Blog: we need to talk about robots

robotWe need to talk about robots. Recent and imminent advances in machine learning threaten to unleash change on the scale of the splitting of the atom.

This is not science fiction. Automation is already having a very real effect on IMPACT members. Attempts to phase in so-called staffless library services represent the clearest example of this so far.

This week, at IMPACT’s education divisional conference, Kevin Callinan, our deputy general secretary, said – in his response to Minister Richard Bruton’s address – that “major advances in artificial intelligence, many of which will be developed in our Institutes of Technology, already point to a paradigm shift in the world of work.

“Our education system needs to be ready to help workers recalibrate and adapt as demand for new and different skills grows.

“Artificial Intelligence may sound exciting and look seductive. But it would be a real mistake to ignore the vast store of very real intelligence IMPACT members – and other workers – have accumulated over decades.

“Basic human interaction will never be obsolete. You simply can’t code for the human situations that SNAs, counsellors, school completion staff and others encounter each day.

“There’s no algorithm for human empathy. Students don’t speak in ones and zeroes.  No piece of software will nurture Ireland’s next generation” he said.

The deprivation of the American rustbelt that played such a major role in the election of Donald Trump was, in large part, a direct result of automation.

The fundamental challenge raised by the spectre of automation is around the distribution of the wealth this new technology will create. Creative solutions are required.

There has been much talk, for example, on the notion of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). The jury is still out on whether such a measure would be of benefit to workers or not.

This is a conversation that’s already happening, and IMPACT is ready to talk. This week we were interested to see Professor Barry O’Sullivan of UCC, one of the most authoritative global voices on the development of AI (Artificial Intelligence), making the case for UBI at an URBAN-X event in New York.

We hope and expect that other unions, employers, government and wider society are ready for that conversation too, not least because this technological wave is happening faster than most of us can appreciate. The future is already here.

Lughan Deane and Niall Shanahan