Leader comment: Rise of robots could spark Luddite unrest

Glasgow Subway trains will be the first in the UK to run with no staff at all (Picture: John Devlin)Glasgow Subway trains will be the first in the UK to run with no staff at all (Picture: John Devlin)
Glasgow Subway trains will be the first in the UK to run with no staff at all (Picture: John Devlin)
The decision to run trains on the Glasgow Subway without the presence of any staff '“ as revealed by The Scotsman today '“ is a landmark moment in a technological revolution that will have profound implications for the way we live.

The so-called “Rise of the Robots” will bring many benefits but also significant challenges.

Driverless trains already operate on the Docklands Light Railway in London but they still have staff to operate the doors. Somehow when they were first introduced, people did not quite feel comfortable with the idea of a large vehicle controlled completely by a computer with no human presence.

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The road ahead: driverless cars

Now the Glasgow Subway has decided to go all the way and do without people for the first time. Driverless cars, it seems, will follow soon. UK Cabinet Minister Chris Grayling recently said they would appear on Britain’s streets by 2021 at the latest, rightly pointing out that such vehicles would make road travel safer by removing the biggest factor in road accidents – human error. And he also spoke of how those currently unable to drive, like elderly or disabled people, would get a “new sense of freedom”.

However, many will be concerned about putting their lives in the hands of a computer. And people who make their living as drivers can expect to find it increasingly difficult to get work.

Transport may be going through this transformation earlier than other sectors, but as artificial intelligence becomes ever more sophisticated many other jobs are becoming capable of being automated. Even journalism is not immune; The Washington Post’s own “robot reporter”, Heliograph, wrote hundreds of articles last year.

It seems every major technological advance has brought fears about the loss of jobs and each time most people have still found there is work to do. But this one just might be different. There will always be jobs where a human touch is required, but AI appears to have the capacity to make many of us redundant.

If that is where we are heading, we will first need to work out the scale of the problem and then establish what exactly we are going to do all day. And indeed how we will make a living.

In the 19th century, there were deadly clashes between the machine-wrecking Luddites and soldiers protecting factories. If we are to avoid similar social unrest, we must start planning ahead.

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