BONNIE GREER: Populism and the rise of the robot

PUBLISHED: 14:00 31 January 2019

A Gilets Jaunes protester on the streets of Paris symbolising the rise in populism. Photo: Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images.

A Gilets Jaunes protester on the streets of Paris symbolising the rise in populism. Photo: Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images.

2018 Etienne De Malglaive

BONNIE GREER on how British populism is fuelling Brexit in England.

It took me a few seconds to realise that the man checking tickets at the barrier was the only human official there.

I was in a hurry, practically running off my train and I’d made a mistake so needed help with my ticket. But there was no one there, except this lone guy helping as many people as he could. He was patient, kind, but hassled. Yet one thing was for sure: he had a job. For now.

Maybe as recently as four years ago, he might have had one or two more colleagues helping techno-idiots like me; sharing banter with one another, etc. Now he was alone and the barrier itself was doing the job.

My first experience of Victoria Station, three decades ago, was of a place where I could stash my luggage as I couch-surfed in those days. There were officials and uniforms and, above all, there were people.

But now that is gone. And we barely notice. There is an entire generation out there and one coming behind it who will never know that old world. They only know artificial intelligence, robotics and the screens in the palm of their hands.

Less than 100 miles outside of my hometown of Chicago is an America that is another world. One far away from what are called the coastal elites. This is what is called the rustbelt, where men could count on jobs in factories, protected by unions, that could sustain them for 40 years and keep them alive in retirement.

My late father was blue collar. He dressed in a freshly-ironed blue cotton work shirt every day, carried his lunch pail filled with the food Mamma made and then went off to his job on the assembly line making cans. That job – the basis on which he could move us to a better neighbourhood, send us to Catholic school, buy food and clothing and a car and gas for it and a holiday sometimes, too – lasted 40 years.

His work was also a way of life and when he became foreman we had no time for celebration. He had to work. And work was there. Something noble and whole was there, too. We working class folks understood who we were, where we were going, what was expected of us.

Standing at a ticket barrier 40 years later, fumbling with luggage and sliding my barcode in just right, in the right slot, it suddenly occurred to me what was fuelling Brexit – the British populism – the gilets jaunes in France and the rise of the far right across Europe.

The word ‘sabotage’ is derived from the French, a sabot being a simple, wooden shoe worn by 18th and 19th century workers and used by them to damage the machinery that was causing them to lose their jobs. Populism’s root is here: in the loss of work and the uncertainty, fear and hatred it engenders.

In the case of many Brexiters, we can see a New Age made flesh. Brexit is throwing the sabot into the shiny new thresher of an age where work as we know it will be obsolete. This ‘sabotage’ did what it could do in that earlier, powerless time – grasp the intangibles, in this case, national identity. National identity as a definition of ‘them’ and ‘me’. This is necessary because ‘me’ is fading.

None of our political parties are dealing with what is already here: a demographic time bomb, an ageing population unprepared for the challenges of the 21st century. The people know it, too. They feel it.

This knowledge has morphed into 
a kind of mano a mano fight to the 
finish. Who will win – those who want to wind the clock back, or those who will allow it to tick inexorably towards a future we don’t yet understand, but is already here?

And the fact is that neither socialism nor capitalism nor centrism, nor any -ism we might choose to use is the answer. Because we are in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. And our leaders are not preparing us for it. The robots are not coming. They are here.

Hal Abelson, a renowned computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, held a seminar recently on artificial intelligence for policymakers from countries in the 36-nation Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In it, he gave a brisk history of machine-learning, beginning in the 1950s, followed by a talk on how technology works. Then he involved his audience in a hands-on project using computer-vision models and, afterwards, case studies.

He made the revolutionary statement, the one that is changing the game: “These machines do what they do because they are trained.”

Machines. Trained. But we know this. And so does Abelson. He is at this point: who will regulate AI, as it becomes more intelligent and as it begins to take over the functions that we perform?

Our political parties are creaky, ageing and not fit for purpose. Now is the time when we will have to define our humanity and fight for it. The alternative is to try to retreat into a dark age, a kind of dream state, in which the UK relives its ‘finest hour’ and the US returns to a Gary Cooper movie.

The fight against Brexit is not simply a battle against leaving the EU. It is a refusal to retreat from the 21st century. The idea that internationalism, mutual cooperation, the continual battle to understand one another, to work together, to make boundaries work, are not some of the hallmarks of the precious humanity we must fight for now – is simply not to see what is already here.

The way we can begin to grapple with the challenges ahead is through the understanding and appreciation of our humanity: of our need for healthy competition, for variety, adventure, and to be close to our own.

We humans are a contradiction and it is this thing; this thing that cannot be put on a grid, that a computer cannot own nor breach. If we retreat to ancient dogmas and the cubby-hole of political parties and our own tribalism, we will awake one day to find that we are being out-thought; outplayed – by the very things that we made.

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