No longer required

by Derek Morrison

Esteemed Time Lord now sounds alert
To possible futures we should avert
Dreams of bottling Man’s ‘commonsense’
Spawns nightmare of artificial intelligence.

The creeping crab of automation
Removing people from their station
Soon knocks on unexpected doors
Roles erased — now digital chores.

We may come to embrace the taxi ride
Just like Uber — but with no driver side
Autonomous vehicles being the future
Disintermediate, disrupt — apply no suture.

Manual labour always took the cut
Sold as progress as factories shut
Cognitive labour now feels this ache
As future certainties begin to flake.

Technological tsunamis disintermediate
Erasing ‘middle layers’ from the slate
When the “middle layers” were not us
No incentive there to create a fuss.

In the coming years from hence
People being the great expense
The ‘middle layers’ now encapsulate
Those thought immune from such a fate.

Auto arbitration, so decision made
Financial adviser, to background fade
Robot journalism, derived from facts
Much less need for expensive hacks.

No commodities trader is required
And your lawyer has just been fired
An accountant we need much less
Even physicians will feel this stress.

Intelligent machines to diagnose your ills
Yet others to prescribe your pills
When such decisions are automated
Cognitive labour can be decimated.

A corporate teacher on the internet
It’s not cost saving you can bet
“We’re just increasing the global reach”
Company evangelists will surely preach.

Triton UAV
Triton unmanned aircraft system completes its first flight May 22, 2013
Attribution: US Navy (CC-BY-SA-2.0]
Click to view larger image.

When fly-by-wire on the aeroplane
Incorporates take off and land again
Degrading further the pilot’s skill
Airline now trims this expensive frill.

People will be expected to adjust
To technologies continuing thrust
Adapt ourselves to what it needs
Or risk becoming redundant weeds.

Dystopian futures are always grim
But here with current tide we swim
As more workers are “let go”
Technologies lying behind the blow.

High tech industries don’t employ
The numbers of jobs they destroy
So what are then such people to do
Other than join a lengthening queue?

What then when we run out of jobs
Risk waking the Kraken mobs
Where then our consumer base
When so many have no place?

Because mass markets do depend
On populations who can spend
Are future spenders just an elite
To be served by a feudal fleet?

A possible future with an irony
Cook or gardener more secure can be
Than middle classes hollowed out
By technologies’ employment rout.

The futureĀ is viewed as a positive place
But technologies unthought of in our space
Amplifying what the Naked Ape can do
Including needing less – now just a few.

While the world’s polity embrace
Man’s ingenuity in time and place
Their vision is much too constrained
By the past to which their chained.

State functions depend on what they tax
But high-tech corporates aren’t lax
In maximizing their tax avoids
From wealth spun by techno-droids.

A possible future of serving oligarchs
A feudal system in exclusive parks
This then passes for democracy
A high tech future — far from free.

[To listen to this verse select below]


Mankind is one small, but essential, step in the evolution of the computer (Anon).

Recession is when your neighbor loses his job, Depression is when you lose yours (Ronald Regan).

One of the stimuli for “No Longer Required” was the open letter drafted by the Future of Life Institute and signed by Stephen Hawking (the Time Lord) and Elon Musk. Two separate publications by Andrew Keen and Nicholas Carr (see below) also helped set the scene for the rather dystopian tone of the verses.

The impact of automation on employment opportunities has always profoundly affected those offering their manual labour with knowledge workers assuming their future was relatively immune from automation. But as the poem highlights, aspects of cognitive labour look likely to fall before the remorseless march of the algorithm, processor, and network. For example, type in “eDiscovery” into any search engine and you are looking at the increasing automation of a significant part of someone’s legal workload.

And we may consider automated transport as interesting research works a la Google Car but consider either the driverless computerised 25 miles of Dockland LightRailway in London (which has been operating since 1987) or how quickly Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (aka drones) have developed. Or reflect on how automated the modern jetliner has become (and how this potentially affects the ability of pilots to cope when they unexpectedly need to take over).

The really uncomfortable (terrifying) possible future hinted at in the poem is that capitalist societies fail to adapt quickly enough to the consequences of this level of automation; and that leads to a level of social disruption that becomes the dystopian future so beloved of science fiction.

After this poem was posted came the tragic events of Tuesday 24 March 2015 when the Luthansa subsidiary Germanwings flight crashed in the French Alps killing all 150 people on board. The aircraft was an Airbus A320, a highly automated airplane. At the time of writing, however, the accident is being attributed to the actions of the co-pilot who appeared to have locked the captain out of the flight deck and steered the Airbus into the ground. Because there is a veritable maelstrom of speculation I have no intention of adding to the noise.

This appalling event, however, does raise a question about whether advances in automation will eventually prevent such aberrant flight crew actions and what the ultimate consequences of such a degree of automation could be. For example: the aircraft automated systems could intervene on the basis of a local diagnosis of aberration; or air-traffic/aircraft company operations could intervene to temporarily pilot the aircraft; or there are secondary controls outside the flight deck for emergency intervention. All of these are possible solutions, but also open up new logistical and security concerns. To that we must add human factors, i.e. how palatable will this be to passengers and crew; and what impact would that have on the selection and training of future flight crews – if they are required at all? Science fiction? Not so much. Just consider the progress with pilotless aircraft, i.e. unmanned aerial vehicles, referred to above. And if the inquest/investigation into Tuesday’s events proves that it was human factors at fault then the palatability of increasingly automated or remotely-controllable systems can only increase. But it’s humans who create automated systems and human fallibility will, by accident or design, undoubtedly find its way into the future automated systems we create. And such systems will be as untroubled by our emotions, appeals, or attempts to regain control as any human with pathological intent.

Further Listening

The Future of Management, The Forum, BBC World Service, 17 March 2015

Deep Learning, The Forum, BBC World Service, 3 March 2015

Artificial Intelligence, Analysis, BBC Radio 4, 23 February 2015

When robots steal our jobs, Analysis, BBC Radio 4, 02 Mar 2015

Both of the above programmes are part of the BBC Radio theme category Man versus Machine.

Further Reading

The Internet is Not the Answer, Andrew Keen, 2015, Atlantic Books

The Glass Cage: Where Automation Is Taking Us, Nicholas Carr, 2015, Bodley Head

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Nick Bostrom, 2014, OUP Oxford

Smarter Than Us: The Rise of Machine Intelligence, Stuart Armstrong, 2014, Machine Intelligence Research Institute

Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That’s OK, Federico Pistono, 2014, CreateSpace

N.B. Note how the above books are Kindle editions!

Further Links

Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford

Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, University of Cambridge

Machine Intelligence Research Institute

The Future of Life Institute

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