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Not So Modern Times: The Backwards Thinking of Charlie Chaplin and Jeremy Corbyn

Written by: Richard Lightbound, CEO of ROBO Global EMEA

The fear of change is nothing new. Charlie Chaplin’s classic film Modern Times—one of the last silent films of the era—is perhaps the most famous critique of technology and its perceived impact on modern society. When the film was produced in 1936, Chaplin wasn’t alone in his fear of how a mechanized world would change lives and, indeed, the world as he knew it.

When Jeremy Corbyn, the U.K.’s current Labour leader, spoke at Wednesday’s Labour conference, his response to the “threat” of automation to today’s workforce was all too reminiscent of Chaplin’s theme of humans feeling lost and frightened in a world of increasing automation. Corbyn’s insinuation that “greedy” corporations are sacrificing the well being of society in exchange for money is inaccurate, and his recommendation to penalize companies who utilize “incredibly advanced technology” with added taxes is off base.

While it may be easy to criticize Corbyn for his comments (read The Telegraph’s article on his speech here), he’s certainly not the first to propose such a tax. Last February, Bill Gates, one of the world’s leaders in technology, went public with his support for a government tax on companies who utilize robots. Gates’ comments came on the heels of the overwhelming rejection of an EU proposal for a “robot tax” on technology owners designed to help retrain or otherwise support workers who are displaced by robots.

It’s a debate that is sure to continue for some time. Still, I can’t stop seeing the image of Charlie Chaplin comically resisting the emergence of a new era of productivity. As someone who operates in the world of robotics every day, this focus on taxation and job displacement is shockingly short sighted. There’s no doubt that companies around the globe are generating billions of dollars in revenue as the result of advanced technologies, and that revenue is, in turn, generating tax revenue. And while there’s no question that certain types of jobs will be displaced by robotics, AI, and other advanced technologies, Corbyn’s comments that these innovators are not “sharing the benefits with society” is just plain wrong.

Worldwide, more than 1.2 million lives are lost in car accidents every year, with 94% of those deaths caused by human error. Researchers estimate that driverless cars have the potential to reduce traffic fatalities by up to 90 percent—saving –by 2050.[1] Precision agriculture technology has been praised as the only viable solution to the need for a 70% increase in food production on the next 35 years to feed an exploding population. (See Investor spotlight: Agricultural robots are set to solve the global food crisis for details.) Robots are used in hospitals to precisely measure complex medications, kill otherwise undetected germs in operating rooms, assist with surgeries to minimize invasive procedures and improve patient outcomes, and supporting hospital staff by delivering linens and meals.[2] In the real world, robots are already helping to improve working conditions, increase the effectiveness of workers at all skill levels, and bolster the labor needed to meet the needs of a growing global population.

Related: China's Push Toward Excellence Delivers a Global Robotics Investment Opportunity

As well, research has shown that the fear that technology advancements are going to put us all out of work is unfounded. The McKinsey Global Institute recently estimated that more than 90% of jobs will not be able to be fully automated. Plus, according to the Wall Street Journal, automation has historically increased—not decreased—employment opportunities in many industries. In fact, because the labor force has steadily decreased since 1980[3] and that trajectory is not expected to change, economists are most worried about a labor shortage in the next few decades—not unemployment. Robots and AI are poised to help fill this growing gap in the labor force that, without their help, could be a major economic issue in the coming decades.

Jeremy Corbyn claims that the companies that are generating billions of dollars in revenues through the development of new technologies should share the benefits with society. Looking at the facts, taxation isn’t the best solution to meet that goal. In Germany, union leaders agree. Wolfgang Lutterbach, senior adviser on the future of work to the executive board of the German Trade Union Confederation, recently stated that “If we don’t speed up our reactions to these developments, we will not shape digitalization, but digitalization will shape us.”[4] Clearly, he and his fellow union leaders understand the value and opportunity that this new era of productivity has to offer. Not only would Corbyn’s proposed tax slow the development of these valuable technologies, but it’s clear that the evidence points to a future in which the impact of robotics and AI more positive than negative—both for the workers themselves and for global productivity.

[1] Source: “Self-Driving Cars Could Save 300,000 Lives Per Decade in America”, The Atlantic Magazine, September 2015
[2] Source: The robots in your hospital, The Wichita Eagle, September 18, 2017
[3] Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Alan B. Krueger, Princeton University
[4] Source: Wolfgang Lutterbach, senior adviser on the future of work to the executive board of the German Trade Union Confederation, in “Why labor loves robots”, Politico, September 2017

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