Toy robot

Robot, CC BY 2.0,

Research and innovation offer huge benefits to the economy, health, society and culture. But sometimes these can come with costs. One that is receiving considerable attention is the impact of technology driven automation on jobs and inequality.

According to Erik Byrnjolfson’s and Andrew McAfee’s book ‘The Second Machine Age’ advances in digital technology could lead to unemployment for some, while providing great bounty for others, thereby increasing inequality.

Robot tugs are already being used to move trolleys around some US hospitals and driverless cars could replace taxi drivers and hauliers.

This has been described by Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman as ‘the rise of the robots’ and resonates with wider contemporary concerns about inequality expressed by economists such as Thomas Piketty his book ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ and Joe Stiglitz in ‘The Price of Inequality’.

Concern about the impact of technology and innovation on jobs is not new. The protests of the Luddites against mechanised looms in early 19th century Britain were followed by unprecedented economic growth that was eventually quite widely shared.

However, as the Economist points out, real wages in Britain did not begin to rise for most workers until a hundred years after the industrial revolution began.

People experienced the pain long before the gain.

An additional worry is that industries based on the new digital technologies are not producing jobs in the same numbers as those of the past. The Economist notes that Instagram employed 13 people when it was sold to Facebook for $1bn; while Kodak, which had filed for bankruptcy a few months earlier, at one time employed 145,000.

Having said that the picture is not totally gloomy: at first Google had only a handful of staff but now it has tens of thousands.

Byrnjolfson and McAfee have suggested ways that societies could adapt to advances in automation technology including:

  • Ensuring people learn skills that machines cannot currently easily replace such as creativity, innovation and ideation (coming up with ideas).
  • Harnessing the digital technologies that have helped create better robots to improve education and training through innovations such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
  • Negative income taxes that provide incentives for people to undertake low paid work.

What might need to change is people’s mindset. In the right circumstances more automation could allow more time for leisure, although history shows that often people have not taken the benefits of economic growth in this way.

To ensure that everyone benefits from advances in digital technologies, many of which have in part ultimately been funded by the public purse, there is a case for ‘up-stream engagement’ now when the impacts are just starting to be felt.

Mature, thoughtful and explicit consideration of the both the benefits and costs of technologies will build a policy environment that maximises overall benefit and avoids knee jerk responses that stifle the enormous potential rewards of publicly funded science and innovation.

The growing impact of advances in automation also provides a timely opportunity to apply some of the thinking bubbling up in policy circles around ‘responsible innovation’ and for society to democratically choose the path it takes with these technologies.

  • Laurie Smith

    Yesterday’s protest by London taxi drivers about the uber app that they claim breaks the law by acting as a meter offers a timely example of many of the issues raised in my blog post:

    Of particular interest are the challenge of regulation keeping up with fast moving technologies and a reminder that in this context the term ‘robot’ covers a wide range of automative technologies including computer programmes.