Valentine’s Day is looming next week and for commercial flower growers it represents one of the biggest sales opportunities of the year. Assuming they can get their products cut and collected from the fields, that is. In the wake of Brexit, the boss of one horticultural business recently told a select committee on immigration that finding field workers had become difficult. “Automation is an inevitability,” he said.
It is a story being repeated across many sectors right now. But while tighter rules on immigration are the overt reason for replacing human workers with automated replacements, a deeper current is driving the same trend that is not the result of political decisions, but those of technology companies and their clients.
Unlike Brexit, however, there is no opportunity for the public to express an opinion and influence the choice. Instead, there is a constant push to introduce automated solutions in the name of efficiency and “progress” with no discussion of the social and economic consequences.
Take the report called “Work in progress” just published by public services think-tank, Reform. It advocates automating administrative roles in the civil services where appropriate, removing 137,000 jobs by 2030 at a cost-saving of £2.6 billion. What is missing from that picture is an end-to-end calculation of removing that many jobs with the associated costs from unemployment, job search and retraining which result. What exactly are those ex-employees supposed to do if similar automation takes place across all the other white collar jobs they might hope to get, as is widely predicted to happen?
While think-tanks and policy makers are enthusiastic adopters of automation because it makes them look future-focused, they can at least make the case that they need to think about what employment and the economy should look like. Whether their proposals are subjected to proper scrutiny and a public vote is less likely, creating a gap between those planners and the people whose lives they are planning.
When it comes to the technology firms who are creating the solutions on which new policies will get built, there is a notable absence of any social or political dimension to their thinking. The IDM Annual Lecture last week provided a prime example of this vacuum. According to IBM’s CMO, Lisa Gilbert, the company’s cognitive computing platform, Watson, is “augmented intelligence”, not artificial intelligence.
As an example of a weasel word, this is a good one. It ducks the implications of AI - who needs human intelligence if it can be recreated artificially? - by suggesting technology will live in happy harmony with humans, making both better. As the Reform report makes clear, that is precisely the opposite of what is intended by organisations, both public and private sector, when they introduce AI. They are choosing technology over humans every time, not least because it gives them greater control. Humans are messy, unpredictable, have to be managed according to rules and keep insisting that their rights are respected. Machines do none of those things.
Efficiency, cost-savings, improved services are all admirable and, in many respects, desirable. But they come with a price which is paid by individual humans. At the moment, none of those backing AI seems willing to add up the bill.