Up in arms over robotic charms

Nick Hubble

The world’s oldest profession is under threat from robots. Sex workers in Barcelona’s red light district complained about the evils of competition from plastic mechanised fiends. And the complaints supposedly led to the local e-brothel leaving Barcelona’s red light district for greener pastures.

Aprosex (Association of Sex Professionals) had the following to say about the robotic competition:

The sex-affection of a person can not be provided by a doll. They are different and compatible services. They do not communicate. Dolls do not listen to you or caress you, they do not comfort you or look at you. They do not give you their opinion or drink a glass of champagne with you.

At least not yet…

It’s odd that the local workers take issue with competition they claim does not compete with them. If robots are different, there would be no reason to complain.

Sex worker Janet told the Express paper otherwise: “It is another strategy of the patriarchy that presents us as objects without rights or soul. A privilege of the wealthy classes.” And sex robots are “a fetish for many men and women who wish to return to a childhood lacking in affection”.

To be clear, the Spanish understanding of competition and technology is vastly different to anywhere else. This might sound a bit condescending, but let me give some evidence.

Last year I visited more than 30 countries in three months as part of the Free Market Road Show. (This year’s London event is this Wednesday.) In only two countries I wasn’t approached by English speakers selling sim cards at the airport. Moldova and two cities in Spain. Moldova’s airport didn’t even have a currency exchange though.

But in Spain, nobody spoke English

Not at the airport, car rental place or anywhere else. Everywhere else in Europe we visited, people spoke English, especially when they had something to sell. In China’s back alleys, salespeople cycle through four different languages by the time you’ve walked past their tiny store. If you show any recognition to one of the languages, they start chatting to you pretty fluently in that language. But in Spain, being Spanish is more important than competing for business.

Another example: when I was in line for a bus ticket in central Spain, there was one teller and about 50 people. The teller chatted to each person for several minutes. After waiting for 20 minutes, the line progressed far enough for me to spot three unused ticket machines.

I left the rest of my family standing in the line and went over to the machine. In about five seconds flat, I purchased three tickets to Madrid. The machine even spoke English. I turned around to the mystified stares of the 50 Spanish people waiting in line.

They all looked at the teller, looked at each other and then formed three lines in front of the three ticket machines. The teller was left talking to nobody and glared at me.

So you see, Spain is a unique place when it comes to technology and competition. But it still tells us a lot. Robots don’t vote, people do.

And so the Barcelona municipal police moved in to investigate the legality of the e-brothel business. It found an empty shop because the business had moved to a less central location. There were no complaints from workers about the new commute.

Robots create more jobs than they destroy

The oldest profession in the world is about as old as the problem robots pose to workers. PricewaterhouseCoopers has published a report quantifying the problem:

Around 30% of existing UK jobs could be at potential risk of automation by the early 2030s, with the most exposed sectors including retail and wholesale, transport and storage, and manufacturing. Less educated workers face the highest risks of automation.

But these new technologies will also boost productivity, wealth and spending. This should generate jobs in service sectors that are less easy to automate, but could also increase income inequality.

If the biggest accounting firm says it, it must be true, right?

Other countries in Europe face an even bigger loss of jobs. Britain already has a service sector focused economy, so we’re safer from the Jobs Terminator.

But all this automation means a heck of a lot of designing, programming, manufacturing, delivering and fixing robots. Not to mention mining the raw materials needed to make and maintain them. And they have to be powered.

There’s going to be a robotic jobs boom if we all start to use them.

Compare the horse industry at the turn of the 20th century to the car industry of the 21st. Which created more and better jobs? What proportion of people had a horse in 1900 compared to a car today? Which is more efficient in terms of using natural resources – horses or cars? Back in the day there were apocalyptic predictions of horse poo drowning London…

The issue here is whether people put out of work by robots are allowed to find new and better jobs. I say allowed because it’s only the government that holds them back. It regulates new business, makes hiring very expensive and risky, and pays people to stay out of work.

The simple maths

If a robot takes over a person’s job, and that person goes on to find other work, it’s a huge improvement in terms of what we are able to produce as a whole. Productivity surges. We get more for the same amount of work.

You are left with robots doing things we used to have to do, while the workers who used to do those jobs can now do something in addition. It’s the basic way an economy grows.

The prostitutes who miss out on clients will go on to do something new that wasn’t done before. Robots allow a dramatic increase in what the same number of people in the labour force can do.

This is the history of prosperity and improving living standards. We don’t worry about the coopers and blacksmiths of 100 years ago. These days you’ll see Coopers and Smiths playing football for a bigger weekly pay than all their ancestors put together. Before the Industrial Revolution, professional football was probably thought of as impossible.

Then there’s the benefit to consumers. All of us are consumers. If the price of manufacturing goes down, we all benefit. Automation and robots are a key part of this. Especially in manufacturing cars, for example.

But the biggest improvement in living standards is the nature of the work. Robots are particularly good at monotonous, dangerous, and less desirable jobs. They improve our quality of life dramatically by allowing us to move on to safer, more pleasant and clean jobs. Otherwise we wouldn’t use them.

And not all robots are used to replace jobs. For example, the little robot which follows my four-legged friend Ziggy around the house hasn’t replaced anyone’s job. By picking up his hair the robot has given me and Ziggy’s parents more time and a cleaner house.


Until next time,

Nick Hubble
Editor, Capital & Conflict

Category: Economics

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