What if the Luddites were right?

With the AI and robotics revolution threatening so many jobs, perhaps it's finally time to break our tech addiction.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 02 Feb 2017

History is written by the victors, and the Luddites lost. Originally a gang of disgruntled 19th century textile workers taking out their rage against the machines that were doing them out of jobs, their name has become synonymous with a futile and misguided opposition to progress.

Life, after all, has improved dramatically as a result of modern technology. Yes, there was short-term pain for the Luddites and their like, but surely it served the greater good?

The problem with that thinking is that it assumes that something which was beneficial in the past will necessarily continue to be beneficial in the future, which clearly isn’t the case. That wheel of artisanal brie may have brought you a week’s gustatory delight, but eat it next month and see whether your intestines thank you for it. What if the very idea of technological progress as an intrinsic good has also reached its sell-by date, but we just haven’t realised it yet?

The irony isn’t lost on me: you’re reading this on a laptop or an iPad, not a parchment, and I’m writing it using a keyboard, not a quill. Technology is what dragged us out of the mud of history. It cannot and should not be cast aside lightly.

But consider the projections made about the impending age of automation. AI and robotics – the so called fourth industrial revolution – promise dramatically superior solutions to a whole range of consumer and business problems, but they threaten to leave no one behind to buy anything. Some estimate that half of the jobs that currently exist will be obsolete within a generation.

This is where the Luddite insult is usually thrown. They thought textile machines were bad because they were taking jobs, but they were proven wrong. Displaced workers simply found new jobs, often operating the machines, while the price of clothes plummeted and quality of life rose.

The difference is that there were jobs for them to go to back then: manual work gave way to machine work, which gave way to knowledge work. With algorithms or machines threatening to do almost all tasks better and more cheaply than we can, however, it’s hard to know what we’re going to do in place of what we do now. 

Look at Uber: it improves our ability to get around cities as consumers, but it also replaces well-paid taxi drivers with impecunious Uber drivers. That effectively takes demand out of the economy, something that will be all the more severe if Uber is able to roll out a fleet of self-driving cars. That's just one example - this could happen simultaneously across multiple sectors. Unlike the industrial revolution of the Luddites’ day, which swelled consumers’ pockets, this one promises to empty them.

Of course, if you look at any given technological development in isolation, it will still seem like a good thing. Machine learning that can improve treatment outcomes for sick children? Sounds amazing. But what if that same technology later turns those sick children – and  all the others - into unemployed adults? Taken altogether, it’s not so easy.

The point is not that technology should be rejected or opposed, only that it should be assessed carefully. We should merely be open to the possibility that the next big thing might not actually be good for us.

Modern-day Luddites, angry at the forces taking their jobs, aren’t able to smash the algorithms responsible, so they blame foreigners, globalisation or the establishment. Governments driven by populist demands rarely talk about the role of technology in taking their jobs, so one fears they’re unlikely to do much about it.

But maybe business has a role to play here. If you’re committed to sustainability and a purpose beyond making a quick buck, is there not an ethical case for opting out of a technology if you think it does more social harm than good? Maybe you could replace your 10,000 baristas with touch screens and many-tentacled coffee robots, but would it be right to do so?

It would take a brave CEO to make such a call, but last time I checked there wasn’t an algorithm that can earn loyalty. Your employees – and those customers who still have a wage to spend – might well thank you for it, even if there’s a cheaper, soulless alternative available.

Is this vision of job-stealing robots overly pessimistic? Look at some of the more optimistic possible outcomes from the age of automation in MT's Future of Work cover feature.

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