As workers across the UK prepare to down tools, automation is in the firing line.
Question: what do Californian regulators and UK based workers in post offices, rail companies and airlines got in common? Answer: they are raging against the machine.
The clash in California is all the more significant when you consider that this is the home of tech.
At face value, the debate in California is not about a reaction against automation, it’s a row about safety. Drill down, and you realise that safety concerns are an excuse. In California, taxis have to be driven by qualified drivers. Autonomous cars used as taxis are illegal in the state. But what about Uber taxis that are self-driving? There is a subtle difference. A self-driving car, argues Uber still requires a skilled driver, it is just that they can take their feet off the pedals or steering wheels for a short time. Autonomous cars don’t need a human driver at all.
Regulators in California have tried to stop Uber from providing self-driving cars, Uber has been disobeying.
But at heart, this is surely about more than safety. Cleary, autonomous cars are a threat to all driving jobs, the battle lines, with people who drive for a living on one side, and algorithms and their creators on the other, are simply being drawn.
Meanwhile, in the UK, workers at Crown Post Offices, on Southern Railways, and British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are either about to strike, or in some cases are already striking, or in the case of Virgin Atlantic, are working to rule. Not all the activity is about automation, but its there, hovering in the background. On Southern Rail, the dispute is about the role of the conductor versus automation. At post offices, it’s about job security and pensions, but we all know that technology has transformed the way we send messages, while at the airlines it is about pay but once again automation has transformed working practices.
But while we see popular discontent, and the quest for someone or something to blame, maybe automation is a more appropriate target for workers’ wrath than immigration or globalisation.
The evidence is clear, both immigration and globalisation promote wealth creation, the problem here is one of distribution of the benefits. But when it comes to automation, the results are more nuanced.
Research from the US Center of Economics and Social Research from the State Ball University, found that 85 per cent of job losses in US manufacturing during the first 15 years of this century can be explained by technological change.
As Bob Crow pointed out in 2011, “if you have robots build cars, how are robots going to buy them?”
So, automation can create wealth, but it does so far more effectively if the jobs that are lost to technology are redeployed doing something else. The lesson of economic history is that this does indeed happen, but it can take time.
What do we do in the mean time?
You can’t stop progress, you can’t stop technology. People who try to regulate autonomous taxis out of existence are as doomed to fail as King Canute was when he tried to command the tide to stop.
There are things that can be done, but they largely boil down to some form of re-distribution.
Universal income, in which every man, woman and child receives an income, may be a partial solution. Critics say that if you are paid for doing nothing, you will create a society of lazy people. Indeed, some may well react to such a guaranteed income by staying in bed all day, but research seems to indicate that a universal income may promote greater entrepreneurial activity, as it will reduce the risk associated with setting up a business. Furthermore, many people are motivated to want to do something, a universal income may create some people who are work shy, but it is far from clear that such a policy would, on aggregate, reduce how willing people are to work.