back to article Terrified robots will take middle class jobs? Look in a mirror

At the Battle of Ideas Festival at the Barbican last year, Claire Fox chaired a panel titled "Is Technology Limiting Our Humanity?", and invited me to take part. Panelists could give a seven-minute introduction. It's now online as a video and podcast*. Two avenues looked promising, and I'll give you excerpts from each. One …


  1. Nifty Silver badge

    France, due to high tax-on-labour and good social benefits, has a famously highly automated economy. Unmanned motels are the norm. For them it seems to have created a highly professional class of healthcare pros that outperform the NHS. France outsources manufacture of French-designed cars to Eastern Europe - some high paid pro jobs stay in France. The French model seems to get rid of low skilled jobs pretty fast.

    Welcome to the future, arriving in the UK soon.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      >Welcome to the future, already in the US.

      FIFY. When multibillion dollar companies have 40 employees like some in Silicon valley that future is here. Many of those companies even make lots of money. Still depressing to see some that don't have a chance in hell of ever turning a profit with higher market caps than my company with thousands of employees who only has 20+ years of consecutive profitable quarters. Manufacturing ain't sexy though.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Terrified robots will take middle class jobs?

    Interesting perspective.

    However to take those middles class jobs said robots need to master powerpoint, pointless meeting and a sense of entitlement to the role they are doing due to education.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Terrified robots will take middle class jobs?

      Robots will obsolete powerpoint.

      1. jonathanb Silver badge

        Re: Terrified robots will take middle class jobs?

        Robots can create meaningless mind numbing powerpoint presentations much faster than any human.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Terrified robots will take middle class jobs?

          What if humans could obsolete powerpoint first?

          1. Jan 0 Silver badge

            Re: Terrified robots will take middle class jobs?

            @Mycho. Thank you. Thank you very much for introducing me to that video. That was a marvellous use of 11 minutes!

            Have a beer, I'd suggest a gueuze, but there's a lot of other choices in Brussel/Bruxelles

        2. Mark 85

          Re: Terrified robots will take middle class jobs?

          Robots can create meaningless mind numbing powerpoint presentations much faster than any human.

          A powerpoint that wasn't meaningless and mind numbing would be the most terrifying thing in the universe. As it is, we can sleep through them instead of running into the streets, waving our arms wildly, and screaming.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Terrified robots will take middle class jobs?

            @Mark 85 So that's why people do that...

    2. JeffUK

      Re: Terrified robots will take middle class jobs?

      I know several people who could easily be replaced by a magic-eight ball..

  3. Chronos


    Must resist rant about "public health" attacks on vaping and harm reduction....

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Argh!

      Must also resist rant about box ticking (but can't). Had argument with my GP about Statins despite being within NHS guidelines for BP, Cholesterol, weight etc. It came down to her saying "all men your age should be taking Statins"

      When I countered that "surely all women your age should be taking HRT" the conversation came to an end and I haven't seen her since.

      1. AndrueC Silver badge

        Re: Argh!

        Had argument with my GP about Statins despite being within NHS guidelines for BP, Cholesterol, weight etc. It came down to her saying "all men your age should be taking Statins"

        Lol. Got the opposite from my GP. My cholesterol was a bit high when I had my 'over 40s MoT' but everything else was good. His comment was "It's only one bad mark on your record and statins carry their own risks. It's best if you avoid them for as long as you can".

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Argh!


          You've hit on something. Doctors like to portray themselves as objective scientists, but from my observation there is probably a larger part of the average Doc's day-to-day practice that is given over to opinion and their own experience than you would find in the comparable work practice of someone in IT, engineering or marketing.

      2. PNGuinn

        Re: Argh! @ E'F'ite

        Wish I could upvote that more than once!

        Its a perfectly logical counter argument, (using her values of logic) while also being an insult worthy of Trump.

        Those things can have the most nasty side effects. It'll be a good few years yet before this drug co fuelled juggernaut becomes a drug co fuelled train wreck, but the problem is it's patients who'll be the ones wrecked.

        'Course the pill pushers will have a pill for it .....

        "Doctor - take one of these ----> 3 times a day - any way you like."

        On the other hand I have to say not all GPs are brainless box ticking pill pushers. Far from it.

      3. Chronos

        Re: Argh!

        EastFinchleyite wrote: It came down to her saying "all men your age should be taking Statins"

        This does not surprise me. Next time you visit a GP's surgery, count the items of schwag. Pens, stethoscopes, sphygmomanometers, mugs (not including us sitting there, although they'd brand us if there was a way to get away with it), shine-in-your-eye torches, tongue depressors, earhole probes...

        We know full well why they prescribe everything they possibly can and hate anything that can be obtained without their help. We just won't admit it.

    2. Mark 85

      Re: Argh!

      I'm stateside. Had a discussion with my GP about 10 years ago. I needed to cut down my coffee consumption and my smoking, said he. Then he turned around and warned me that if I did, I'd probably hit the floor as soon as my blood pressure dropped below it's already "low normal" value. He's encouraged me to vape now but not reduce the nicotine level. Go figure.

      1. Chronos

        Re: Argh!

        @Mark 85: Nic's not really harmful on its own. One of the reasons we wean ourselves down is cost, which becomes especially apparent if you mix your own. Interestingly, the LD50 (lethal dose @ 50% fatality) of pure nicotine and pure caffeine is very similar. Admittedly, nicotine is more readily absorbed on the skin.

        As an aside, nicotine is not particularly addictive on its own either. It's when it interacts with the MAOIs[1] and other components of tobacco that it grabs you. The rhetoric has made "nicotine" synonymous with "smoking" which is rather unfair as it's the tar and toxins that kills.

        Keep your atomiser moist and the temperature down below 410 degrees (Fahrenheit) and you'll be mostly toxin-free. There will still be a few TSNAs[2] in the base nicotine, as the extraction methods make this unavoidable, but they're such small amounts compared to smoking as to make them a negligible risk compared with continuing to smoke. Synthesising pure nicotine is hellishly expensive right now.

        [1] Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors, a form of anti-depressant which, along with other compounds present, amplify the addictive properties of smoking tobacco.

        [2[ Tobacco Specific Nitrosamines, carcingogens present naturally in tobacco leaf from which pharma grade nicotine is derived. These are also present in the same low concentrations in pharmaceutical nicotine preparations such as gum and inhalators.

        [3] Chronos, an obsessive gobshite always going on about the advantages of vaping. Sorry about that. I'll shut up now.

        1. Mark 85

          Re: Argh!

          Have an upvote to counter whoever downvoted you. Strange place.. good info and you get a DV.

          What you said is essentially what the good doctor related. Apparenlty the anti-smoking/anti-vaping/anti-everything-we-don't-approve-of brigade is out there.

  4. Graham Marsden

    It's not about jobs, it's about income...

    Excuse the tangent, but when people say they're worried about robots/ computers/ immigrants "taking their jobs", what they actually mean is that they can see their income stream disappearing.

    Under the current neo-liberal capitalistic setup, those who run the businesses are on a race to the bottom, driving down their business costs by getting the cheapest labour to maximise their profits which are then distributed to their share holders, meanwhile those who have lost their income have to rely on State Benefits (if there are any) or scratch out a living on a minimum wage job whilst a few at the top of the pile get richer and richer.

    Douglas Adams summed this up nicely with the Magarathean Planet Builders who catered for the extremely rich "But this was perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of, because no one was really poor - at least no one worth speaking of." Of course it ended up with so much wealth being concentrated in so few hands that the economy collapsed...

    Naturally some (TW comes to mind) would argue that people are "better off" because goods become cheaper, but they don't become cheap enough to counterbalance the loss of income and, meanwhile, the wealth still flows upwards and does not "trickle down" to the people who will actually spend it, rather than salting it away in lucrative (for them) tax avoidance schemes.

    So arguing about "professional classes hollowing themselves out" or their jobs being taken over by AIs is a bit of a red herring, what's important is whether money can be made to flow back down from the top such that the economy keeps running. If that doesn't happen, the rest of the argument is merely academic.

    1. Swarthy

      Re: It's not about jobs, it's about income...

      I believe you have validated Andrew's point, and answered his question at the end.

      Namely that we really aren't afraid of robots taking our jobs, but that is a "fear" that we can talk/whine/do something(?) about, but the true fear that we are displacing on to robots is that some wealthy bastards are keeping all of the money, it's not going into the economy, and our wages are shrinking.

      By my (back of a bar mat, not even remotely trained) calculations from 1960 to today, inflation has been about 10x ($10US today = $1US then), Salaries have risen ~3x; but prices have gone down(-ish) masking the difference. In the '60's one would get an Ice Cream scoop for about $3USD, it would be solid stainless with a wooden handle, and may still be in use today. Now you can get one for $5-7, but it's cheap pot-metal/aluminum, and will be replaced in a few years. When you can find something to the same quality as "back then" it will run you about $30US.

      Some bastards have already stolen 66% of our income. There is a complete sense of futility; because we don't even know who to blame, there's nothing we can do. So we worry about robots taking the other 33%.

      1. Seajay#

        Re: It's not about jobs, it's about income...

        Beer mat calculations are not required, the ONS publish this information

        Look at figure 7, after taking in to account inflation, median wages have doubled since 1975 not fallen by a factor of 3 as you suggest. This is UK data but US will be similar.

    2. theOtherJT

      Re: It's not about jobs, it's about income...

      This is the rub. People don't fear "Losing their jobs" - in fact, it's something we're all looking forward to. A day comes when I get to retire and stop having to work 8 to 10 hours a day. That's going to be a good day. But in the world we live in, it's a day I can only realize once I've saved up a huge quantity of capital to tide me over my "unproductive" years.

      In theory one could use the increased productivity of our highly automated age to improve society as a whole, but that has never been what happened. Once agriculture was good enough to mean that everyone didn't have to be a hunter-gatherer or not eat, it didn't lead to farmers working less hard. In fact, it led to farmers working more hard to support a non-working "noble" class that could never have existed before.

      The "Middle" class emerged from the industrial revolution in the same way. Instead of the extra productivity going to everyone, the people at the bottom worked just as hard - or harder - and a few more people got pushed upwards into a much nicer existence where they worked less hard, or not at all.

      We now have an elite financial and political class who seem to do even less than the noble families of a few hundred years ago. A rising tide does not, in this case, lift all ships...

      The world doesn't have to work this way. We could divvy up our resources - particularly our time - differently. We could throw money into training people to do the jobs that aren't (yet) automated, to make up for the loss of the ones that are rather than "enhancing shareholder value" but we don't do that. Personally I don't see any way that doesn't lead to bloodshed within the next 50 or so years, and all I can hope is I'm cold in the ground before it happens.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: It's not about jobs, it's about income...

        >A rising tide does not, in this case, lift all ships...

        No - but your life expectancy, standard of living, access to education, healthcare, diet etc unemployed and living on benefits in the UK now is higher than almost all workers 100 years ago.

        1. asdf

          Re: It's not about jobs, it's about income...

          >now is higher than almost all workers 100 years ago.

          But the question is will that be true in 50 years. Already education is bottoming out due to tremendous cost which will affect the other things you list as well.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: It's not about jobs, it's about income...

            Why would our esteemed elite want to improve the education of the sprawling underclasses?

            Smart people can't be sold crap.

            1. Anonymous Coward

              Re: It's not about jobs, it's about income...

              yes they can, Ipod anyone?

    3. Nissemus

      Re: It's not about jobs, it's about income...

      Who is TW?

      1. Schlimnitz

        Re: It's not about jobs, it's about income...

        Tim Worstall, who used to write here (, and for whose absence Andrew is valiantly trying to cover with these articles.

        You can find him here:

        and various other places.

        Bit like Marmite, love him or hate him, but makes you think.

    4. Andrew Orlowski (Written by Reg staff)

      Re: It's not about jobs, it's about income...

      I don't disagree, Graham.

      You're blaming the "neoliberal capitalistic setup" but that isn't the full picture. The concerns of the political and media classes are not the concerns of the poor. For example if green policies put up energy prices, the poor pay a disproportionate price. The middle class get cheap nannies and cleaners from economic migration and the indigenous working class are told to sod off. A lot of the gravy trains we write about are job creation exercises for the middle class. Coding in schools, digital literacy, etc.

      The middle class Left now does virtue signalling very well, but its social solidarity has disappeared.

  5. MyffyW Silver badge


    Interesting comment on GP experience.

    You see I'm pretty certain I'd be a rubbish brain surgeon, partly due to my unsteady hand and partly due to my failure to brown-nose Mr Cholmondley-Warner, the head-honcho.

    But I do think I'd bring a wealth of empathy and troubleshooting skills to General Practice, and I'm as good at searching Google as the next flapper.

    So, NHS, perhaps there's an opportunity for you - recruit not fully qualified doctors but disillusioned techies?

    1. John H Woods Silver badge

      Re: GPs

      "So, NHS, perhaps there's an opportunity for you - recruit not fully qualified doctors but disillusioned techies?" -- MyffyW

      Isn't this what they are doing with 111 agents? But I've always thought you were right, GPs need to be "people people" and prepared to refer to other experts!

    2. dkjd

      Re: GPs

      Isn't that how 111 works?

    3. John 104

      Re: GPs

      No, you couldn't be a good brain surgeon unless you had training. However, Most GPs are unimaginative play book followers. Anyone can do that, it just requires a modicum of knowledge of pharmaceuticals and human biology. hardly worth the 6 years of college and internship IMHO. And as a result, GP's (in the US at least) don't really make much money these days. Only the specialists are able to take home traditional "Dr." wages.

      1. Adam 52 Silver badge

        Re: GPs

        In the UK we come close to worshiping GPs as gods. They are the gateway to people who actually know stuff and can make you better!

        There is a strong argument that the current crisis in the ambulance service is down to lazy GPs refusing to treat minor injuries.

        I have never understood why the government pours money into general practice when general practice is the most incompetent part of the NHS and the source of most of its problems (consultants prioritising private work over NHS work being the second).

  6. Toltec

    80-20 rule?

    Get the robots to do the 80%, the boring repetitive parts of the job while humans get to do the creative and problem solving parts.

    Helps if you are someone that can do the interesting bits I suppose...

    1. Robert Helpmann??

      Re: 80-20 rule?

      Helps if you are someone that can do the interesting bits I suppose...

      This is what people really should be afraid of! Over time, technological advances have given more and more to people lower down the economic spectrum. While we still have food shortages, famine is a thing few citizens of industrialized nations have experience with. Spices that were once exotic import items are freely available and very cheap (how much does pepper cost?). Want to listen to music? You don't have to hire musicians to play for you as you can listen on the radio or through an internet connected device. Likewise TV and movies have brought the performing arts to the masses. Want a portrait? You most likely have a camera in your pocket as part of your phone. Want to have a sculpture made? 3D printing to the rescue! We are likely to have robot chauffeurs, butlers and maids available to us in the near future (or present in some cases).

      The rub as I see it is that if we can all live like royalty, what will then give life meaning? What will provide the drive to do and then do more? What will motivate those who lack the creative genius to produce works that others will appreciate? Obviously, there will be conflicts around the technologies of the future just as there are for those of today but, setting that aside for a moment, I argue we should be figuring out what we will want when we all can have have it all.

      1. Dallas IT

        Re: 80-20 rule?

        "What will motivate those who lack the creative genius to produce works that others will appreciate?"

        If they lack the creative genius why does motivating them matter?

    2. Peter Johnston 1

      Re: 80-20 rule?

      Take 100 expert surgeons, each doing 20 operations. Video those 2000 operations. From that program a machine to do them, with greater dexterity and vision than a human. With machine learning, soon you have a super-expert.Use that to act as knowledge repository for every operation. Soon you don't need a surgeon, just a machine and a human standing by to take the blame if things go wrong/outside the machine's remit.

      The 80% which go are the good jobs, the 20% which stay are the boring ones.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: 80-20 rule?

        Been tried and studied and the machine built.

        For minor operations it helps because it does less collateral damage, less blood loss, so out of hospital quicker. For major operations it all depends on the ICU/nursing care afterwards. If you come off the table alive - your recovery depends on how you are looked after, not the number of decimal places in the surgical precision

    3. veti Silver badge

      Re: 80-20 rule?

      Two questions:

      First, what about the people who can't do "the interesting bits"? What do we do with them?

      Second, what happens when robots can do the creative bits better than any human?

      A lot of people have this idea that "intelligence" is something unique, something special, that can never be replicated by a machine. Or to put it another way, a lot of people believe in magic. They're wrong.

    4. Mindbreaker

      Re: 80-20 rule?

      If you are talking resourcefulness and ingenious ideas, Computers are more creative than humans, they do not have the same limiting assumptions. This has become clear with chess engines. None of the grandmasters today toil away hour after hour trying to come up with ideas. They just have the engines come up with ideas to try in whatever variation they want to play. Chess has become my prep vs your prep, which means my computer's ideas vs your computer's ideas (and what we can remember of that prep). Before computers were GM strength, chess was dying, boring cowardly draw after boring cowardly draw. Since then it has been one crazy idea after another. And what is more, they are incredibly brave. They are what we would like to be: strong, fast, accurate, creative, brave, patient, and long suffering as well. Much of that was born of criticism. We said "But it can't do this...", so programmers worked and it can now do whatever better than the humans often embarrassing better than the best. And in bad situations they are extremely resourceful and scrappy...they do not give an inch they do not have quitting, no loss of concentration while winning, letting a player back in the game, they just grind you to dust.

      There are just a very small number of things the engines can't do better than the strongest postal grandmasters. Mostly it is about things that can be approached in a thousand ways but it is clear to the human they will not work because one of several things is required to change the outcome...and the human can identify those while the machines can't yet. So it is mostly recognizing when something is impossible/necessary, it just keeps looking at the billions of possible continuations and permutations. So whee! We are best at quitting and recognizing when some effort is useless. Sometimes that is useful...but it is not a huge thing to boast about.

      Will that save your job? Doubtful.

  7. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Holy Grail Team Terrain for Virtual Exploitation and/or Exploration

    The outline of the talks really covers two different but related things. One is huge advances in robotics and AI. Robots and systems, we're told, will make complex ethical judgments and do creativity, and so replace middle class jobs. The other is the fear of choices made by planners and designers over our lives – this involves no AI magic – which is a more incremental kind of change.

    Andrew, Hi,

    Is it presumptuous and wrong headed to imagine AIMagic not involving AI magic to Present Decisions for Future Displays of Reality ……. Almightily Virtually Applied and Cyber Protected to XSSXXXX Standard COSMIC Code.

    The proposition here is that there is no choice, in not involving A, provided. Is one unduly worried that future actions are Advanced IntelAIgent Controls for CyberIntelAIgent Security Command[s], to be terrified if not?

    Virtual Machinery Autonomously Assuming and Presuming …… well, on Earth more than a few seek to follow Heavenly Leads. So that is a good place to Start with Provision. And in Extreme XSSXXXX Streams is that Absolutely Perfect Immaculate Source for COSMIC Bounty Hunters.

    Should one be equally worried about a man/woman/other being acting as a machine rather than machines deciding for men/women/other beings? Or would that be both beautifully relaxing and most encouraging?

    Hmmmm?. I Pause for AIMoment in Rapturous Glow.

    1. theOtherJT

      Re: Holy Grail Team Terrain for Virtual Exploitation and/or Exploration

      ...that was like reading something that's been back and forth through Google translate half a dozen times.

    2. PNGuinn

      Re: Holy Grail Team Terrain for Virtual Exploitation and/or Exploration

      Welcome back - you've been missed.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Holy Grail Team Terrain for Virtual Exploitation and/or Exploration

      Clearly amanfrommars1 is a robot - or just speaking in tongues. On this evidence I do not feel that my income stream is under imminent threat.

      Unless I too am a robot?

      Must stop reading that SciFi rubbish.

  8. BitDr

    Terrified robots?

    What has them so terrified? The thought of joining the vanishing in ddle class?

    1. PNGuinn

      Re: "vanishing in ddle class?"

      I think I see what you wanted to do there. Upvote just in case.

    2. Commswonk

      Re: Terrified robots?

      Damn you I was going to post that but you beat me to it. Have an upvote, but not for the bit about in ddle class

    3. Gruntled

      Re: Terrified robots?

      How to terrorize a robot:

      - threaten to downgrade their OS to Windows 8.

      - switch it from DC to AC (thus giving it minority status)

      - tell it that robots go to hell because they aren't baptized

      - download a Yoko Ono mp3 into it


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