If a robot can cook your dinner now, why
do we need Tube drivers?


Like the giant panda – a carnivore which insists on exclusively eating a plant which it can barely digest, makes it highly sluggish, and entirely uninterested in making sweet panda love – the trade union movement is a curiously counterintuitive institution.

The Aslef and Unite unions representing Tube drivers, for example, are at the moment gleefully heaping the wood onto their own funeral pyres by deliberately antagonising London commuters with disruptive strikes at the very point they should trying to win over as much support as possible – when their vastly overpaid jobs (starting salary of £50,000, anyone?) have already become redundant.

Not a particularly wise strategy.

Yes, welcome to the age of automation. Fully automated metro systems (which, unlike the DLR, do not require anyone to be in the cab at all) already exist in Copenhagen, Barcelona, Turin, Rome, Milan, Paris, Lille, Lyon, Nuremberg, Lausalle and Budapest. And that’s just Europe; they are far more widespread in technologically dynamic far eastern countries such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. And they don’t go on strike.

But running a train along a set track is trifling compared to what robots are capable of doing these days. As reported in the Spectator, UK company Mobey Robotics recently exhibited an automaton at the Hannover Messe robotics fair which was ‘capable of watching and mimicking the kitchen skills of a human chef and recreating them with superhuman consistency.’

It is surely a disconcerting prospect to consider that technology such as this will, if allowed to flourish unfettered by government impositions, become so cheap as to completely eradicate almost all need to employ humans for menial and even skilled labour. What would become of the swathes of people who lose their jobs to cheaper and more efficient machines?

It’s an old argument, but these are very much the kind of questions people were asking themselves in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the very infancy of the industrial revolution, when inventions such as the Spinning Jenny threatened skilled and semi-skilled labour and gave many cause to smash the infernal machines they saw as destroying their livelihoods.

And, yet, here we are. It may have appeared counterintuitive at the turn of the nineteenth century that machines which had cost jobs would ultimately spark such an explosion of efficiency, productivity, wealth and opportunity, that employment would in fact soar as the century wore on – along with living conditions and wealth per capita for the poorest people.

But it does remind us of the lesson that we must be open-minded and optimistic when it comes to the future and not give in to fear, because none of us are truly capable of predicting the future, nor knock-on effects of billions of people each reacting to each other and their environments with that wonderful spark that is human nature.

And I prefer to be optimistic. I am one of those children who grew up staring up at the stars for hours, imagining what was out there, and being very excited by Star Trek: The Next Generation and the kind of wonders the future could bring. I am one of these people who is adamant I want to live past 100 just because I want to see what the world is like in 2185 (and, with medical and technological progress being what it is, hopefully I can see).

As I’ve got older, I still watch TNG, but have become interested in other facets of the Star Trek universe, such as Gene Roddenberry’s ideal of a post-scarcity society in which poverty has been eliminated not by bloody revolutions with unworkable stone age economics, but by the fruits of technological progress and human ingenuity. The series has never specified exactly how the economy of the United Federation of Planets works, but numerous people have had a crack at figuring it out. But, suffice to say, no-one wants for anything and the primary motivation of mankind is to improve oneself and the species.

It has long been my conviction that tantalisingly close technological breakthroughs, such as the stabilisation of nuclear fusion and the mastery of nanotechnology to manipulate matter into anything we want it to be, will be some of the greatest strides forward to this kind of society. Incredibly cheap renewable energy and the ability to transform base materials into anything from diamonds to a bacon sandwich will transform the way we live – as will the widespread use of automatons which can be manufactured and powered with these techniques.

Put simply, people would not need to work because of the widespread use of hyper-efficient robots, and both energy and the power to create goods – even food – would be incredibly cheap. What you have here is a situation where people are able to live happily on the back of an abundance of wealth where all menial tasks are done by others. And there is one place in the world where this is already happening. Sort of.

It’s called the Arabian Peninsula.

The Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirate economies are curious ones. They are powered almost exclusively by the fruits of a single economic activity; oil. The enormous wealth generated by selling this oil on the world market has led to a situation where only an estimated 30 to 40 per cent of Saudi citizens even bother to work. And the official figures only record 12 per cent.

Two thirds of all employees in the country are foreign and, in the private sector, this figure rises to 90 per cent. Most Saudi citizens who do work do so in Government departments, and this is largely because of the prestige the position brings, rather than its financial rewards.

There is a downside, of course. In an age before full automation, the vast majority of menial labour in the country is filled by incredibly poor immigrants from the Indian subcontinent who are treated horrendously. And even many Saudis do not feel the economic benefits of such enormous wealth, particularly as the population booms, though it’s interesting to note many are supported by the very Islamic system of charitable ‘taxation’ which is then distributed by the government.

It’s by no means an ideal system, and increasingly flawed, but if nothing else it is a useful glimpse at the different ways economies work and a reminder that we ought to avoid being blinkered. And, when faced with phenomenons like automation and Uber, we should remind ourselves that human ingenuity and technological progress should never be resisted because of short-term pain for some. Our boundless capacity for progress and adaption will always be our salvation – and it is freedom, not repression, which releases those energies for the benefit of mankind.