By Mark Richards

Broadband from space? It could be here in a few years’ time, another sign of the ever-faster technological changes that are reshaping our world. But will the march of technology and AI come at a price? Will it cost you your job?

Let us start the week in outer space, where – to misquote Ming the Merciless – the puny earthlings have hurled a car into the void.

At the beginning of this month, the Falcon Heavy was launched. The world’s most powerful space rocket blasted off into the heavens, watched by an estimated half a million spectators who packed the beaches and other key vantage points along Florida’s ‘space coast.’

The Falcon Heavy is the brainchild of serial entrepreneur Elon Musk and his private aerospace company, SpaceX. But it is not just one man’s vanity project: the launch of the Falcon Heavy was a commercial venture – at least in the long term. It gives the US a ‘heavy lift’ capability in space, not seen since the days of the Saturn rockets and – with two of the three re-usable boosters rockets dropping back safely to Earth – Musk thinks it could be ‘game over’ for his commercial spaceflight rivals.

Further evidence of the commercial nature of the flight was shown by the rocket carrying a payload – one of Musk’s $100,000 Tesla Roadster sports cars, with a dummy in the driver’s seat called ‘Starman,’ bravely going where no dummy had gone before and singing along to David Bowie’s Life on Mars on a continuous loop.

Broadband goes into space

March of artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics

Two weeks after the launch of the Falcon Heavy – by which time Starman might have been wishing for a slightly longer playlist – SpaceX launched again, this time to put a Spanish radar satellite above the Earth. This launch had a much more immediate commercial impact than the launch of the Falcon Heavy, with SpaceX believing it could pave the way to providing ‘broadband from space.’ By the mid-2020s Space X hopes to be operating around 4,000 satellites, linking every corner of Earth to the internet.

Does this mean that a company from California could supply high-speed broadband to rural parts of the UK faster than the current ‘plans’ of Her Majesty’s Government and BT? Do not bet against it.

The politics of artificial intelligence

Meanwhile, Elon Musk was in the news for another reason, as he quit the board of OpenAI, a research group he co-founded to look into the ethics of artificial intelligence. In a blog post, OpenAI said the decision had been taken to ‘avoid a conflict of interests’ as Musk’s Tesla car became more focused on AI developments.

In the past Musk has given some fairly dire warnings about AI, describing it in 2014 as ‘humanity’s biggest existential threat.’ In 2017 he said the United Nations needed to act to prevent a killer robot arms race and OpenAI has recently contributed to the Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence report, warning against its use by rogue states, criminals and terrorists.

All this is beginning to sound a little like Star Wars and the plot of the latest Hollywood blockbuster. For most people, the worry about AI – and its co-conspirators, robotics and machine learning – is a lot simpler and a lot closer to home. Will artificial intelligence take my job?

The robots are coming

When you first contemplate robotics, machine learning & Artificial Intelligence the headlines are nothing but doom and gloom. Robots are coming for financial services jobs first. AI to cut a swathe through middle management.

And, most chillingly of all, the report from management consultants McKinsey that AI and robotics will take 800m jobs worldwide by 2030.

AI and robotics undoubtedly will take plenty of jobs. A robot arm can dispense your fries perfectly well: it does not get sick, does not need a holiday and most certainly does not need including in the company pension scheme. If only KFC could find one to dispense chicken…

But do technological changes necessarily lead to unemployment?

March of artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics

At the beginning of the 19th Century, the Luddites began smashing up weaving machinery, fearing that the traditional skills would be lost and – closer to home – that they would lose their jobs. Mill owners were not hugely enthusiastic about this and took to shooting the protesters: the movement was only ultimately suppressed with military force. There have been plenty of periods of unemployment in the ensuing 200 years – and all too often the first reaction has been to blame the machines.

There is plenty of evidence though, that technology creates as many jobs as it destroys: the ‘Lump of Labour’ theory is now widely accepted as a fallacy.

The theory states that there is a fixed amount of labour that has to be done – the lump – and if a machine does some of it then a person is necessarily displaced. As early as 1891 economist David Fredrick Schloss argued that this was a fallacy – that there was not a fixed amount of labour – and that machines can create as many jobs as they replace. (The same theory can be applied to immigration: that immigrants do not necessarily replace domestic jobs, but rather increase the size of the economy, thus creating more jobs.)

The ‘lump of labour’ fallacy certainly seems to be at work in California, with a recent report on Silicon Valley concluded that for every job lost to automation and AI, four were created.

The best place to defeat the march of AI

So where should you work if you don’t want a robot to steal your job? The answer – according to an article in City AM and sitting nicely with Silicon Valley – is in the creative sector, which is forecast to create 1,000 ‘robot-proof’ jobs a week right up to 2030. The creative sector has grown twice as fast as other sectors in this decade, and London now has 90,000 creative businesses. Clearly, plenty of those are going to be one-man businesses but that is still a significant number and an increasingly important contribution to UK plc.

Major technological changes are undoubtedly coming, and they are happening at a faster pace than any of us had previously imagined. Driverless cars were once pencilled in for 2050/2060 – now they will be commonplace by the middle of the next decade. But change simply means change: it does not automatically spell doom and gloom. Who knows, it might even mean a broadband signal in the middle of the North Yorkshire Moors…