Robots aren’t just stealing jobs; they are the creators of their own destruction.

By Neil Patrick

Asimov’s three laws of robotics are often cited in the debate about jobs and the threat of AI.

Isaac Asimov was a gifted and insightful science fiction writer. No more, no less. But his thoughts applied to today are about as helpful as reading Jane Austin is for tackling wealth inequality.

Asimov’s third law stated, ‘A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.’ Most assumed this referred to physical harm. The reality is that that it is economic and social harm which we should be most worried about.

If you read this blog, you’ll know that I have been arguing for over 5 years here that the rise of the machines is unlike any previous technological change in the existence of mankind.

Its scope is so vast and the pace of change so rapid, that people, let alone institutions and government cannot keep up. And it is ordinary people who will pay the price for this.

It has been interesting to watch opinion about this shift. It started as a utopian view that the machines would free us all from the tedious and boring work; we’d all become valued for our creativity, our people skills, our innovation. Unless we didn’t have much of these things to start with…

When the raw economics revealed this was a Disney-like fantasy, then it was argued that this revolution would create a new world of work in which we’d all become freelancers, skipping merrily from assignment to assignment. The gig economy would be our liberator and digital communications would free us so we could all sit on a beach somewhere with a laptop earning our living. What happened instead was that the likes of Uber and zero-hours contracts created hideous exploitative machines of misery for millions.

Yet these were just the growing pains it was argued. Regulation and government interventions would act to calm the beast. Smooth out the inequalities and inequities. Like ensuring that Google and co. paid their fair share of tax…

I didn’t buy any of it. Yet I secretly feared that I was digging my own grave. Which would probably have a headstone including the words ‘reactionary, pessimist and Luddite’.

Then this week an article appeared in the Times by a young man named Raphael Hogarth .

Titled, ‘A life without work is not my idea of fun’, Raphael reports that the evidence from those who know most about these things such as AI entrepreneur Jeremy Howard, despair that “people aren’t scared enough”.

I agree. They are not even a little bit scared enough. This is indeed a monster unleashed. Just not quite the same one as Asimov envisaged.

The tidbits of crack cocaine attached to the monster such as online shopping, ITunes and MyFaceGram have blinded people to the reality that the monster will simultaneously pander to their desires while covertly devouring their ability to earn the money they need to live.

And in so doing, the machines will destroy their own revenue-based raison d’etre.

But to get back to Raphael’s article. What was most interesting to me was that he seemed to accept without much difficulty that his own future employment was under threat from AI. And that assuming the governments of the West manage to create a workable form of universal basic income (which I doubt), then he’d rather not have an idle life.

This is perceptive and admirable. It is also a watershed. It’s the first time I have seen in mainstream media, any commentator resigned to the reality of the AI monster.

And yet again, I find myself saddened by the fact that my own worst fears have come a step closer to being realised.