Automating political apoplexy for a dystopian future?

Profile picture for user mbanks By Martin Banks July 8, 2015
In yesterday's UK Budget statement, a Living Wage was announced. Martin Banks muses that that is a term that may hold more truth than the Chancellor imagines as increasing automation points to ever-more people living on `benefits’ – and big ones to boot.

iain duncan smith
Apoplexy coming?

The UK Budget statement has happened and the Chancellor of the Exchequer has spoken. And some of what he said made some sense – even if it was probably not in the way that he meant it to.

For the benefit of non-UK readers, it has become traditional that every Chancellor does a couple of things. One is talk up the bad things in advance, with lots of leaks or (as in this case with an election only recently past) party political broadcasts. This raises the spectre of cataclysmic doom and despondency which, come the actual announcements, are seen to be far less savage and painful than the doomsayers had predicted.

The other is to pull the ubiquitous `rabbit’ out of the official `hat’. This was duly done in the form of the announcement of a Living Wage.

Setting aside the possibility that this was just a cynical rebranding of a simple increase in the existing minimum earnings per hour regulations, it must be observed that the Chancellor spoke truer words than he ever imagined. Not only will there be a Living Wage, there is an inevitable requirement for one.

They are also truer words than his chum Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan-Smith might be able to stomach. (This remember is the politician presiding over the much criticised Universal Credit, whose IT roll-out is shaping up to be another great example of public sector tech ineptitude.)

The unusual sight of the good Secretary’s gloating face will no doubt change when he realises the full implications of what is already in process – and increasingly inevitable. A living wage – and a real living wage rather than a barrel-scraping one – is coming ever-closer to being a reality for everyone, not least because it will be a necessity for all branches of industry and commerce.

Why Duncan-Smith’s smile might disappear, however, is because his much-cherished ideology of getting everyone off benefits and into work is actually under serious threat – not politically, but economically and, most important of all, technologically.

There has been a popular meme banging around social media on the interweb thingie for a while now. It quotes Richard Buckminster-Fuller (1895-1983) the well-known American architect, designer, systems theorist, author and inventor posing a simple question: why do we insist on people working when most of the jobs they do are all-but non-existent, effectively created to get people `off the street’?

That question may have seemed fanciful hyperbole when he first posed it, but today it is extremely real and applicable well beyond the UK shores.

The causes are a powerful combination of technologies - digitalisation and automation.

The result, which should result in political apoplexy, is that the vast majority of people will be out of work and living on `benefits’ of some kind. Not only that but the `benefits’ they live on will be large, for their role in life will be to consume.

Sci-fi comes real

This idea is certainly not original. I first read it in a Sci-Fi short story years ago (so long now that I do not have the book, and cannot to my shame remember either author or title). That took the idea to extreme levels where the lowest in society had the job of consuming the most, while the 'One Percenters’ were allowed to live lives as frugal as they desired.

But this is no longer fanciful. It is now just around the corner. Every form of business is looking to exploit automation wherever it can, as soon as the technology is available and the managements can get their collective head round the possibilities. The mantra, as usual, is to increase productivity. And one of the favourite ways of doing that, of course, is by using technology to rationalise jobs out of existence.

As more products and services themselves are digitalised, along with the underpinning management services of those products that can’t be digitalised themselves, more and more jobs will contiunue to disappear. In addition, more of the non-digitalisable products are being at least surrounded by digitalisation.

Cars, for example, can now not only monitor every aspect of their performance, but also `phone home’ to schedule service appointments and order replacement components (where 'component’ equals a large sub-system that was assembled by robots and can be extracted from and replaced in the vehicle by other robots).

Automation, particularly in the form of the Industrial Internet (aka Internet of Things) is an inevitable development. For many industrial processes ever-increasing levels of automation will be the only option available. Even if one industry tried to use more people to run processes as fast or efficiently as an automated alternative, the former would never be able to beat the latter.

If nothing else, each decision point in an algorithm would be an opportunity for humans to establish a committee, probably followed in short order by a couple of Boards of Inquiry into decisions made and then finally a Judicial Review case and an appeal to the House of Lords.

The same holds true for cloud-based systems. To get the level of operational efficiency, flexibility and end user agility, increasing levels of automation and self-managed systems will be required to manage and run the Software-Defined-Everything infrastructures and environments that will be required to fulfil the needs of business, Mammon and consumers.

To get the levels of productivity business – and indeed Mammon itself – needs to keep the wheels turning will require automation: lots and lots of it. Humans may be brilliant at thinking 'outside of the box’, a trick that computing may never manage to emulate properly without someone coming up with a code equivalent of 'strange smoking substances’, but once inside the box they are slow, and tend to get slower as boredom sets in.

But……and it is a very BIG but……….without human consumers, the whole edifice collapses like a deck of cards. If there is no-one to consume all that stuff that industry produces, then there is no reason for any of it to exist at all.

Leave it to the machines

That is one possible scenario: maybe the human race should just die off and leave it all to computing.

But given that most humans might possibly vote against that idea, it does create a problem. If humans are needed to consume the ever-increasing output of industry, but are increasingly NOT needed to do the work industry requires to produce that output, a dilemma exists.

Without individuals having a source of income, no products, services or other forms of output will be purchased, and the system will implode.

This leads us back to the beginning of this, and the prospect of an apoplectic Iain Duncan-Smith. The obvious solution is that everyone will need to end up on `benefits’ – and large ones big enough for them to shoulder their share of that all-important job – consuming.

andy smith robots
The future?

The only question is whether that should be in the form of a state-supplied income, or perhaps by being on the payroll of companies undertaking various forms of non-work, such as Deputy Chief Under-Assistant Manager’s Assistant Consumption Trainee. This is the Buckminster-Fuller scenario.

And the money? Well it may at least stop being hoarded by the One-Percenters and start working again, going from hand-to-hand, keeping the wheels of automation rolling.

My take:

OK, this won’t be done and dusted by tomorrow, but it is happening and probably faster than any of us realise – especially Iain Duncan-Smith MP. He may yet go down in history as the next iteration of Canute.