Posted December 29, 2016on:
This has been a year of blatant contradictions. No more so than in the way politicians in the “developed” world turn cartwheels on the issues of unemployment and wealth inequalities.
We were told that both Brexit and Trump’s popularity were “populist” reactions to the elitist control of politics and the loss of jobs to immigrants. As for the latter, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, recently announced that the government would devote 2 billion pounds to the development of robots and automated processes. So no jobs for locals, unless you happen to be non-human. And Donald Trump’s choice for Labour Secretary, Andrew Puzder, is the boss of several big fast food companies and a fan of automated customer services: “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age-, sex-, or race-discrimination case.”
Nearly half of current jobs in the U.S. will be automated by 2033. Not only will 3D printers eliminate jobs in manufacturing, but “truck drivers” (the most common job in some American states) will also become obsolete in the age of driverless cars and trucks. Algorithms are used to analyse intelligence data for the NSA and CIA, perform medical diagnoses, hire employees, trade derivatives on financial markets, detect plagiarism, develop new drugs, and change the nature of warfare. Soon computer programmers will become redundant. And once robots start being designed and repaired by robots themselves, even robotics engineers will be superfluous.
What is it that drives the quest to replace humans with “intelligent” machines? Japan has a low birth rate, an ageing population, and a traditional xenophobic hostility to migrant labour from other Asian countries. It is not surprising, therefore, that it leads the world in robotics research linked to the care of elderly patients in hospitals and nursing homes. And Japanese religious traditions do not recognize the irreplaceable dignity of a human life.
But, all over the “developed” world, the thirst for greater and greater profit margins is the principal driver. In the United States, real wages have been stagnant for the past four decades, while corporate profits have soared. Six of the fifteen wealthiest Americans own digital technology companies, the oldest of which, Microsoft, has been in existence only since 1975.
In 1964, the US’s most valuable company, AT&T, was worth $267 billion in today’s dollars and employed 758,611 people. Today’s telecommunications giant, Google, is worth $370 billion but has only about 55,000 employees – less than a tenth the size of AT&T’s workforce in its heyday.
As the Nobel laureate Paul Krugman wrote a few years ago in The New York Times: “Smart machines may make higher GDP possible, but they will also reduce the demand for people-including smart people. So we could be looking at a society that grows ever richer, but in which all the gains in wealth accrue to whoever owns the robots.”
If anybody is interested to know further my views on robotics and AI, and the moral and theological issues they raise, you can watch a lecture of July 2016 at http://www.faraday.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk (simply go to Resources → Multimedia and enter my name).
Thus there is a strong link between unemployment and the growing wealth disparities in today’s world. And that link is going to deepen as our politicians and economists seem to be bankrupt of ideas.
As for the elitist control of politics, it is business as usual. In fact, Trump’s cabinet boasts more billionaires than any other in U.S. history. The bankers and oil men rub their hands in glee. It will not be long before the Rust Belt voters discover that they have been taken for a ride.
Banks and the IT industry are major recipients of public funds. Yet the average taxpayer is unable to afford the products that these industries sell. Similarly cancer research is heavily funded by governments and philanthropic charities. Yet the new cancer drugs are beyond the reach of most of us. The transfer of public funds into private profits (which are then salted away in offshore tax havens) is going to worsen in the current global political climate which has divorced morality from politics and economics.
But perhaps for Christians the worst contradiction of all is to see- from the United States to the Philippines- large swathes of so-called “born again” Christians electing to power men who embody everything antithetical to the gospel of Christ. It is this that must fill us with shame and call forth the apostle’s prayer for the church that crucified Christ: “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God is that they may be saved. For I can testify that they are zealous for God but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” (Romans 10.1)