The new Luddites vs the Borg

Joe Petrie

The critical need for socialism in the future

We are on the verge of yet another revolution. The triple whammy of ubiquitous connectivity, artificial intelligence and robotics will enhance our quality of life whilst at the same time bringing about devastating changes in society. Worryingly, the country is ill-prepared to successfully navigate such revolutionary change because the institutions that make decisions and implement them are made up largely of people whose formative years predate the internet. You only have to listen to panellists on Question Time discussing a subject as relatively straightforward as the internet to realise that the people at the helm of the ship even struggle to understand today’s technology, never mind the revolution that is on the horizon. The internet was a big deal, but artificial intelligence and robotics are an even bigger one.

Driverless vehicles will remove the need for human drivers of lorries, vans, taxis, buses and even trains. (Trains run on rails to a timetable for goodness sake – what do you need a human driver for?) Drones will replace the need for humans to deliver mail, parcels and takeaway food. Hospitals will be staffed by care robots and most of the diagnosis and patient monitoring will be performed to a higher standard by artificial intelligence. These are just a few examples. The experience of the last twenty years suggests that many of the major outcomes might not even be concepts that we can imagine yet.

The replacement of humans by AI engines and robotics will not be limited to low skilled work. Unskilled and low skilled workers in vulnerable sectors will indeed be the first victims of the revolution, but AI and robotics will challenge the opportunity even for educated and skilled workers. For example, routine legal advice can be dispensed by a legal chatbot over the internet on your laptop for minimal (or even zero cost). Who needs to pay for a solicitor and their swanky office? Accounting professionals should also be worried, apparently.

The flip side of the coin is that technology could rescue the NHS. Much of the work of doctors could be provided by AI engines and the staffing of hospitals assisted, then dominated by, care robots. In diagnostic trials, artificial intelligence has already demonstrated performance superior to that of junior doctors. Bear in mind that technology will not just be replicating human performance, but surpassing it. A human doctor cannot instantly review huge databases of images and data, calculate probabilities and rapidly update records with the outcomes of their own decisions to add to the body of knowledge available to all.  With wearable sensors and ubiquitous connectivity, patients can be constantly monitored in their homes or outside. The future NHS will be able to anticipate and mitigate health problems, even life-threatening events such as a heart attack or stroke, before the patient themselves is aware. Perhaps a heavily automated NHS will truly be a national health service that proactively maintains our wellbeing rather than our current, almost entirely reactive institution which could be more accurately termed our National Illness Service.

This radically new society promises great things. However, it threatens to further divide society by reducing the opportunity of citizens to generate subsistence for themselves and their families through their own endeavour. Social cohesion is also threatened by the loss of opportunity, aspiration and individual sense of purpose.

A universal, base “salary” for all could take care of subsistence. However, simple economics suggests that this will have a strong correlation with inflation. Many will aspire to a higher income. Probably, the concept of value will change and society will create new ways that citizens can create value. Roles such as digital marketing manager, social media consultant and professional vlogger are great examples of contemporary professions that didn’t exist before the internet.

In an automated, or at least heavily augmented economy, where the demand for human labour is low in comparison to supply, people could be ‘employed’ to participate in community projects or simply to be occupied, such as to be in education or sport. New social housing could be 3D printed by robots. (An early example of this technology already exists – google it) 

Socialism is arguably even more relevant in the future than it has ever been in the past. The values (not traditional policies) of socialism are what hold socialist parties together: the pursuit of social cooperation, universal welfare and equality. Today, the labour unions are needed now more than ever, yet they are less equipped and less mandated than ever to serve their membership and the wider society. The so-called “gig economy” is stark evidence of that. If unions cannot effectively address zero-hours contracts, then how can we expect them to navigate artificial intelligence and robotics? It will be like the new Luddites versus the Borg. My money is on the Borg.

The future of socialism is not necessarily the policies that were considered appropriate in the relatively primitive and parochial context of fifty years ago. The future of socialism is a visionary philosophy and new policies that will be relevant fifty years from now. Same values, same objectives, new plan. The socialism of the future requires a radical rethink of methodologies based around our shared objectives – not the other way round. The left needs to stop obsessing about today’s daily minutiae and start boldly creating the future of socialism now. Are you ready for the debate?

Image: Ronan Jouve

1 comment:

  1. Eddie Clarke

    Interesting comments but perhaps your most significant remark was on the unpreparedness of unions to face this new world, to which you could add political parties. In fact, totally missing from all these debates is any consideration of agency. What existing or possible social forces will realise and maintain these great ideals? Mere debate? There’s a lot of activity and noise in the streets and social media, but none with any obvious or likely political effect. Do we really just have to wait until the burgeoning precariat has been impoverished enough to revolt, as dear old Karl almost said. (At least he thought hard about agency and did not only dream about the coming socialist nirvana). Incidentally, I was told at school I would only be working two days a week by now. Why didn’t it happen?

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