If robots are not the problem, then what is?

The latest article by Para Mullan says that a lack of business investment in technology is a much greater problem than a fear of AI or robots.


Do you agree?

  • Looks like Bosch in India are ploughing ahead with investment in R&D, AI and Technology: http://bit.ly/2EdSTkm
    They employ 18,000 engineers and are planning to hire 10,000 more.
    "Today, the car is looked at as the third living space after one's office and home. Bosch is making for connected, automated and shared vehicles. Just from your car, you will have an equal form of connectivity as you can have from the office or home." - Bosch Group India president Soumitra Bhattacharya said.

    Does better connection to the world in your car make for a more human future of work? Or should time spent in a car be 'down time' from constant connection to emails, Whatsapp groups, etc etc?
  • On the one hand, I could not agree more with Para Mullan. I agree that artificial intelligence (which may or may not mean "robots" in the conventionally-understood fashion) is an inevitability that we should embrace.

    On the other, though, I could not agree less.

    "Productivity, what we can produce over a given time, is the best indicator of how much an economy is able to deliver for its people."


    Does productivity really deliver positive relationships, good health, a sense of well-being, engagement with one's community, empathy, education, a connection with the spiritual and the opportunity to invest in oneself?

    I think an economy is able to deliver a great deal for its people (its participants) without needing to endorse unlimited growth. Otherwise, we sound like the anecdotal billionaire who, when asked how much it would take to make him happy, replied "just a little bit more".

    I'm excited by a future of artificial intelligence and robot assistance not because it will make us more productive, but because it will help us to be more constructive.

    For further reading, check out Kate Raworth's "Doughnut Economics" as an accessible first step into the idea that growth and conventional productivity are the problem - and one that AI and robotics should be able to help us solve for the long term.
  • In reply to Robey:

    Hi Robey

    Yours is an interesting argument. However I don’t share Kate Raworth’s opposition of labour productivity to resource productivity that informs her doughnut thesis. I see the two as mostly mutually reinforcing, not counter-posed to each other. Higher labour productivity generally also implies a more efficient use of the earth’s resources.

    She claims that economic growth is necessarily a degenerative system ‘devouring the sources of its own existence’. In my view it is the economic growth from rising labour productivity that has provided us with the means of creating a cleaner, less polluted and less wasteful society. China today is only able to devote resources to curbing the well-known air pollution around its major cities because of its economic development.

    This is similar to what happened to Britain through its industrial revolution and since. For all the human benefits of economic development it can bring some downsides too. But it also provides us with the means to be able to make the choices that can address these problems.

    I guess I am more in agreement with what Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman wrote in 1990: ‘A country’s ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker.’ I don’t think anyone has been able to effectively refute that idea since.

    The analogy for me is a cake. Once you have given everyone a slice, it is no more. We therefore need a bigger cake. If an economy stopped growing, there will come a point when there will be no more and in this instance I fear we will go backwards. A stagnant economy is not going to make our lives better.

    When it comes down to it, growth has solved lots of humanity’s challenges. As a result we are living longer, healthier and less mundane lives than ever before. Moreover growing an economy does not stop us from creating the good communities and the good things you mention. It is the values that we adopt and the culture we create that makes the type of society we live in.
  • In reply to Robey:

    Long ago people predicted that automation would mean the we would be working very short hours for pay. The machines would produce what we need. The rest of the time we would enjoy our leisure, spend time learning for fun and look after each other and our environmment. There are "Primitive" societies that do just this. People "work" for an hour or two each day meeting their basic needs and have fun the rest of the time. This seems rather sensible to me!

    We are a long way from this world still. In the rich countries there has been an explosion of consumption driven by marketing creating wants. Gross inequality has funnelled most of the gains from increased productivity to the already rich. This is unsustainable.

    "Anyone who thinks unlimited growth in a finite planet is indefinitely sustainable is either mad or an economist!"

    Do we need some deep dialogue across society and organisations about WHY? What are we trying to achieve? What sort of world do we want our great-great-grandchildren to inherit? What do we need to do now, and stop doing to bring this about?
  • In reply to Para:

    China today is only able to devote resources to curbing the well-known air pollution around its major cities because of its economic development.

    Egg, chicken. Chicken, egg.

    Krugman makes the persistent economist's error of equating "standard of living" with "quality of life". Whilst no one can refute the mathematics of his argument, his ethical argument is far easier to refute.

    We therefore need a bigger cake.

    Which is precisely the problem. Our cake is of finite size. For all that we have done a spectacular job of eking out our resources, there are literally only so many of them. And whilst, as a sci-fi geek, the idea of of asteroid mining and interstellar travel fills me with delight, I'm not prepared to wager the future of our species on it becoming physically possible or economically viable before we run out of Earth.

    A stagnant economy is not going to make our lives better.

    According to the World Happiness Report 2017:
    "in China in the last 25 years where GDP increased 5-fold in the last 25 years... subjective well-being has been on the decline for the last 15 years"

    At the end of the day, this is an HR forum and we are HR professionals. We can either dedicate ourselves to creating the most productive workforce possible at the expense of its human component, or we can promote the well-being of the human component at the point of an argument that growth is not an absolute moral good.

    I'm fairly sure that most of our members would prefer to direct our efforts towards the latter position than the former and that, itself, is a powerful argument in its favour: the participation in an endeavour that explicitly seeks the betterment of the wellbeing of all of its participants is more engaging than participating in one dedicated to the financial enrichment of a minority of its participants at the expense of the rest. And this applies, in my opinion, to societies as much as it does to companies.

    In either picture, the role of technology will be very similar so it is, to some extent, a semantic argument. But as anyone who works in HR will know from bitter experience, it really isn't *what* you tell people; it's *how* you tell them. So semantics is a surprisingly important part of our work - and one that AI, so far, is remarkably bad at. So that's good.