On August 4, 2011, in Acceleration

Neo-Luddism–the belief (roughly put) that machines destroy jobs–may seem off-topic for a blog about the future of healthcare, but I am still swimming in thoughts that arose while writing my recently published book about the rise of machine intelligence (Deus ex Machina sapiens) and I maintain that the topic is really not off-beat at a time when machines are increasingly capable of autonomous biomonitoring, triage, diagnosis, and therapy.

Guardian correspondent Noel Sharkey seems to think that Foxconn (a Chinese company that assembles iPhones and iPads for Apple)’s recent announcement that it would replace a million workers with robots was not as big a deal as the unethical treatment of workers (Foxconn has been under fire lately for oppressive working conditions in its factories.) In the long run, he wrote, “there will be better working conditions for everyone” if we focus on working conditions rather than on worker substitution by machines. Inexplicably, he immediately belies that statement by adding the fine sentiment that “This may not be much compensation if you are starving.”

Sharkey seems to dismiss the notion that neo-Luddism can have any validity, or that the replacement of workers by robots can be at least morally equivalent to workplace oppression. I think that is a tragic mistake. Of course we must put a stop to oppression in the workplace, and indeed we are doing so—changes at Foxconn and the Nike sweatshops QED. But in an age where machines are growing exponentially more intelligent, dexterous, mobile, powerful, ubiquitous, interconnected, inexpensive, reliable, and autonomous, we must also understand that a far greater threat to worker wellbeing exists when a single company can start talking about replacing millions of workers with robots without seriously addressing the question of what happens to the workers or accepting one iota of responsibility for them.

To belittle or deny this threat to jobs in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is real (and Foxconn’s announcement is just the latest piece of evidence) is as disastrous and immoral as denying climate change. It is not necessary to swallow the whole arguments for neo-Luddism or for climate change; one merely needs to acknowledge that they might be right to be ethically bound to take action to prevent or mitigate the possibility of global catastrophe.

Why should we acknowledge that the neo-Luddites might be correct, or at least, that there might be something in what they say? Why shouldn’t we do as the more vocal climate change deniers do and, well, simply deny the possibility that there is a case to be made? Because to deny any theory, from Darwin’s to Kaczynski’s, without so much as acknowledging the existence of evidence that potentially supports it, is to close the mind, and that is the greatest immorality, and the biggest slap in the face for whatever god opened our mind in the first place, it seems to me.

Until next time,



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