Chances are, your job is under threat. Chances are, in 20 years, you could be being replaced by a robot. Automation is coming, and it won’t look much like Star Wars.
The problem is, what happened to C3PO’s human predecessor? Or his 6 million predecessors – the highly trained, skilled translators to and from those languages that he (do we use human pronouns for robots?) claims to be able to speak.
The answer, history tells us, is that they went through tough times. Periods of automation bring periods of economic challenge as those whose skilled labour is deemed surplus to requirements – weavers, farm hands, bank branch staff, cab drivers – are thrown back into the pool and told to re-skill. As they do this, the state is expected to pick up the pieces. As this piece in The Guardian notes:
Conventional thinking says that the owners of the machines should reap the rewards, while the state picks up the costs of the ensuing human wreckage.
That doesn’t feel acceptable. This is not Victorian England. If Capitalism wants to rule the world, it’s going to have to do so a little more benevolently, because people are getting pretty fed up with the regime as it currently stands. People like Bill Gates, who has weighed into the debate, and sent Silicon Valley into apoplexy in the process, by suggesting that robots should pay taxes:
“Right now the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”
That is, under the hood, one of the most radical statements I’ve heard in a while. It strikes at the heart of the economic assumptions being made about an technologically efficient future that cares not one jot about the people it will make redundant.
Wages are something you never hear about in Star Wars. How much does a Stormtrooper make each month? Does that include healthcare? Where do the Rebels get their funding from? Who supports the families of shot-down squadron leaders?
Hollywood has never liked to do sensible economics. (Just check out the incredible house the linguistics professor lives in in Arrival. She makes how much?) But that it doesn’t is resonant with our own blinkered view of the future: technology will progress and make our lives better and somehow it’ll all get paid for. Someone is paying for C3PO on Premium, because he never spouts ads after 3 hours translation work.
Gates’ intervention is timely and perhaps more important than we think.
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