The fear of change is nothing new. Charlie Chaplin’s classic film Modern Times – one of the last silent films of the era – is perhaps the most famous critique of technology and its perceived impact on modern society.
When the film was produced in 1936, Chaplin wasn’t alone in his fear of how a mechanised world would change lives and, indeed, the world as he knew it.
When Jeremy Corbyn spoke at the Labour conference last week, his response to the “threat” of automation to today’s workforce was all too reminiscent of Chaplin’s.
Corbyn’s insinuation that “greedy” corporations are sacrificing the wellbeing of society in exchange for profit is inaccurate, and his recommendation to penalise companies that utilise “incredibly advanced technology” with added taxes is utterly counter-intuitive.
The Labour leader is certainly not the first to propose such a tax. Last February, Bill Gates – one of the world’s leaders in technology – went public with his support for a government tax on companies who utilise robots.
Gates’ comments came on the heels of the overwhelming rejection of an EU proposal for a “robot tax” on technology owners, designed to help retrain or otherwise support workers who are displaced by robots.
As someone who operates in the world of robotics every day, I find this focus on taxation and job displacement shockingly short-sighted.
There’s no doubt that companies around the globe are generating billions of dollars in revenue as the result of advanced technologies – and that revenue is, in turn, generating tax revenue.
And while there’s no question that certain types of jobs will be displaced by robotics, artifical intelligence (AI), and other advanced technologies, the idea that these innovators are not “sharing the benefits with society” is just plain wrong.
Worldwide, more than 1.2m lives are lost in car accidents every year, with 94 per cent of those deaths caused by human error. Researchers estimate that driverless cars have the potential to reduce traffic fatalities by up to 90 per cent by 2050.
Precision agriculture technology has been praised as the only viable solution to the need for a 70 per cent increase in food production on the next 35 years to feed an exploding population.
Robots are also used in hospitals to precisely measure complex medications, kill otherwise undetected germs in operating rooms, assist with surgeries to minimise invasive procedures, and support hospital staff by delivering linens and meals.
In the real world, robots are already helping to improve working conditions, increase the effectiveness of workers at all skill levels, and bolster the labour needed to meet the needs of a growing global population.
Moreover, the fear that technology advancements are going to put us all out of work is unfounded.
The McKinsey Global Institute recently estimated that more than 90 per cent of jobs will not be able to be fully automated. According to the Wall Street Journal, automation has historically increased – not decreased – employment opportunities in many industries.
In fact, because the labour force has steadily decreased since 1980 (and that trajectory is not expected to change), economists are most worried about a labour shortage in the next few decades – not unemployment. Robots and AI are poised to help fill this growing gap in the labour force that, without their help, could be a major economic issue.
Corbyn claims that the companies should share the benefits of their new technologies with society. But taxation isn’t the best solution to meet that goal.
Even unions don’t support Corbyn’s strategy. Wolfgang Lutterbach, senior adviser on the future of work to the executive board of the German Trade Union Confederation, recently stated that: “if we don’t speed up our reactions to these developments, we will not shape digitalisation, but digitalisation will shape us.”
Clearly, he and his fellow union leaders understand the value and opportunity that this new era of productivity has to offer.
Not only would Corbyn’s proposed tax slow the development of these valuable technologies, but it’s clear that the evidence points to a future in which the impact of robotics and AI is more positive than negative—both for the workers themselves and for global productivity.
At the end of Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin’s character and his heroine realise that the future is not as dire as they had imagined. In the last scene, the couple famously walk down into the industrialised world towards an uncertain but hopeful future. We should all be willing to do the same.