A2AKFK Tin Toy Robot. Image shot 2006. Exact date unknown.
© Alamy

Much of today’s technology reporting is focused on the potential threats posed by developments. Dangers are seen in everything from robots to flying drones and two-wheeled “hoverboards”. Physicist Stephen Hawking has even warned that full artificial intelligence “could spell the end of the human race”.

Such concerns are not new, according to Carl Benedikt Frey, co-director of the Oxford Martin programme on technology and employment at Oxford university. “Fears about technology, and certainly fears that technology will destroy our jobs, have been with us for as long as jobs have existed,” he says.

From the weaving machines of the industrial revolution to the bicycle, mechanisation has prompted concerns that technology will make people redundant or alter society in unsettling ways. In the early 1800s, Luddites smashed machines that put them out of work, while historians argue that later in the 19th century the popularity of the bicycle aided female liberation, the growth of socialism and the end of rigid class divisions as people become more mobile.

Earlier dictatorial regimes such as the Roman empire made it easy to block progress as rulers prevented machines from doing work and destabilising society. But that changed after the industrial revolution, “as merchants saw the gains from technological progress and they became increasing influential”, Mr Frey says. Technological growth became linked to policymaking as the industrial revolution became both a political and an economic story. “The more people benefit from technology, you see more rapid adoption of it,” adds Mr Frey.

Today’s greatest fears, from loss of employment to the end of civilisation, centre on robots and artificial intelligence. But even these are almost 100 years old. The word “robot”, from the Czech robota meaning “slavery”, was coined for writer Karel Capek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).

In the drama, a sophisticated robot workforce (closer to the human-like replicants of 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner than machines) moves from subservience to eventually destroy humanity. This dark threat seems to have hovered over our species, at least in fictional terms, ever since, from film-maker Fritz Lang’s Metropolis of 1927 on down.

In Capek’s and Lang’s dystopias, companies create profits from marginalised, impoverished workforces while spoilt elites live privileged lives. Inevitably the oppressed underlings rebel.

While drawing parallels with today’s wealth-divided society is almost irresistible, Mr Frey does not see the same “rage against the machine” from the past that is reflected in these dramas. “There are reasons to be concerned, but it is difficult to see which democracy would accept 1 per cent of the population being dependent on machines and the rest of society deprived of work.”

However, the latest technological push has created few new jobs in itself. Oxford Martin research found 8.2 per cent of the US workforce moved into careers associated with new technologies in the 1980s. The equivalent number for the 1990s was 4.4 per cent, while in the 2000s it was half a per cent.

Instead Mr Frey says technology has increased the range of tasks skilled workers can perform. “You would have assumed bank tellers would have been replaced by ATMs, but there are now more branch relationship managers, so jobs change,” he says.

He adds that for every new tech job created in London, about five jobs are added to the local economy as services from hairdressing to retail grow to meet demand, though in the future automation may do away with some lower-skilled work.

Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford Law School in the US who writes often about the “unintended consequences” of technological change, says the problem today is that Silicon Valley is in too much of a hurry to make profits.

“In previous times it took technologies ages to advance to the stage where they could become a threat, so we had decades to discuss the transition from old to new,” Mr Wadhwa says. “But that is no longer the case. Self-driving cars, for example, will be good for the elderly, but they will take away millions of jobs from people who drive cars for a living. Every technology has a dark side.”

Mr Wadhwa also predicts a science fiction-like future, but warns the outcome is not a certainty. “I really see a Star Trek future, but the bad side would be Mad Max. It will be hard to work these things out but I think we’ll get there. We need to be aware of the problems and start fixing them.”

'Rage against machines', Illustration for FT Reports, The Connected Business, 03/2016
© Øivind Hovland

Perhaps what are needed are better global regulatory models, possibly based on the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, to govern developments. The HFEA recently gave approval for experimental use of the DNA editing process Crispr to switch genes on and off in a newly fertilised egg.

Mr Wadhwa thinks such a framework would be beneficial but hard to enforce. “If we can’t agree between countries, how can we agree as the human race to a set of shared ethical standards?”

Instead of science fiction, maybe we should consider the current commercial and ethical success of technologies that were once considered highly disruptive. After all, we have been here before: the introduction of hoverboards and drones has similarities to the birth of the bike and the internal combustion engine.

Like hoverboards and drones, bikes and cars had commercial and leisure uses and we have, with legislation and time, become used to them. They brought economic benefits in terms of jobs and transport, but as Mr Wadhwa says, technology produces unintended consequences.

For example, in 2014, 3.6m cycles were sold in Britain, producing sales of £771m. The total new and used motor vehicle market in the UK was reported to be £88.5bn in 2014, up from £79.4bn in 2013.

Sales mean prosperity and employment for many, but there is a human cost. In 2014, 113 cyclists were killed in Britain and 3,400 seriously injured, mostly after accidents with cars. More than 1,700 UK citizens died in car crashes in 2013. This is before the effects of car pollution on human health and greenhouse gases have been counted, and these figures are for one country.

New technologies are likely to have similar side effects. In 1979 Robert Williams, a Michigan Ford car worker, gained a dubious Guinness World Records mention for becoming the first person to be killed by an industrial robot. In December, a boy fell off a hoverboard in north-west London and was killed by a bus, the first such UK death.

What the total cost of the latest developments will be — whether in terms of incomes, jobs or lives cut short — is hard for anyone to predict.

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