We have recently been treated to a very public discussion about AI; strengths and weaknesses. Should there be legislation?

The ‘conference’ was led by Sunak, the current PM, in his usual populist way, and featured his new best friend the narcissist Elon Musk, who suggested that the growth of AI could mean we never need to work again. This event emphasised to me the fact that we have been here before, many times, considering the ‘Pandora’s Box’ nature to the development of new technologies (I wrote a piece on this for the Journal, 9.6.21).

In the early 1970s the American Sociologist Harry Braverman addressed the tendency in industrial capitalism to de-skill work, and that the rapid increase in the use of automation would only exacerbate these processes. In his novel ‘News from Nowhere’ (1890) William Morris, designer and socialist, discussed everyday life and work of his time, and a utopian future where the exploitation, drudgery, and limitations (alienation) of most people’s work would be changed once machines helped rather than enslaved the ‘working class’. Morris’ sub-title for his story was ‘an epoch of rest’. He envisaged a future where machines would be developed, and controlled by all people within a democratic society, enabling people to concentrate on human labour that developed their own interests and skills for the ultimate benefit of that person and the community in general.

During the span of Morris’ life, most of the nineteenth century, he and his contemporaries experienced the growth and worldwide dominance of industrial capitalism, the growth of the factory system, and so much more. De-skilling issues were then at their height, which led many to question the value of these changes for most people, as distinct from the few who amassed great wealth and power, including the power to develop and implement new technologies. Morris was very familiar with the standard definition of the developmental process of technology from the hand, to the tool, the machine and then the robot.

Similar discussions have been around for many years with respect to IT and the consequences of the increasing digitalisation of our lives. Banks and railway booking halls comes to mind. But also the joy and angst associated with ‘social media’ developed so much in recent decades. Technical devices that provide the opportunity for people to say things in the public domain when they would almost certainly be better kept in people’s heads.

The evidence on us never working again was much discussed in Braverman’s day, I remember it well. However, the reality since then has shown that many people are working longer hours, and, proportionally, for less reward.

All of the promises, crystal ball gazing, is another example of jam tomorrow. Promoting ideas that these technological changes will give us more choices. On the basis of recent history this is very unlikely.

If people, you and me, do not realise the consequences of living in a surveillance society we need to every time we use our mobile phone, ‘google’ or ask ‘Alexa’.

Living in a full-on consumer society we can be sure that there is no human activity that cannot be turned into a money making opportunity!

So, yes, let’s have a wide-ranging and thorough discussion about AI and associated technologies, but one to which we are all invited to take part. To just randomly legislate would be like emptying the ocean with a spoon.