Ed West

Debate: will a robot steal your job?

Debate: will a robot steal your job?
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Was Karl Marx right all along about capitalism? One of the subjects I like to bore everyone about whenever I get a chance is the hollowing out of middle-class jobs as a result of technology, squeezing wages just as the old German predicted. It's the subject of a Spectator debate tonight, which will be well worth attending, and a subject I wrote about for the magazine last year:

'Jaron Lanier, the Silicon Valley philosopher and author of Who Owns The Future?, has shown how technology and the free-flow of information are removing secure, middle-class jobs. Far from being egalitarian, the digital revolution has reduced financial rewards for those in the middle — and concentrated wealth at the very top. While outsourcing of clerical work is hardly new, it has started to affect the middle office — not just the back office. Once, it was production-line workers who found themselves laid off and their jobs shipped to the Far East. Now it’s research chemists, paralegals and clerks who are finding their jobs outsourced. Firms such as Microsoft, Pfizer and Philips increasingly carry out their research in China.'

Most of the fruits of IT-driven productivity gains have been for the wealthiest two per cent, and Lanier's book is not the only one to focus on technology and the rise in inequality, something of an obsession of the publishing industry (how long will that industry last in its current state?)

Not that working-class jobs aren't still being automated, too; the next big thing is going to be automated driving, which is going to throw a lot of taxi drivers, lorry drivers and railways workers onto the scrapheap. Some people will hail this as progress, or at least emphasise its inevitably as part of the future, but what sort of future will this be? What will be done with the large number of people who don't have the necessary skills nor (a point rarely made) the cognitive ability to do non-mechanised jobs?

This may all be bias on my part. Much of journalism has already gone and maybe one day even columnists, bloggers and other rentagobs will be replaced by some computer program that can automatically turn any event or argument into the subject they've been programmed to be obsessed with. To be honest I have my suspicions about a couple of people as it is.

The subject will be discussed at a Spectator event Will Artificial Intelligence Put My Job at Risk tonight at 7pm at Prince Philip House, SW1. Speakers include: Andrew Blake Laboratory Director, Microsoft; Jamie Bartlett Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, Demos; Nicola Smith Head of Economic and Social Affairs, Trade Unions Congress; and the author and journalist Bryan Appleyard.

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Written byEd West

Ed West is the author of The Diversity Illusion, 1215 and All That and is writing a series of books on medieval history

Topics in this articlePoliticstechnology