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Humans and Brexit

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Dec. 4th, 2016 | 11:09 am

Enjoying a mug of tea in my favourite seaside café. This place might look familiar if you've been watching 'Humans' on C4. Yes, it's that café. I have been enjoying the show, there are good things about it. Particularly the issue of rights for artificial intelligences. My own view is we need to think about that problem ahead of time and have the legal frameworks in place to protect the rights of AI's before they reach the level of human consciousness. This is not only about protecting AI rights; if in future governments and employers have access to human-level artificial consciousness that they can exploit without caring about the rights of those beings, it can be used as a ratchet to drive human rights down.

Anyway, that is by-the-by. Where I think 'Humans' falls down a bit is its depiction of ubiquitous synthetic humanoids in the workplace. This makes it feel a bit far-fetched, and gives too much comfort to people watching who might like to think 'this will never really happen'. Real industrial general purpose robots won't resemble humans that much. There will be some resemblance because workplaces are presently designed with human employees in mind, but few employers will want to run to the expense of totally lifelike synthetic humanoids. Google 'Baxter robot' to see an example of a general purpose industrial robot of the present. Don't mistake these for the highly specialised robots that have been used for years in jobs like car assembly; these general purpose industrial robots are smart and can learn new tasks by example rather than needing specialist programming for each job they must perform.

But gradually, industrial robots and their factory environments will co-evolve into more efficient forms less suited to the presence of human operatives.

Meanwhile, people have concerns about immigration (we are repeatedly informed) and support for the idea of protectionism grows. Trump adopts a protectionist stance, declaring he will 'make America great again' by erecting trade barriers. An interesting concept; let us imagine every nation in the world adopts such policies, can they all be 'Great Again'? How will that work, exactly? It seems similar thinking underpins the Brexit vote in some people's minds - we will 'Make Britain Great Again' via a messy divorce with our biggest export market.

Yet others see the main issue with EU membership being migrants placing a strain on public services. This is really just shifting the blame for austerity onto one particular group of taxpayers and wealth creators, whose use of those services is resented. Blaming those incoming fellow Europeans who are propping up our slender economic growth rate for the negative outcomes of our government's programme of austerity seems a particularly ill-judged and anti-social(ist) move. Austerity will not go away if they are rounded up and deported but their contribution to the economy will. If you are willing to pick out a section of the population and expel them from the country because you want to reduce the strain on public services you would be much better off deporting Tory voters. It would be a much more logical and un-xenophobic move in order to end austerity. (I speak in jest, but there is a serious message).

The coming automation revolution will be a game-changer for global economics, because it will be a leveller of production costs. It is possible that major corporations in the automation market will try and preserve the status quo by creating a system of regional coding so that robotic systems are priced according to local markets. Like they did with DVDs. Such an attempt will be doomed to eventually fail, and eventually robot labour costs worldwide will equalize at something much lower that equivalent human labour.

When we imagine what this future will look like, the spectacle of people erecting barriers against trade and free movement thinking this will improve their lot while an army of robots is waiting in the wings of the future to destroy labour markets in every nation seems a bizarre case of fiddling while Rome burns. It seems that in the minds of many Lexiteers, there is the notion of a two-stage process. Stage one, get out of the EU; stage two, topple the Tory government and turn Britain into a fortress socialist paradise. A bit like Cuba, maybe, except with self-imposed trade sanctions and worse weather.

Dicing the world up into individual nations at liberty to conduct their own affairs with no over-arching framework binding them is Thatcherism writ large. "There really is no such thing as society, there are individuals all striving to do the best for themselves". A slight paraphrase of the original quote, but that's more or less the essence. Replace individuals with nations, all trapped in 'prisoners' dilemma' games against each other in which the most rational individualistic response leaves them worse off. See also 'Brexit negotiations'. Meanwhile global threats go unchecked for want of a coherent response. Watch out for that asteroid. It will come one day.

It may be argued that the politics of the present is dealing with the issues of the present, and the future will take care of itself. However what we do now lays the foundations of the future and will make the task of those who have to deal with these things, easier or harder. In the modern world, movement of physical commodities is essential because no single region of the world has it all in terms of resources. Britain actually became unable to support its own population sometime in the mid-19th century, or so I am informed by a historian friend of mine. There are two ways to ensure the continued flow of physical goods to meet demand; global capitalism, or global socialism. In my view, a blend of both is required to complement each other and keep each other in balance. I will let that statement stand without expanding further, as it would be going off on a bit of a tangent. But the important word is 'global'. The anti-globalists are right to oppose global capitalism in its present form; but they should be concentrating on the 'capital' part. Instead they've let themselves get drawn into thinking it's the 'global' part they need to oppose. What's needed to keep global Capitalism in check is for Socialism to globalise.

I've rambled on for quite a while and I need to bring this to a close. The thing that got me thinking about all this is actually, the outcome of the Richmond Park by-election, successfully fought on the issue of Brexit by the Lib Dems, amidst the now rather tiresome accusations that those who continue to fight for us to stay in the EU are 'opposed to democracy'. Most Remain supporters I know see the EU as an (imperfect, we freely admit) incremental stage towards a global framework of democratic government to deal with global threats and regulate the activities of global corporations - neither of which will go away in the absence of global governance. The third pillar that's needed is a global social movement to prevent global government and global capital getting too cosy with each other. These are things we must continue to strive for in spite of a handful more people in the UK being momentarily in favour of EU withdrawal than continued membership. I've seen a 'Shy Remainer' mindset emerge since the referendum result; these are people who believe that Remain is the best course of action really, but that we must now Leave because an 'act of democracy' took place and we can't overrule the 'will of the people'. And unfortunately some of the people who subscribe to this Shy Remainer notion that 'We have to support Leave now because of democracy' are MPs.

This is the kind of thinking that led the Lib Dems into coalition with the Tories in 2010. In spite of their belief in Proportional Representation, they awarded their support as a 'Winner's Bonus' to the party who had the most seats, magnifying the injustice of the FPTP system.

In a regime that has no system of democracy, democracy is a cause in itself. In those regimes people are right to champion the cause of democracy. In the UK, we _have_ a system of democracy. The existence of a thoroughly corrupt and self-serving national media that hates the EU because it has no power over it, weakens our democracy by clouding the understanding of the electorate, but nevertheless democracy exists and those of us who hold an (apparently) minority viewpoint do not need to defend democracy by allowing the outcome of one vote to determine the way we will vote when another opportunity to express ourselves democratically comes along. Especially MPs, who must now do the job they receive £75K a year for, and use their judgement rather than parrotting the result of an intrinsically broken referendum. Remainers should not now reluctantly support Brexit because they are wrongly told they oppose democracy itself by opposing Brexit. Keep that fire of defiance in your eye, Remainer. The future needs you.

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