Forgive me your highness, but the AI revolution is inevitable

The tech itself may not be evil, but scientists are placing far too much trust in companies to automate responsibly

Prince Charles

Automation has slowly crept into almost every industry in some form and it's starting to create an uneasy question about employment.

The subject of machines replacing people and its effect on our well-being was recently highlighted by the Prince of Wales. Although clearly thinking of the little guys, his royal highnesses (HRH) comments have irked some experts.

Speaking to GQ magazine, having been awarded its lifetime achievement award for services to philanthropy, Prince Charles expressed concern over automation, saying: "The thing I find hardest now is to cope with this extraordinary trend that somehow we must become part human, part machine, which I totally and utterly object to."

"It seems to me vital to remember that we ourselves are human beings and not machines and that the dignity of human work and interaction is essential to our psychological well-being," he said.

As opinions on AI go, it's more about 'us' than the technology itself. What will automation mean for all those who have spent years of their life learning a specific craft that's going to be turned into a two-minute job for a computer?

Missing the point, and giving us his opinion on the Duke of Cornwall's opinion, University of Edinburgh science and engineering head Dave Robertson was quoted in the Telegraph suggesting HRH objected to what he saw as "the wrong kind of change".

"I don't support the view that tech is insidious and making human society worse," he said. Robertson went on to add that new technology is likely to aid humans rather than usurp us.

But, history tells us that this isn't the case. While yes, new technologies tend to prove beneficial in the long run, its immediate effect is to disrupt and as the Prince pointed out, there is a dignity in human work that is at risk of being lost through automation.

There's no doubt that jobs involving manual labour, such as factory work, will be undertaken by machines it's already happening. Those unfortunate enough to be working in a job where robotics can do it better, faster and more accurately will find themselves with the daunting task of reskilling to keep up with a rapidly changing world.

This "extraordinary trend", as Prince Charles puts it, is the subject of a documentary currently being showcased at the Toronto Film Festival. 'The Truth About Killer Robots' is an 83-minute work of science non-fiction, offering some examples of the subtle encroachment of automation into the workplace.

Written and directed by filmmaker Maxim Pozdorovkin, the main subject matter is the emerging cases of human deaths in automated work environments, such as those in a Volkswagen factory or the Tesla self-driving car that hit and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona earlier in the year.

Its salacious title aside, the film goes beyond sensationalised deaths to examine how automation can affect our well-being and the accelerating ways in which robots are replacing humans, not just in manufacturing, but in a number of sectors such as healthcare, farming and legal professions.

There is a touch of irony as Pozdorovkin uses a robot called Kodomoroid to narrate and present the film from the machine's point of view, but it presents a serious take on a subject that often breeds hysteria in the mainstream media.

Pozdorovkin distances himself from the plot and instead lets CEO's and engineers talk up the benefits of automation, while the actual workers speak of the trauma of being usurped by machines. The effect is somewhat brutal a demonstration of what's akin to a class divide between those privileged few who see the financial benefit of the tech, and those who stand to lose the most.

Speaking to AFP about his documentary, Pozdorovkin suggests that robots are job killers: "We're talking about massive societal changes and I think it's going to continue."

The director cites American truck drivers, who he says are being tasked with "babysitting" robot navigators for less pay, as an example of how automation is slowly killing jobs.

"Before a truck driver is fully replaced by automation, their wages, their skills and their sense of dignity are slowly being degraded as they hand over more and more tasks to computers," Pozdorovkin explained.

While new technologies like AI, automation and robotics will no doubt bring about the fourth industrial revolution, it will also inevitably usher in lengthy unemployment for certain demographics and raise as many ethical questions as it will benefits.

If all jobs become machine, algorithm and AI-based, and the human element of the role is more about software engineering and data, what do we do with those who are unable to keep up with technology? Going from 'truck driver' to 'automated truck driver software technician' is not a natural leap. It places a significant burden on the individual to effectively change their career when they're middle-aged, which would be a daunting prospect for anyone, let alone when it involves learning something completely alien.

The technology itself is not inherently 'evil', and those responsible for building and innovating with this technology are right when they disagree with the notion that all development on AI will make society worse off. The disconnect and the danger lies in the space between the scientists and those responsible for implementing the technology where there's an assumption that companies will deploy automation in a responsible way. In reality, they're bound by the market, and companies will do anything they can to stay ahead of their competition. 

As HRH alludes to, it's dangerous for one set of humans to consider another set of humans as the necessary consequence of new technologies. We should be, and can be, smarter than that.

Images: Toronto International Film Festival

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