The truth, in the age of robots and job-insecurity

Laboratory robotics: Wikipedia
Laboratory robotics: Wikipedia

A Jesuit in South Africa - formerly a region of the British Province - has warned that jobs are seriously at risk in the age of robots and automation, and has urged the Church to work with politicians to present a more honest picture of the ‘brave new world’ that lies ahead. Writing on the Jesuit Institute South Africa website, Fr Chris Chatteris SJ predicts a “robot-driven jobs bloodbath in the next decade”, as white-collar posts, as well as dangerous, dehumanising or labour-intensive roles, are threatened.

Fr Chatteris says in his blog that although we may think of machines taking over our jobs as something that will occur in a remote, dystopian future, the ‘ghostly’ bank tellers (ATMs) and traffic officers (traffic-lights) will tell us that the future has already arrived. “One of the reasons put forward for the current rise in political populism is job-insecurity,” he writes. “This includes not only people, like miners, who have actually lost their jobs, but those who feel that their jobs are threatened. This now includes the professional classes. The threat emanates from a number of quarters – competition from immigrants of course, and also the moving of jobs offshore thanks to technological innovation, in particular the internet. But the next big wave is set to be automation and automation in conjunction with the internet. Expect a robot-driven jobs bloodbath in the next decade.”

This is not a new problem, according to Fr Chatteris, who says that the challenge of sharing out the fruits of the economy is as old as humanity itself. “The rise of these incredibly powerful and efficient machines is just another phase in the ‘creative destruction’ of the advance of technology. What happened to coachmen and blacksmiths when horses as a means of transport gave way to the internal combustion engine? Some were retrained as chauffeurs and mechanics, no doubt, but there must have been many casualties who were unable to change. That was in a time when change was much more gradual than today.”

Fairy tales about endless economic growthThe Rethink Robotics’ HQ in Boston was the site of early experiments in using electricity for manufacturing automation. Creative Commons

In analysing the situation, Fr Chatteris considers a number of solutions that are being proposed at present, including the ‘basic income grant’ - the scheme by which every citizen of a country - whether employed or not - should receive a grant which is enough to meet one’s basic needs. “Another idea, put forward by a UK organisation called Positive Money, is for governments, when they put money into the economy to stimulate it, to pay it directly into the accounts of the people rather than, as a present, lending it to the banks who then lend it to us.”

The Church has an important part to play in the current economic and political environment, writes Fr Chatteris, and he suggests that it should urge citizens to pressure politicians to stop making their wild promises and tell us the truth. “Perhaps it is true that we get the leaders we deserve,” he says. “Therefore to deserve better we need to seek and support politicians, and economists, who will treat us like adults and stop telling us fairy tales about endless economic growth, an endless rise in living standards and that a return to post-war full employment is just around the corner. We should (get) them to tell us that we understand that we are in a brave new world that has to be bravely faced; that it is very possible that we will not be able to have a higher standard of living than our parents and that for the sake of economic justice and political stability it will be necessary to redistribute the wealth in new and more radical ways … The rise of the robots requires the rise of a new generation of leaders who will find and forge ways to establish economic justice and political stability in the age of automation. But first they must find the courage to speak candidly to their constituents.”

You can read the full blog post by Fr Christopher Chatteris SJ on the Jesuit Institute South Afica website.