Industry 4.0, Society 5.0, Humanity 0.0? Curbing self-interest to avoid the robot apocalypse

I hesitate to introduce a bit of apocalyptic doom-mongering so close to the holiday season, but I’ve been thinking about the potential impacts of Industry 4.0 and Society 5.0 and what might happen if they aren’t managed effectively, and it’s not a happy picture for humanity or the planet.

The good news is that I think there’s some light at the end of the tunnel, and it may not be the 10.30 Eurostar to Bruges.

This post is about why I think we should be worried for our future, and why I believe there is also cause for optimism.

When I talk about Industry 4.0 I mean the movement to largely automated, intelligent means of production and distribution using growing capabilities in areas like robotics and machine learning. Society 5.0 refers to how society changes driven by the same set of capabilities: smart cities, driverless cars, internet of things and so on.

Both represent a revolution in the fundamental relationship between people, the resources we need to live, and the processes which we use to harness those resources to survive.  How did we get to Industry 4.0 and Society 5.0?

Exact definitions may vary, but broadly Industry 1.0 was steam-powered, 2.0 electric and 3.0 digital. Society 1.0 was hunter-gatherer, 2.0 was agricultural, 3.0 industrial and 4.0 information.

It’s people who have made each revolution happen, and in every case they have done it by harnessing new knowledge or capabilities. Sometimes their motivation has been to improve humanity’s lot overall, but largely these revolutions have been driven by self-interest.

Self-interest here is not just pure personal greed, but the drive to protect or advance oneself, one’s social or economic group, philosophy, creed or nation.

Growing knowledge and the frequently competing forces of self-interest and humanitarianism continue to shape each revolution as it plays out, and particularly its impact on that triangle of people, resources and processes.

This creates conflict: from differences over what direction the revolution should take, to resistance from those who stand to lose from it.

Both revolution itself and the resulting conflicts can create damaging and sometimes catastrophic impacts. We learn from these impacts, adjust, and progress.

The drive to deliver higher crop yields combined with greater mechanisation of farming led to extensive ploughing on the Great Plains of the USA in the 1920s. This disturbed drought-resistant grasses which kept the soil in place, leading to the hugely damaging Dust Bowl storms of the 30s, which in turn forced the US government to urgent action on soil conservation and land management.

Neglect and oppression of the new industrial workforces meant appalling conditions for millions until reformers such as Robert Owen and George Cadbury established a foothold for more enlightened management of the workforce, later built upon by labour and union movements.

These movements have created conflicts of their own and in some cases impede progress, but they remain a vital check and balance in the labour market.

Industry 4.0 and Society 5.0 face their own tensions and conflicts. They are different from those faced in previous industrial and social revolutions, because each revolution starts from a new base created by the previous one.

In the case of our current revolutions, we start from a base of unprecedented ability to share and exploit information, and where technology continues to transform the processes delivering the resources for people to survive and prosper materially, intellectually and emotionally.

But we also start from a position where the world’s resources are dangerously depleted and damaged by previous revolutions and population growth, and where a growing part of the world’s people are or risk becoming detached from the fundamental processes of harnessing the world’s resources to survive and create wealth.

People in the developing world face starvation because drought, flood, rising sea temperatures and war are keeping them from farming or fishing.

Less critical but still important, in the developed world, globalisation is moving work wherever labour costs are lowest, and automation is starting to remove the need for people in many processes.

In the past, self-interest has both driven industrial and social revolutions and led to their worst negative impacts. We have had a safety net to mitigate these impacts because the world’s resources have been plentiful and because people have always been at the heart of the processes which harness those resources.

That safety net has gone. If we allow Industry 4.0 and Society 5.0 to be driven purely by self-interest and fail to recognise and tackle the fundamental challenges to resources and people, I fear we will perish from environmental disaster, social breakdown or war.

It’s encouraging that better and more influential minds than mine recognise this, but worrying to observe the continuing strength of opposition from forces driven by personal, corporate or national self-interest.

Despite this opposition we are making some headway in preserving our environment, although it may be too little, too late. I believe the next big challenges will come from the impact of automation and globalisation on the workforce.

Although we are starting to see news stories about how robotics and machine learning will increasingly replace human roles, there is little sign yet of these changes spawning an employment crisis to match the environmental crises of depleted resources and global warming.

I think this will change, sooner and with more far reaching effects than we may expect.

We have always tended to underestimate the speed and reach of technological advances, ever since 1943 when the head of IBM predicted “there could be a world market for as many as five computers.”

I believe that, once Industry 4.0 gains momentum, we could see replacement or drastic reduction of human roles across most areas of activity.

And there are other shifts in the jobs market not directly linked to automation.

Globalisation is moving labour to wherever the cost is lowest, away from established markets; greater life expectancy combined with more outsourcing and ageism in recruitment is removing older high skill managers and specialists from the workforce, as I wrote about in an earlier post “Jurassic Perk – Time to leverage those dinosaurs”

The previous industrial and agrarian revolutions have driven shifts in labour – hunter gatherers became farmers, farmers became factory workers, factory workers became call centre agents. But what happens in an industrial revolution where jobs disappear rather than merely shift?

A company which increases its margins by offshoring or automating isn’t responsible for what happens to the employees it displaces: it may offer severance packages and outplacement support, but that’s as far as it goes.

If there are no other jobs for those employees, the unemployed pool grows as shareholder value increases; the rich get richer and everyone else gets poorer. When this happens on a national or global scale, it creates conditions for the kind of revolution where palaces get stormed.

Political forces tend to kick in long before this point, at least in a democracy. The government may create barriers to globalisation in order to protect jobs, because that protects votes.

We may see similar reactions to automation once it starts seriously impacting jobs. Some have already proposed a ‘robot tax’ on companies which replace human jobs with automated ones, and this has been criticised as reactionary: the UK Daily Telegraph headlined its article on the subject ‘Return of the Luddites: why a robot tax could never work.’

I believe the idea of a ‘robot tax’ very neatly illustrates the three choices we face in dealing with the social impact of Industry 4.0.

If we let market forces rule, companies will use automation to increase profits at the expense of jobs, in the same way as they have already done with outsourcing and offshoring. Unemployment will soar as the human jobs run out, wealth will continue to be concentrated in a smaller and smaller number of people, and sooner or later there will be a reaction, possibly a violent one.

If we tax automation punitively to safeguard jobs, we fail to exploit its undoubted benefits, not only where it removes the burden of drudgery, but even in areas like medicine where it can harness vast volumes of data in ways that the human brain never can.

The third choice is to share the benefits of automation between those who control it and those whose work it replaces. Simplistically, tax the robots, but not to a point where it destroys the business case to deploy them, and use the tax revenue in part to fund a universal basic income for all those workers displaced by automation.

This third choice represents the overall philosophy and approach which I believe we must adopt with Industry 4.0 and Society 5.0, and it represents a radical departure from previous industrial revolutions.

And it highlights a need to tackle a fundamental paradox. It is part of the human condition that we are constantly striving to make our lives easier; it gives our lives purpose. But the more successful we are in pursuing this goal, the less there is to strive for.

Industry 4.0 and Society 5.0 take us a step closer to the point where we have to re-consider our purpose in a world where the robots have taken over the striving.

I’m optimistic that we will adapt. Personal enterprise and drive to improve the world will remain, they will simply be refocused on new challenges. And we will still tell stories around the camp fire; art, philosophy and entertainment will endure.

Because the stakes are so much higher than in previous revolutions, we cannot afford Industry 4.0 and Society 5.0 to be driven and governed by naked self-interest as before, whether at a personal, corporate, national or philosophical level.

We are more aware of the potential impacts on the environment and society, and it is critical that we use this awareness to drive how these revolutions play out, otherwise the outcome could be catastrophic for all mankind.

We can, and I believe we will, so enjoy the festive season if you’re having one, and look forward to 2018 and beyond with hope and confidence.


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