Pat Kane: Terminal redundancy in digital age

Alex Garland's Ex Machina, starring Alicia Vikander, faces up to questions posed by technology. Picture: Contributed
Alex Garland's Ex Machina, starring Alicia Vikander, faces up to questions posed by technology. Picture: Contributed
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IDEA of a basic income is gaining traction as workers face obsolescence in the age of automation, writes Pat Kane

Mary Shelley inspired them in 1818, Karel Capek named them in 1920. Go to almost any cinema in the land over the next few months, and you can get your dose of robot blues any way you like.

Coming up is Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie, and Disney’s Big Hero 6, which are both about our emotional relationships with sentient machines who are not content to be our servants. Showing right now is Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, whose version of Frankenstein’s bride is a most extraordinary and moving creation.

Given that Hollywood’s record is not a bad one for predicting systemic convulsions – remember all those urban-disaster blockbusters in the years running up to 9/11? – one wonders whether the Californian elites know something we don’t about what’s brewing in labs and code shops.

We know the obvious harbingers of a coming wave of robots and automation: the quiz-winning and chess-champion-defeating computers; the self-driving cars only a few years away; the weird self-propelling military drones and devices that star in our modern wars.

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But major economists in the UK and the US are asking us to take, as seriously as we can, the human consequences of the imminent “Second Machine Age”. It’s as simple as looking out of the window – the coming redundancy of not just the drivers of the buses and cars, but those who make them; not just the retail assistants in the shops, but those who piece together the objects they sell.

Add to that our need to reduce consumption anyway, under low-carbon regulations, and we are looking at a possible societal disaster.

So there are some urgent questions to ask. What human skills don’t look like being automatable any time soon? In a much-discussed paper, Michael Osborne and Carl Frey of the Oxford Martin School say that creative, craft-oriented and social/caring skills will be pretty safe. At the bottom of their table are telemarketers, accountants, retail assistants and estate agents; at the top are recreational therapists, dentists, personal trainers, clergy and (delightfully) editors and actors.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee back them up, saying: “We have yet to see a truly creative computer, or an innovative or entrepreneurial one. Nor have we seen a piece of digital gear that could unite people behind a common cause, or comfort a sick child with a gentle caress and knowing smile. And robots are still nowhere near able to repair a bridge or furnace, or care for a frail or injured person.”

I quibble over some of this. I was sitting yesterday in a studio with my brother as he applied six “artificial” drummers, each with their own distinctive style (and even forename) to a track. They were, it has to be said, pretty decent players. And they were directly labour-replacing – removing the need for auditions and long jam sessions, or at least making them a lot shorter and more focussed.

The brilliant premise of Ex Machina is that the web is more like a giant inventory of human behaviour than a giant pile of information. How much more data about emotion and motivation would an artificial intelligence need to draw on in order for its sense of selfhood to flicker into life?

Don’t think this is just sci-fi whimsy. The writer/director Alex Garland has clearly based the movie on the current ambitions of Google. Their chief scientist, Ray Kurzweil – a guru of AI – has an explicit ambition to bring his late father’s consciousness back to life, computable from a vast archive of his memorabilia as a composer and parent.

AI can have less noble aims. At one point in Ex Machina the young nerd finds out that the search mogul has composed the attractive robot’s features from a data-analysis of his pornography viewing. That old trope – super-advanced technology, in the hands of emotionally backward humans – is enthusiastically explored here.

Morals and ethics are the great challenge that the coming automations present to all of us. How do we bring our politics and policy up to the level of our tech innovations and transformations? The old cliché, from academic Frederic Jameson, still stands: at the cinema, we find it easier to imagine the end of the world (pretty often at the hands of killer robots) than to imagine the end of capitalism.

In the last few years we’ve become grimly used to the latest global wealth reports, identifying half of it in the hands of 1 per cent of the population. It sounds like lurid science-fiction already. But it is to some degree a consequence of efficiency-raising tech, and the platforms and systems they propel, being owned by an increasingly tiny elite of capitalists who reap its enormous rewards. This is why arguments about a global wealth tax, as proposed by Thomas Piketty, rise ever higher up the agenda of radical insurgents.

But we need to start addressing this from where we are. And some of the ideas might be on our own doorstep. A conference in honour of the late feminist economist Ailsa McKay was held at the end of last week in Glasgow. McKay’s great cause was for a Citizens’ Basic Income (or CBI). Basic Income, a sum allowing for reasonable existence guaranteed to every citizen in a polity, has been described as a Rorschach blot for left and right: the former see it as a way to raise income levels (by pricing poor jobs out of the market), the latter as a way to reduce bloated welfare bureaucracy.

But when the more enlightened tech moguls advocate it – which one of the Google founders did a few years ago, as do many of the aforementioned experts – they do so knowingly.

If radical mental and manual labour-saving technologies are unleashed on a purely market-led basis, with no regard to social cohesion, the resulting chaos may bring the pitchforks pointing in their direction.

A basic income may be the way to support those displaced by robots and automation to develop their machine-resistant skills. It might also need a collective revaluing of those caring and creative skills in the first place. Which small nation can you think of that might be capable of such a patient and sustained revaluing? Right, first time.

• Pat Kane is a musician, writer and board member of Common Weal