RECENTLY I was disconcerted to read that Scottish trade unions were ringing alarm bells about the impact they fear robots will have on the employment prospects of Scottish workers – because not having enough robots is one of Scotland’s problems. Instead we should fear falling behind in delivering what our people deserve by not investing in enough robots.
Wealth is created by productivity improvement that in turn enables the production of goods and the provision of services of greater quality, quantity and value, and at a lower cost.
Throughout history more effective organisation, improved methodology and tools that improved productivity have always been key to improving the human condition. It would be misguided to claim that progress in manufacturing or commerce as a result of innovation and automation, better communications, more economic transport and capital investment in machinery like robots never displace any jobs, but they always create far more new jobs, new opportunities, greater benefits and more lucrative employment possibilities than they destroy.
So generally speaking, any hardship caused by change and technology progress that people might quite reasonably choose not to welcome is short lived, and is part of the price of progress from which everyone ultimately benefits. Yet change is always resisted by people who fear its consequences, no matter how obviously beneficial the new situation might be or become. Empathy for individuals likely to be adversely affected by change is natural, but it is not the basis for responsible policy making, as the result of doing so is always disastrous and ultimately catastrophic for everyone.
Human progress is not an endless straight gradient towards creating heaven on earth, because there are always ups and some downs on the way. The facts make plain that the industrial age has been a blessing to humanity. Far more of us live in greater comfort and better health for far longer than ever before. Billions who it was once feared would starve now live for three score and ten or more years in rude good health with unprecedented levels of nutrition and security, and are far better educated than their parents – with the obvious exception of schooling in Scotland where our recent track record is particularly dismal.
When I was a young engineer, standalone computerised machine tools, now classified as robots, were almost unknown, and computers were very large and costly devices. The progress that has led to the democratisation of computing with its initial widespread application to the control of machinery and processes started to gain momentum over half a century ago, and has accelerated ever since. Over forty-five years ago I remember being told by a leading academic that within two years, computers would overtake the capabilities of a two-year-old child. He could not respond when I asked him how he defined the capabilities of a two-year-old child, and in my experience as a parent by that age of tantrums they seem to have acquired at least eighty per cent of the mental agility of most adults.
But making assertions without any data to support them is increasingly commonplace, especially when the motivation is naked self-interest or political or doctrinal dogma, such as ‘progress is bad, inequality is bad and increasing, the poor are poor and getting poorer, profits are bad, capitalism is only about greed, and automation and robotics are expressly about putting people out of work’. All these baseless assertions prey on people’s fears, and seem plausible enough to merit the widespread acceptance of such fake grievances and populist scaremongering. However, given the lack of any supportive data, and all the evidence to the contrary, believing such politically motivated assertions is totally misguided.
As we all continually strive to improve our own personal circumstances, expectations across society inevitably increase. Simplistic solutions like importing more unskilled people, to do the jobs we don’t want to do ourselves like looking after our aged, or imposing restrictive practices, passing more protectionist legislation and tariffs, or raising taxes to increase centralised expenditure on health and welfare, damage the very prospects they are claimed to further. In stark contrast, investment in robots and automation, improved methodology, streamlined organisations, increasingly distributed systems that boost personal and business independence, responsibility and effectiveness, all offer enormous opportunities, not only to profitably solve current problems, but in doing so to expose undreamt of useful new possibilities.
Being guided by data rather than emotion is the best basis for decision making. The data that supports the argument for robots, and the universal benefits of investment on productivity improvement, is self-evident and readily accessible, but with a strict word count limit on my contribution to this publication you must rely on your own personal experience; or use your computers and smartphones which are both good examples of the benefits of robotics.
Man is a tool wielding animal, and our powers are limited only by our imagination, and how free we are to apply ourselves responsibly to improving our lives. Robots always make the best tools, and they relieve us from many onerous tasks, and increase our powers greatly, which enables us to operate at higher levels, and helps us to add more value for more useful, productive and better lives.
We need more robots and less robotic thinking.
Ivor Tiefenbrun MBE is a Scottish manufacturer. A version of this article was first published in The Heraldon 21 May 2018