In 1920, the number of horses in the USA was the highest it’s ever been. Horses had seen wave after wave of technological innovation, from better stirrups to chariots to even the rise of the railroads and train. An optimistic horse might have looked at the advent of cars and then suspected that they posed no threat either. And yet since then, the horse population has fallen off a cliff. Horses were made redundant by the rise of the car and truck, falling from 26 million in 1920 to below 3 million by 1960.
The lesson of this story is that technological innovation is not merely a job creator – as horses might have expected in the past – it can also be a job-destroyer. Beings which have been needed for hundreds or thousands of years are rendered useless for achieving economic goals.
The argument now is that what happened to horses will happen to us. Numerous estimates over the last few years have predicted that advances in AI and robotics are bringing in an unprecedented level of automation. At the conservative end, the OECD estimate that an average of 9% of jobs might be automated by 2050 in OECD countries. At the higher end, PwC suggest that 30% of jobs in the UK could be automated by 2032. The technological advances that are coming as a result of Moore’s Law (computer processing power doubles every 18 months) suggests that major innovations could get rid of a large proportion of the workforce.
The point often made in response is that just as technology destroys jobs, it also creates them, so this isn’t so bad, as we might get new and better jobs as a result. It seems to me an open question as to whether we get these kinds of new jobs – indeed, it’s plausible that technological advancement might outpace the creation of new jobs, leading to mass unemployment. But even if it doesn’t, we may still be in for a significant period of labour disruption. Despite all the jobs that the Industrial Revolution created, there was significant disruption, with Chief Economist of the Bank of England Andrew Haldane noting that there was a doubling in the proportion of unskilled workers between 1700 and 1850. Indeed, the scale of disruption has even led some to question whether the Industrial Revolution was really worth it.
What does this mean? It means a lot of different things, which require lengthy reflection, but I will focus on one: severe political unrest. In the past, economic catastrophes have led to the rise of authoritarian leaders. Adolf Hitler rose to power on the unpopularity of the Weimar Government, who engaged in extensive austerity after the Great Depression. More recently, Golden Dawn have thrived in the atmosphere of Greek austerity and the desperation which results from that.
The level of automation coming through present innovations may well provoke severe political unrest. A recent article from the Oxford Martin School suggests that the Industrial Revolution provoked severe civil unrest in the past, and controversially assigns a major role to automation in the election of Donald Trump. It’s not clear if we are likely to get more Trumps in power across the world. But the magnitude of the change that is coming may well have severe implications for society, and political unrest is something we must be prepared for.
Christians should not bury their heads in the sand, nor opt out of the debate by declaring that since God is sovereign we shouldn’t worry about it. The Bible indicates that God has blessed human beings with the ability to create and develop technology, but warns that it can become a danger also, if misused or if people place inordinate trust in it.
So let’s get prepared for greatly increased automation, but also engage with the process of change with faith and courage, seeking God’s purposes through it all.
Josh Parikh graduated from Oxford University in 2017 and spent a month as an intern with the Jubilee Centre, researching into a Christian perspective on robotics and artificial intelligence. He wrote an earlier blog post on the moral status of robots here.