Roger Bootle: When the revolution is digitised, will there be enough work for us all?
Comment of the Day

March 10 2014

Commentary by David Fuller

Roger Bootle: When the revolution is digitised, will there be enough work for us all?

Here is the conclusion of this interesting article, published by The Daily Telegraph:

But now there is a second problem. Admittedly, as long as there are unsatisfied human wants then there must be jobs available to satisfy them. But suppose that the superiority and cheapness of machines over humans is so great that the demand for human labour is very low in relation to the supply.

Then the price of that labour, wages and salaries, will have to be very low. It could be so low as to be below the socially acceptable norm in a civilised society, or even below the level of subsistence. This would then imply a large number of people permanently out of work and living on some sort of state support.

This has huge implications, not just for the distribution of income but also for social solidarity and possibly even for democracy. The issue turns on who owns the machines and enjoys the fruits of their “labour”.

In practice, I think that the future may be rather less stark. For a start, although machines have become more capable they still cannot be relied upon to perform simple menial tasks.

So, paradoxically, for some time yet, such jobs as gardening, window cleaning and plumbing will be secure from replacement by robots. Indeed, the incomes of people performing such tasks may rise relative to some more “middle class” repetitive jobs which rely on brain power.

Moreover, the logic of machines replacing humans in so many spheres of mental activity is that humans are left free to concentrate on particularly human things. I suspect that we may be amazed at the increase in jobs that involve the human side – caring for the old and sick, relationship counselling, human development, catering and hospitality, as well as a resurgence of domestic service.

Ironically, some other thinkers are suggesting that technological progress has all but dried up as we exhaust the possibilities unleashed by the Industrial Revolution and as it becomes clear that the Digital Revolution is not really transformatory.

I have always thought that this view was wrong. Even the revolutionary technologies of the Industrial Revolution took a protracted period to reach full effectiveness and the same is true of the Digital Revolution.

Furthermore, it is in the nature of such revolutions that we cannot easily see in advance where they will lead. Our thought processes and our imaginations are still limited by the experience of the old technologies that are steadily becoming redundant before our eyes.

Yet I must confess that there is one aspect of possible developments in robotics and AI which would leave me rather nervous, namely if and when robots become able to reproduce themselves and to develop consciousness.

Then we humans could have a major problem on our hands. But here we leave the realm of economics and enter the realms of science faction and philosophy, where I fear to tread. So I will now retreat to the safer issues of tax changes, government expenditure and borrowing – with which I will berate you next week.

David Fuller's view

Here is a link to Roger Bootle's full article.

In the fascinating history of human employment alongside developing machines, the biggest problem we are now facing is one of speed.  Previous machine ages such as the industrial revolution were comparatively slow relative to what we are seeing today.  Consequently, mechanisation is progressing more rapidly than our ability to develop simultaneously new careers offering people secure and reasonably paid jobs.

This problem will increase, as I have said before, because microprocessors, digitization, cloud facilities and numerous other breakthroughs are resulting in a visibly accelerating rate of technological development which has no natural end.  In other words, there is no practical limit to what we can achieve technologically.  Surely this is mankind’s greatest achievement; although inevitably double edged, it can also be our undoing.

Who are the greatest beneficiaries of the accelerated rate of technological evolution? 

We all benefit from the long-term improvements in services provided and enhanced by technology.  However, the biggest beneficiaries are corporations, not least the global Autonomies which Fuller Treacy Money discusses in detail.  Importantly, the Autonomies now have a listing in the Chart Library, which Eoin mentioned last week.  To find these global leaders click on the dropdown menu; scroll down to and click on the International Equity Library; Autonomies are the third listing in the left-hand column.     

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