Humans debuted on Channel 4 last night, offering a near-future glimpse at what life could be like in a world of human-like robotic assistants, known as Synths, produced by a company called Persona Synthetics. You remember the ads, right?
The show was fairly smart - and if the first episode is anything to go by, we can expect it to explore the full gamut of societal issues thrown up by an artificially intelligent future. It all appears moderately plausible too. I mean, apart from the idea that a young-ish family could afford a house that large in North London.
Perhaps one of the most perceptive observations in Humans was made by Mattie Hawkins, the teenage daughter: What are we going to do when the robots take all of our jobs? In the first episode, we saw Mattie’s school work suffering as she was demotivated by the prospect of having no professional prospects to look forward to as a result of the rise of the synths.
Humanoid robots may be science fiction for the time being, but the jobs problem certainly isn’t. As long as there has been technology, people have been worrying that they will lose their jobs - and arguably job losses are an essential part of progress (though that isn’t to say that governments and societies couldn’t do a much better job at looking after the victims of change).
Persona Synthetics? It's Already Happening
We’ve seen it on a small scale in our supermarkets: Self-checkouts, though universally loathed, require less humans to serve more customers, putting people out of work and removing the need to create jobs in the first place.
This is only going to get worse. Perhaps the first loss on a big scale will be with the advent on self-driving vehicles, wiping out every driving job - including taxi drivers and the entire logistics industry. Why will firms employ expensive humans, who require salaries and sleep, when machines can do the job more consistently around the clock, with less breaks? Robots are apparently safer drivers than humans too.
According to a study published at the end of last year, up to 35% of British jobs could be eliminated by technology in the next 20 years. It isn’t just low-skilled jobs too - so-called “middle class” jobs could be eliminated too. (Worryingly for me, robots could soon replace writers too.)
So there’s a very real possibility in the next few decades we could be a situation where there are millions of people out of work, not through any fault of their own or because of recession, but because there are literally no jobs. Everything has been automated.
This will have wider implications too - as not only our jobs tied to intangible things like our self-esteem and sense of purpose, but they are linked to pensions and social security - and indeed the taxes the state collects to pay for public services. If there’s less people working… won’t all this break down?
Given that our entire capitalist society is built around paying people in exchange for selling their labour - could this not spell the end of capitalism?
Universal Basic Income
One increasingly popular solution to this coming dilemma is Universal Basic Income. The idea is simple: Forget benefits, tax credits and so on, and the state should simply dole out a fixed figure income to every individual regardless of circumstances, whether they’re in work or not. Citizens are still allowed to work and earn money - but this will be on top of their basic income.
The people left jobless by the robot revolution will be able to live and eat, and if Humans was anything to go by, pay for robot brothels too. Perhaps they could even pay for training to work towards a new job in the new economy - or they could simply choose not to work. Presumably a basic income lifestyle wouldn’t be the most luxurious, but it would be without the stigma that living on benefits has now because hey, it ain’t your fault that the robots do everything now.
The trouble is that moving towards this sort of society is going to be incredibly tricky: Accepting that there is simply not enough work is going to be difficult for politicians - you only have to look at the current government’s assault on people on benefits (both rhetorically and in terms of policy). But short of putting people into workhouses and creating meaningless “busywork”, it may be the only viable way of making society work.
So when the Synths finally do arrive, we’ll probably greet them as useful helpers… but don’t be surprised if - as Humans seems to be implying - there could be unintended consequences too.