Our Enemies Electric: Are Robots Poised to Dominate the Global Labour Market?

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Readers of this blog will doubtless be cognisant of the threat to the global labour market that some commentators have ascribed to the rise of robots in recent years. And this makes perfect sense: as robots become ever-cheaper and the tasks that they are capable of grow more sophisticated, it is only logical to expect them to encroach on territories that have up to now been regarded as a solely human domains.

However, a recent speech by Sébastien Fanti – a lawyer hailing from the Swiss canton of Valais, the birthplace of former FIFA supremo Sepp Blatter – has forced us to reassess even our own predictions of the extent to which robots may be able to supplant humans in the workforce. Speaking to the Lexing legal conference in Shanghai, Fanti stressed the urgency of creating a legal and ethical framework to govern worker bots, warning: ‘In ten years[‘ time] I think that robots will be suffering abuse. We need laws, otherwise there will be a free-for-all.’

This framework has become necessary because it is now clear that far from merely replacing unskilled or semi-skilled manual workers, robots are: (i) fast becoming capable of jobs that require them to confront ethical dilemmas; and (ii) likely to become judged by humans as conscious, and therefore worthy of rights. (Marcus du Santoy, professor for the public understanding of science at the University of Oxford, has explicated this second point particularly cogently.)

The crux is clear: if robots are developing along a precipitously steep trajectory – one which encompasses ethics and consciousness – then the implications for the global labour market are unreal. This is particularly true if in our rush towards post-humanity, we are content to let certain preconceptions – perhaps even expectations – slide.

In the not-so-distant future, will it really matter if our therapist is a robot if its algorithms are effective enough to generate ameliorative responses? Is it impossible for artificial intelligence to come up with fashion designs that the relevant audiences regard as iconic? And given that so many people let their children be raised by electronic devices, would we really be troubled as much as we would predict about them being given bot-style pastoral care? These are unlikely to remain academic questions: a technology-defined civilisation periodically undergoes discomfiting changes, even if these risk throwing billions of people onto the breadlines.

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