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Andrew Cadman: Robots may not save us from social collapse

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It’s not easy to be a European at the moment. The terrible events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve ushered in a time of dark foreboding for the European continent: the way Muslim immigrant men were able to grope and assault German women with impunity crystallised the demographic portent of things to come. Ageing, economically crippled, sexually infertile and socially emasculated old Europe lay impotent in the face of a young, confident and virile opponent. Not realising the new dispensation in time, the Eloi found themselves amongst the Morlocks, and paid a dreadful price.

If that wasn’t enough, just when you thought it was safe to go back to watching The Terminator, it’s robot time yet again, with more dire predictions about catastrophic job losses and social disruption due to the inexorable march of the machines. That is, there would be, if any Europeans are still around for robots to steal jobs from.

The juxtaposition of technological change and demography is a curious one: as the saying goes demography is destiny, and the plummeting fertility rates of Germany, Italy and Spain – as well as the likely very serious consequences – have been evident for several decades. However no one except actuaries and the visionary pundit Mark Steyn has taken a blind bit of notice.

Contrast that to the way that the future robot revolution has grabbed the imagination of the media. Perhaps in a strange way this is proof of the TCW editors’ belief that women’s voices, far from being emancipated, have been effectively silenced by feminism: you would expect, after all, women to take a very keen interest in the consequences of demographic change, as the lion’s share of those consequences will fall heavily on their shoulders. In contrast, you can hardly get more masculine than the concept of replacing humans with cold, logical, intelligent machines, and that is what grabs the headlines.

Optimists point out, with some justification, that to an extent these trends are mutually cancelling: labour shortages arising from lower birth rates in Europe (and, of course, East Asia) will allow robots to fill the gaps without serious consequences. However, life is rarely so simple, and the telling fact about modern demography is not the crude fertility rate but the relative fertility, emigration and immigration rates within those demographic cohorts most likely to cope with the emerging paradigm.

Things are unlikely to be as apocalyptic as the doomsters make out, but it is still a fact that the low skilled in society have progressively lost out in the last few decades with the march of technological change, and that trend is likely to continue. In contrast, the most intellectually able will have boundless opportunities, but the weight of maintaining a society where large sections are unable to work will fall ever more heavily on their shoulders. For reasons of both nature and nurture it is precisely this demographic that is most likely to rear children who will prosper, but the incentives will be heavily skewed in favour of them not doing so. This is already happening: in the coming years a third of women graduates in the UK are predicted to remain childless.

We British have been somewhat smug about the Continent’s travails. After all, our birth rates are relative high compared to most. However, we should not be so sanguine: we live in an atomised, incohesive society without extended families that could help provide the necessary support networks in seriously hard times. Rates of family breakdown are among the worst in Europe, particularly affecting those who are very likely to be biggest losers as the era of intelligent machines progresses. Moreover, at the same time as being a large exporter of skilled labour, in recent years we have allowed high rates of largely unskilled immigration, who not only compete with the indigenous poor but may themselves find themselves the victims of current trends. If the pessimists are proved right then our society is ill-equipped to weather the coming storm.

In opposition, the Tories used to berate Labour’s failure to fix the economic roof while the sun was still shining. Socially, perhaps one day the same thing will come to be said of them.

 

(Image Courtesy Bruno Cordioli, Flickr)

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Andrew Cadman
IT Consultant who works and lives in the UK. He is @Andrewccadmanon Parler.

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