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.
Novelist-turned-filmmaker Charles Michel Duke recently blogged about events in the Maghreb, posing the fascinating question of whether other Arab publics may follow Tunisia’s example of ‘regime change’.
While it is difficult to predict these things with any precision, this issue seems to illustrate as much as anything else the problems with treating the Arab world as monolithic bloc. Tunisia, while in some ways better administered than many developing countries, contained numerous ingredients that made popular revolt more likely: a much-disliked head of state; an educated, young population which is struggling to perceive a prosperous future; and endemic human rights abuses.
Prima facie, it may seem that some other Arab countries share one or more of these attributes, but the reality on the ground is far more complex. For example, while Kuwait is many respects heavily-centralised and autocratic, it vaunts one of the most lavish welfare states anywhere on earth: this is, after all, a country where the government regularly cancels consumer debt incurred by its citizens. While the Jordanian people are experiencing austerity, in Queen Rania they possess one of the very few world leaders who is almost universally admired.
In all likelihood, change in Arabic-speaking countries – much like elsewhere in the world – is most likely to happen where the public have little incentive to support the status quo and where, like a Fry and Laurie sketch, things are truly grey and hopeless: ruling classes with legitimacy crises, chronic unemployment, plummeting standards of living and a paucity of basic freedoms. Perhaps the most significant thing about the Jasmine Revolution is that a region that many associate with all that is retrocessionary has begun to become synonymous with a kind of change that even ten days ago seemed beyond the realms of possibility.