By Chandran Nair
The World Post
The latest topic of conversation amongst homo economicus elitus and his friends concerns the rise of robots. There are those who think they make our lives better and those who worry they will take all of our jobs, but everyone can agree on the fact that robots and computerization will change our world in a big way. The question that is never raised, and should be, is whether this march of technology is inevitable, and, even more importantly, whether it is a net positive. It is long past time we got over our fear of questioning the belief that human progress is synonymous with technological progress. Robots might be the technological fad of the moment but in the short run they won't take over the world, and, in the long run, we shouldn't let them.
For years, the tech industry and their financial backers have eagerly promoted the idea that their products will create a "science-fiction economy" where everyone enjoys lives of perfect convenience and contentment. Repeated revelations that these same tech firms were complicit in the NSA's worldwide invasion of personal privacy seem to have done little to damage their credibility on any issue, including how to make the world a better place.
For the developed world there may be some truth to the hype. A recent study by the Oxford Martin School claims that up to 47 percent of American jobs are susceptible to automation within the next decade. Specific examples have been advanced for how robots could feasibly be substituted for everything from drivers to astronauts to lawyers and even sofer, highly trained scribes who write the words on the scrolls of a Torah. Nor should we forget the promise that in a few year's time, cars, homes, power-grids and everything else will all be made "smart." Drones will deliver both the future and our shopping.
But the developing world is another story entirely. The talking heads who predict the robotization of jobs invariably live in rich countries like the U.S. where, according to the International Labour Organization, the average monthly wage is $3,263. Where wages are high, even relatively expensive robots could conceivably replace human workers, and in fact, must do under the narrow definition of productivity coined hundreds of years ago but ironically still adhered to in the age of robots.
Things are very different in countries like China and India, where the average wage, even adjusted for purchasing power, is $656 and $295 respectively. And wages are far from the only issue. Many who live in the developed world and who are caught up in fantasies about exporting their superior version of modernity have no sense of the infrastructural and institutional conditions the vast majority of humanity lives in. That a lack of access to potable water, toilets, uninterrupted electricity, proper housing and adequate transport systems is the daily reality for the majority of people in the world is one of those facts so large and obvious as to be easily overlooked. For these people, hoping robots will make their lives easier is not part of their view of the future.
When headlines say that India is poised for economic ascendency, it is easy to forget that only two years ago a power cut left 600 million people without electricity. Kenya's economy may be the fastest growing and most dynamic in the East African Community, but in Nairobi there is one toilet for every 500 slum dwellers. In India, poor sanitation has had insidious and pervasive effects on its youth. Logistics in the developing world are also notoriously difficult. The BBC reports that in Indonesia, logistics costs are 14 percent of total sales, more than 300 percent the figure in Japan. Traffic in Jakarta alone is estimated to cost Indonesia 0.6 percent of its annual GDP in fuel and lost productivity. In Cairo, that figure is 2.5 percent.
As those who have any experience in development know all too well, in conditions like these, even relatively simple infrastructure and equipment requires careful planning to operate, and things invariably go wrong. Unfortunately, these are hardly cherry picked examples. UN-Habitat's 2013 report estimates nearly 900 million people, or a third of the developing world, live in slums, a number that could very well triple to 3 billion by 2050. It is hard to imagine an army of robots being introduced under such circumstances in the near future -- and that is precisely where most of the world's people and all of its fastest-growing economies are located.
That is in the short-term. In the long-term, it is impossible to predict what advances in technology will make possible. Robots may very well be made economically feasible even in the developing world. But they still should not be allowed in unregulated. Robots might destroy jobs and create the conditions for social unrest in regions like Asia, but this will likely be a temporary effect that every productivity-boosting invention has shared. The real danger is that they may serve to further concentrate economic and political power in the hands of a few within the rich and technologically advanced nations of the world. The nations of the developing world with colonial pasts will be all too aware of what this can mean.
Perhaps the most salient example can be found in the last invention widely heralded for its potential to transform the world -- computers. In the 1970s, white-ruled South Africa compensated for its lack of sufficient labor to run the apartheid system by relying on a huge number of imported computers and electronics from other countries, primarily the U.S. In 1977, only the U.S. and Britain were spending more on computer technology than South Africa as a percentage of GDP.
Robots might easily be used the same way. To give just one example, 70 percent of the world's poor currently rely on agriculture as their main source of income. Robotization of farm work is already well underway, with inventions such as robotic tractors, which can be operated remotely and robotic milkers, which can milk hundreds of cows without any human intervention. Applied properly, such innovations could be a labor saving boon, especially in developed countries such as Japan where rural populations have both shrunk and aged. But it would be the height of irresponsibility to deploy them unregulated in the developing world in the name of a short-sighted view of productivity.
They have the potential to further concentrate power in an already extremely concentrated industry where just four companies control between 70 percent and 90 percent of the global grain trade. Used this way, robots will only further threaten smallholder farmers and eliminate the need for human workers.
At a time when inequality is a global challenge and seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased over the last 30 years, developing countries have good reason to look to the past and see what concentrated power combined with technology can bring about. At its heart, the issue is a political rather than a technological one. Robots and computers, like any other tool, are neither intrinsically good nor bad. Neither is nuclear energy. We regulate the latter and should do the same with the former.
If we want to avoid a world where homo economicus comes first, robots second and the vast majority of humanity a distant third then we should pay close attention to what is happening today. Now that robots are still a fringe phenomenon, we can work to create the appropriate regulations and institutions. Once they become a part of everyday life, the mistakes we make today will become much harder to undo. The countries of the developing world should act to make sure they are the graveyard for bad robots.