John Hudson, The Robot Revolution

John Hudson, The Robot Revolution: Understanding the social and economic impact, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2019, xx + 160 pp, 1 78897 447 9, hbk, £70

As Hudson points out early on, there is nothing new about innovation, and robots (which for the purposes of this book include artificial intelligence) have already been with us for a long time. So why the increasing interest in the subject, and why the increasing anxiety? The author provides some answers, some of which will encourage optimism about the future, and some rather the opposite.

Chapter 1 offers a history of innovation, from the discovery of fire, through the steam engine, to microchips. As Hudson suggests, innovation is often driven by curiosity or greed, and not always by a desire to benefit society. Chapter 2 is a history of robots, and of their presence in novels and films. Chapter 3 brings the history into the present by describing the current diversity of robots: industrial, warehouse, caring, medical, bomb disposal, security, military, and agricultural robots; autonomous vehicles; robots in education; modular robots; and artificial intelligence, which this book regards as a robot because it sifts vast amounts of data. The chapter speculates about the future, and lists some significant challenges to be overcome, such as the difficulty that a computer faces when it tries to understand what a camera is looking at, or when it encounters human emotion. Chapter 4 discusses the science of robots, and particularly robots’ manoeuvrability, awareness of position and location, intelligence, and artificial intelligence (the latter including the ability to learn), with all of these aspects functioning together to form an essential character of a robot: the ‘perception to action’ process (p. 60). It is at this point in the book that the more philosophical questions begin: for instance, ‘Can robots think?’

Then follow chapters about the effects of robots. Chapter 5, on the impact on employment, unemployment, and wages, finds that regions with lots of robots increase employment, but at the expense of regions with fewer robots, which suggests that countries should increase the number of robots in their industries if they are not to be left behind economically. The chapter also finds that low-skilled and medium-skilled labour markets are likely to contract before the low-skilled market began to expand again. Chapter 6 continues this theme by offering three different possible future scenarios, from a ‘traditionalist’ scenario in which, after a period of adjustment, little will change, through a scenario in which robots remove a range of jobs and a new low wage equilibrium is established, to a ‘death of capitalism’ scenario in which there is no limit to jobs that robots can do and human beings are left to compete for fewer and fewer jobs, resulting in high unemployment, especially among younger generations.

In relation to all three scenarios, Hudson recognises that a Citizen’s Basic Income might be required to maintain purchasing power, with the income paid for by taxing robot-employing companies, for which international agreements will be required. He predicts more extremist political parties offering simple solutions that then fail – although this is less a prediction and more a description of an existing trend. Artificial intelligence presents particular dangers, as it will enable a variety of media to present news stories slanted to match recipients’ existing views, thus further polarising society and politics. As for changes to people and their relationships, the smartphone is already changing those, and artificial intelligence will have similar effects. Hudson predicts that we will become physically and mentally less fit, and speculates that some of the humanity-destroying scenarios in science fiction might not be too wide of the mark.

Chapter 7 surveys our changing attitudes to robots, and finds them to be polarised, and the trend to be in the direction of our being less supportive. Chapter 8 explores policies to deal with the problems: regulations relating to how robots and artificial intelligence develop, clarity about legal status, and again Citizen’s Basic Income. The possible political and social problems are reiterated, but, in a chapter that is meant to be offering solutions, it is both concerning and instructive that no real solutions are offered. A section on military problems doesn’t look like good news, either. Hudson concludes the chapter by suggesting that national governments have no option but to encourage robotics, but that codes of conduct, ethics committees, licensing, and testing regulations, will be essential. The final chapter employs robotics as a case study of innovation, with a view to what has been learnt being employed in such other fields as nanotechnology. The roles of different sectors in innovation are discussed.

An appendix to chapter 3 contains a useful glossary, and there is a good bibliography, but the index is somewhat thin, and interestingly does not mention ‘Universal Basic Income’ which receives significant coverage in the book.

This is a really important book. Not all of its predictions might come to pass, but if even a few of them do then we’re in trouble. It is no comfort that many of the consequences of robotisation listed in the book are already evident. Alongside climate change, robotisation, broadly conceived, might prove to be the most serious issue facing us. The book is timely, and should be taken seriously.