that sector managed to ensure that the distribution of risk in innovation was spread widely, while the distribution of the the rewards was increasingly narrow.

Wheldon's conclusion is that the problem in the present day is less of a problem than it seems: with well-targeted redistribution of wealth, the benefits of productivity growth in the sectors where innovation has been successful can be used to pay for decent services everywhere else. What we're seeing is not, then, a crisis in automation, but a simpler crisis in distribution.

I am inclined to agree with Weldon when it comes to the present day. The effect of automation today isn't categorically different from from the effect thirty years ago, but it combines with the receding desire for redistribution and the slack demand stemming from the financial crisis with pernicious results.

But when it comes to the effects of future automation, no-one the attitude that "we'll deal with it when we come to it" strikes me as dangerous. We don't know a huge amount about what the effects will be, but it's clear they'll happen gradually, over the next century; there's the very real risk of a "boiled frog" problem, where we don't realise that the entire system is in crisis until its too late.

At best, if the predictions are accurate, we've got an upheaval of similar magnitude to the Industrial Revolution. That resulted in massive gains the world over, but only after well over a century of struggle. Life for the average factory worker in the 1800s was hardly better than it was for the average agricultural labourer in the 1750s, though you can be certain that the merchant class saw a hefty improvement. It took world wars, nationalised industries, continued worker's struggle and massive redistribution of wealth to temper the distortions down to a level which could be described as sustainable.

Ideally, we should be planning to achieve the gains of the Industrial Revolution without the 18-hour days, sundering of families and massive environmental upheaval that came alongside it. Burying our heads in the sand until the 21st century's dark satanic mills have already arisen is not the best way to bring that about.

Photograph: Getty Images

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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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.