Robots could make the UK’s north-south divide even worse

Robots at work in a Japanese warehouse. Image: Getty.

Technological progress is normal. A steady flow of new developments enables a gradual increase in prosperity. But sometimes – and perhaps now is such a time – that flow is not so steady. Synchronous fundamental developments allow leaps forward to be made in multiple dimensions.

Progress in artificial intelligence, robotics, and genetics all promise change that is unusually wide ranging. The benefits – which include improved gadgets, health and food security – are easy to appreciate. Equally, though, there are challenges posed by rapid change – especially for workers who have invested in skills that are set to become obsolete.

To some extent, these implications have already become evident over the last 20 years. The labour market has been “hollowing out”, with more jobs available at the top and (to a lesser extent) bottom of the skills distribution, but fewer jobs in the middle. And the recent dramatic changes in technology are likely to exacerbate this over the next couple of decades.

Some observers have argued that a large proportion of current jobs in developed economies are at risk. But alarmist predictions of this kind likely fail to recognise that jobs morph over time. And so do the skills required to undertake particular jobs. Nevertheless, the changes we are seeing do pose unusual challenges.

Economic divide

In a recent report, the Centre for Cities has investigated the likely geographical impact of these changes in employment, across urban areas within the UK. In doing so, it combined predictions by Nesta on the demand for skills in 2030, with information about the current spatial distribution of jobs requiring these skills.

The results are striking. More than a quarter of jobs in many northern conurbations are in occupations where employment is likely to decline. The highest proportions are in Mansfield, Sunderland and Wakefield. These are areas with economies dominated by specific manufacturing – such as drinks production in Mansfield and car production in Sunderland – and retail activity.

By way of contrast, only around 16 per cent of jobs in London are in such occupations. London also has a much greater concentration of jobs that require the type of creativity only humans, rather than technology, can provide. And in Oxford and Cambridge – whose economies are dominated by the universities – the proportion is below 13 per cent.

Some of the areas where workers are likely to experience most turbulence are also those that were similarly hit by the decline of coal production in the 1980s.


Preparing humans

How best then can people prepare for these challenges? The offer of retraining will help some, particularly those workers with intermediate skills – an extra push could help them negotiate the hurdle separating low skill from high skill employment. But that said, if history is anything to go by, retraining often fails to deliver.

But the promise of a world in which intelligent robots undertake production for the benefit of humans has led many observers to be attracted by the idea of a universal basic income. This is the idea that, by taxing the fruits of improved technology, we could all, it seems, get something for nothing. Those who wish could live a life of ease, while others could top up their basic income by working.

At a fundamental level, this amounts to replacing current social security arrangements with a flat rate income that is paid to all – regardless of whether or not they are in work.

The realities

But given current technology, the level of such a payment (at the moment) would not be high – perhaps enough to cover private health insurance, pensions and other needs. That said, in future, as the gains from technology increase, it could rise. But the attention given to the universal basic income is a bit of a red herring – and it is not the only solution that should be on the table.

The real issue here is more general: how do we ensure the gains from technological change are distributed fairly across society?

A true property-owning democracy – where people hold equity in technology – would protect against inequities. But owning property means that people also own the right to sell it.

The ConversationIt is clear then that there are future tensions that society has yet to get to grips with. And of course there is always the concern that, if robots are smart enough to do all this, for how long will they stay stupid enough to remain slaves to idle humans?

Geraint Johnes, Professor of Economics, Lancaster University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.