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The Editorial

Robot wars?

A much-reviewed book grabbed me recently.

John Benton, Editor

Figure Image

It is The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment by Martin Ford*, a Silicon Valley software entrepreneur. His well-informed thesis is that any job which involves ‘routine’ can, with the astonishing advance in computer technology, be ‘learned’ by robots. They are set to become as available and as ordinary a sight as a motor car.

The idea that computers can only do what they are programmed to do is of course true at one level, but now computerised robots are programmed to learn. Things have moved on vastly since IBM’s ‘Deep Blue’ beat world champion Gary Kasparov at chess. The computer ‘Watson’ can win quizzes in which the answers are intuitive. ‘Eureqa’ has algorithms which can ‘do science’ – studying data and finding laws and equations. An artificial intelligence programme called ‘The Painting Fool’ can produce ‘original’ works of art.

Loss of jobs and Europe

So a House of Lords report from February 2015 estimated that 35% of UK jobs will fall victim to automation within 20 years. These jobs are not simply those of warehouse workers or those in service industries but the jobs of journalists, project managers, doctors, lawyers and more. Because of burgeoning technology, companies can make vast profits with far fewer staff. Whereas MacDonalds at present employs 1.8 million people worldwide, Google needs only 55,000. Robot factories have become so efficient as to undercut the lowest costs of Third World textile factory workers.

In coming months there will be much agonising over the referendum concerning whether Britain will stay in the European Union. Prime Minister Cameron is trumpeting the (debatable) concessions he has won from Brussels concerning benefits to which migrant workers might be entitled. But actually border controls and quotas might all be beside the point. Via computer technology, people residing elsewhere in Europe and working from home can take British jobs as ‘virtual immigrants’. Will the nation state become a thing of the past? But the prospect of requiring fewer and fewer workers is not all good news for companies. The story is told of Henry Ford II and a union leader touring a recently automated car factory. The Ford Motor Company CEO taunts the union boss: ‘How are you going to get these robots to pay their union dues?’ But the union man comes right back at Ford, asking: ‘How are you going to get them to buy your cars?’ So the rise of the robots may require not just a rethinking of the workplace, but a rethinking of the capitalist economic system and society at large.

Christian thinking

A welter of questions arise from all this for Christians. Here are a few. Genesis tells us that part of the image of God in us is that we find satisfaction in work. How can we keep our humanity if, in the future, there are very few people with jobs? Again, the Enlightenment ‘scientific’ project has sought to reduce man to a biochemical machine. But what if there are machines which can reproduce themselves and are more efficient than us – should we stand in the way of this ‘evolution’? Is this God’s judgment on atheistic science?

And for the churches – don’t laugh – what if there are robots which can survey the biblical data more thoroughly, read every Christian counselling book more quickly, learn ‘Bible-handling skills’ and voice sermons much more efficiently than a human pastor? In The Wizard of Oz, isn’t it the Tin Man who sings: ‘If I only had a heart’?

* published by One World. ISBN 978 1 780 747 491 £18.99