Business Technology

Saturday 22 October 2016

Adrian Weckler: Robots helped to cause Brexit - and they're not done yet

Published 03/07/2016 | 02:30

There is a creeping change in our sense of job security brought about by the internet and non-human work replacements
There is a creeping change in our sense of job security brought about by the internet and non-human work replacements

What really caused Brexit? Fear? Distrust? Opportunism? I'd like to politely suggest an additional cause: robots.

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Or, to be more precise, a creeping change in our sense of job security brought about by the internet and non-human work replacements.

You know that sense of unease people sometimes try to express over their current prospects? When they start blaming immigrants or disconnected ruling elites? The bogeyman they never mention is the circuit-driven one.

I believe that robots are finally taking our jobs. And it's causing us to panic and lash out.

At present, it is blue-collar positions that are disappearing quickest. Apple's iPhone manufacturer, Foxconn, is currently replacing 60,000 human workers with robots. The factory goliath says it plans to increase its robot workforce to one million.

Meanwhile, Amazon now has 30,000 'Kiva' robots in its warehouses, which replace the need for humans to fetch products from shelves. The giant retailer now saves 20pc in operating expenses and expects to save a further €2bn by rolling out more robots.

Call centres (of which we have more than a few in Ireland) are in trouble, too. The world's biggest outsourcing giants are about to start introducing robot agents. They will be helped by companies such as Microsoft, which is currently releasing software that allows online customer service robots initiate, co-ordinate, and confirm calls completely by themselves.

As for taxi, bus and professional car drivers, they can only wince at the near future. Driverless cars are set to be introduced by almost every major manufacturer from 2018.

But it's not just blue-collar roles that are dissipating.

Holland's legal aid board is replacing lawyers with online algorithms to help settle divorce cases. Everything from maintenance costs to child access can now be settled by an online robot. (A human can be added, but it costs €360. So 95pc go with the robot, according to the Dutch agency.)

Canada is about to introduce a similar system relating to property disputes. England is looking at online legal settlement programmes, too.

Looked at one way, it all makes perfect sense: it is unnecessarily wasteful and costly to have to consult a human on basic aspects of the law. That said, how will you feel if you're the lawyer?

It's no easier for accountants. Bread-and-butter bookkeeping tasks such as expenses and tax returns are expected to become completely automated in the next 10 years, according to a recent Oxford study.

Roboticisation is starting to get personal, too. Apple recently bought a start-up called Emotient, whose technology can judge what you're feeling simply by looking at your facial figures. This sounds like a neat fit for some industries currently undergoing automation. At every big IT conference I've attended in the last two years, 'care' robots (designed to supplement or replace care workers) are getting bigger and bigger chunks of the available display space There are now dozens of companies in Japan manufacturing childcare robots.

In Ireland, automation is happening in areas you mightn't have immediately considered. Local radio stations are starting to use computerised DJs. Some major supermarkets are also now starting to trial more intelligent paypoint terminals so that even fewer floor staff will be required.

And we in Ireland are partly responsible for all of this.

For instance, the Dublin-based tech firm Movidius designs and makes chips that let computers take decisions autonomously without having to connect back to the web or to a human for guidance. Its latest chip is now being used on the world's most advanced consumer drone - DJI's Phantom 4 - to let the flying robot 'see' and avoid obstacles without any human pilot intervention.

Some of the research being done by Intel's design teams in Ireland have similar goals.

So we're helping to build robots that can see, assess and make decisions without reference to a human controller.

For employers in almost any field, the attraction of this is obvious: huge efficiency, 24-hour availability and fixed labour planning. There are no strikes, no Haddington Road deals and fewer employment laws to observe, too.

Indeed, such is the expected impact of workplace robots that EU officials are starting to consider whether certain robots should have limited 'rights' as workers. Last month, the European Parliament's committee on legal affairs drafted a motion urging that "the most sophisticated autonomous robots could be established as having the status of electronic persons with specific rights and obligations".

Some small part of this surely turned up in the Brexit vote. It is also arguably wrapped into the rise of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen and others who are deeply angry at the way things are going.

But the 'system' that's causing civil disquiet is more than the European Union, Barack Obama or Angela Merkel. The 'system' is also the new world order of technology and automation.

People feel disenfranchised, and they don't fully know why.

Sunday Indo Business

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