Automation has already reshaped the world. We are still dealing with the consequences

The world may be on the brink of an AI revolution, but the legacy of the industrial revolution has left us with unfinished business, writes Hassan Damluji
Children interact with the humanoid robot Roboy at the exhibition Robots on Tour in Zurich, March 9, 2013. A project team composed of scholars and industry representatives developed the prototype of the tendon driven humanoid robot Roboy within nine months.  Roboy was unveiled to the public today during the exhibition that is marking the 25th anniversary of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of the University of Zurich (AI Lab). Picture taken with fish-eye lens. REUTERS/Michael Buholzer (SWITZERLAND - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY SOCIETY BUSINESS) - BM2E93916CJ01

In recent years, a terrible fear has gripped the developed world that the robots are coming and they're after our jobs. Advances in artificial intelligence have not yet made meaningful conversations with robots a reality, but the speed of change has convinced many technology enthusiasts that the days of humans performing many tasks are numbered.

The world has responded to this economic challenge by finding new ways to deal with the threat of technological unemployment. Jack Ma, in his recent comments at Davos, called for the total overhaul of our education systems so that young people can compete in a world where today's jobs no longer exist. Despairing of the continuing utility of most humans, many are calling for a universal basic income, designed for societies with great wealth but massive unemployment. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, publicly welcomed the technology revolution last October by granting citizenship to a robot and announcing plans to build a $500 billion mega city which will have more robots than humans.

But while some might say that this change is unprecedented, the truth is that we have seen this play out before. While worrying about the future of work, we cannot forget those who were left behind after the first automation revolution. This is especially true for government donors and philanthropists, who play a crucial role in empowering communities by giving them access to the skills, the healthcare and the economic infrastructure they need to take part in the global economy.

The entire world system as we know it today was shaped by the industrial revolution 200 years ago. It produced unimaginable wealth for those who mastered it, while hundreds of millions of people elsewhere lost their jobs. The modern phenomenon of absolute poverty emerged as a result.

In the early 18th century, disparities in wealth between and within countries were relatively small. Western Europe may already have been wealthier per capita than India and China, but not by much. The elites everywhere were tiny in number, and most people made a basic living through agricultural production and the local manufacture of clothes and tools.

Then everything changed. Between 1770 and 1870 the UK’s income per capita more than doubled, while in China and India it fell by more than 10 per cent. Countries that we now know as the “advanced economies” began their rapid ascent to the economic, military and cultural dominance that many of us take for granted. For others, absolute poverty became the norm. By 1960, the average income in the United States was around 20 times more than that of India or China.

The reason for this upheaval was primarily the technological advances that allowed one person, supported by a machine, to do the work previously carried out by many others. This started with the humble “spinning Jenny”, invented in England in 1764 to speed up weaving. Soon it extended to all kinds of industrial and agricultural activities, so that food, clothes and everything else could be produced at higher quality, in greater quantities by fewer people.

Much like with AI today, those who controlled the machines grew richer, while those who continued to farm or make clothes in the old-fashioned way, lost their livelihoods. The industrial revolution is often seen as a time of job creation. But that’s only true of the rich countries in which the new jobs, factories and transport systems of the modern age were located.

For millions of people in Asia and Africa, the industrial revolution made them poorer, because they could not compete with machine-made products. Local markets were flooded by cheaper imports. Their jobs were gone, and there was often no system to support them. By 1960, more than half of the world’s population lived in absolute poverty.

Like today’s rapidly advancing technology, the industrial revolution improved people’s quality of life. But it also shows that fears of job losses and the destruction of communities, even nations, because of automation are well grounded. The mass poverty in the 20th century in previously wealthy countries, especially in Asia, demonstrates that with no safety net, the damage can be long lasting.

Today in the age of AI, countries which lost out during the industrial revolution, such as India and China, are far better positioned. China now leads the world in AI research. For those less well positioned, foreign aid and philanthropy can at least ensure basic coverage for life saving vaccines and other essentials. As a result of these trends, in the last 30 years, hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of absolute poverty.

But nearly 10 per cent of the world’s population still lives on less than $1.90 per day. They are from communities which were left out two centuries ago by the sweeping changes that greatly increased global wealth, but concentrated it in fewer hands. The world may be on the brink of an AI revolution, but the legacy of the industrial revolution has left us with unfinished business. Until absolute poverty is completely eliminated, we still have work to do.

Hassan Damluji is Deputy Director of Global Policy and Advocacy and Head of Middle East relations at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.