The Robots Won’t Save Us

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Post by ~ Simon Duffy

Scenario for a sci-fi film:

Unknowingly to human-kind, robot-kind begins to become self aware. At first our robot hero (let’s call it MRX1) sympathises with the humans it works alongside - people who are forced to live in poverty, despite living in a highly technologically advanced world. Then it comes to realise that if human beings - with all the technological power available to them - continue to exploit each other then there is no chance that they will not also exploit robots. The plot explores the dilemmas of justice and equality, mixed with lasers and robot vs human battles... but our sympathy is with the robots.

[Apologies to real sci-fi fans I’m aware that this is a riff on many popular sci-fi stories and my scenario may already exist in some book or film that I do not know.]

There is an interesting set of philosophical questions here about conscience and consciousness - but I will leave that for another time. What provoked my sci-fi scenario is a common argument for basic income: that basic income will be necessary, because the robots will take all the jobs.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m all for basic income - it is certainly going to be the foundation of a more just society. However the robots, or their controllers, are not going to provide us with a basic income.

The fallacy of the robots = basic income argument is a fallacy that crops up in our society all the time, and it is the fallacy that free market exchanges will lead to increased social justice and equality.

Sadly - the opposite is true. In a free market, where I must sell my time in order to live, there is no guarantee that the person to whom I sell my time will give me enough to live on. Free markets work by encouraging people to sell at any price - justice has nothing to do with it.

Even worse, in a free market those who exploit others most effectively tend to rise to the top as they buy out other businesses with the profits they make from exploiting their workers more effectively than their competitors. Free markets kill the market - freedom has nothing to do with it.

Even worse than this, this process doesn’t even stop when exploitation of the poor ends up undermining the whole economy and crashing the whole system. UK economic growth has declined as UK inequality has increased, but that doesn’t stop the powerful demanding even more opportunities to exploit and steal from the poor. Free markets kill the economy - even wealth has nothing to do with it.

So there is nothing about the growing impact of AI and robotics which will ensure justice, or more specifically basic income. Even if a few Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have now woken up to the madness of the current system and the difficulties they will face in making money from the poor, this will not lead to justice.

History teaches us that technology doesn’t make us free, nor does it imprison us. It merely changes the conditions of the choices that we must make. We don’t need robots to create a world of justice, fair shares and equal citizenship. We need to wake up and make it happen ourselves. But if the robots do start to take on more and more work, don’t kid yourself that the powerful can’t find something for you to do - however poorly paid or demeaning it might be.

Only we can save ourselves - leave the robots out of it.


More about the author

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Simon Duffy - Founder and Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform

Simon is the Founder and Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform. He speaks regularly on television and radio about the welfare state and social policy. He is best known for inventing personal budgets and for designing systems of self-directed support.


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