May Day? Robot Day

Ned Ludd is one of those unlucky chaps, like the Marquis de Sade, or Niccolò Machiavelli, who has had his last name nominalized into a noun with very negative connotations. Unlike the others though, historians have never been able to say if Ludd is indeed the individual the noun “Luddite” is derived from. After all, all he ever did was destroy a couple of 18th-Century knitting machines.

Though history does not look over the Luddite Movement approvingly, it is emblematic of one of the major problems that have faced the civilised world for the last two centuries: automation. And if history has been better documented, we would probably find some disgruntled workers that decried the invention of the wheel or the fire.

The Luddites, before they became Luddites, were mostly skilled people with families to feed and homes to maintain. At a time when living standards were very low, and few were literate, especially compared to today, they did not care that someone somewhere had created a steam engine or the printing press. Their beef, despite popular belief, was not with the technology itself.

But industrialisation picked up, and new machines that employed cheaper, less labour were introduced. From the perspective of businessmen and factory owners, this was simply business, a way of boosting profit by minimising cost.

From the perspective of the Luddites, it meant the loss of jobs or skills acquired through years of effort. Of course, they had overreacted. Even though technology can sometimes generate some painful outcomes, human progress and civilisation should never be impeded. The new machines the Luddites protested produced far more goods, in far less time, with far better quality, than humans ever could. More importantly, when all was said and done, technology ended up creating more jobs than it antiquated.

Automation, from that century on, as new jobs were created (like that of a computer scientist) and other jobs were lost (like that of a carriage driver), has been a major player in social, political and economic issues. The 21st Century has seen growth in technology in areas, and within speed, previously only hinted about in sci-fi movies and books. Most of us have either smartphones, smart cars and smart watches, or all of them; and will soon start living in smart homes. All our devices have been connected, and continue to be connected to a new system dubbed the Internet of Things.

Big technology firms and governments with no regard for privacy continue to gather billions and trillions of data about our lives. George Orwell should probably have titled his most famous book 2024!

The dream of the Rockefellers, the Fords and the Gates of the world has been to make and distribute with as little cost as possible. Employees, with their wages, benefits, health insurances, maternity leaves, sick days, complaints and errors have always been the costliest for owners; especially when we take into consideration the unions and government regulations that force companies to provide amenable working conditions. Companies are always looking for ways to hire as little and as cheaply as sustainable.

A favourite tactic for the last 30 years has been to outsource, and sometimes move jobs, to low-wage countries. Many Western-based businesses have chosen Asian countries like China and India, where the standard of living is low. While this has been good for the latter countries (and certainly Ethiopia too has benefited from similar investments), workers in Western countries have suffered. To big businesses, paying employees slave wages is still not enough. They believe more cost-cutting could be implemented, with a helping hand from Artificial Intelligence (AI). The gargantuan amounts of data that are being gathered by technology firms like Alphabet, Amazon and Microsoft are mainly used to make AI programs smarter.

Computers have so much to learn from humans, which means they have to keep assimilating the fingerprints users leave on the Internet from their connected devices. Thus, within time, a computer would be able to do everything a human worker (blue or white collar) can, including even programming new software and writing fiction. We are facing a future where technology eliminates more jobs than it creates. Big businesses will stop employing thousands of people, and instead, be run by a highly talented few.

Countries will start to find that keeping the unemployment rate in single digit will be unrealistic. Anticipating this, some countries are already and earnestly considering a universal basic income, whereby every citizen receives a fixed amount of money, regardless of being employed or not. The idea of a basic income is not very new, but this is the first time it has ever been taken seriously by officials, at least by those in Western countries.

Nonetheless, universal pay may not be a solution to automation. It seems impractical even for countries like Sweden and Finland, which have very high Gross National Products (GNP) per capita.

How could it be financially sustainable?

Most other countries that have a large population (China, India and Indonesia), or are simply poor, cannot even afford basic forms of social securities.

Ethiopia – which is an underdeveloped country, with a booming population (a double whammy) – does not seem to concern itself very much with the problems automation is about to bring; probably because so many people are unemployed, to begin with. Nonetheless, as there are jobs, like accounting and many in manual labour, that are vulnerable to automation even in the short term, our politicians should start to pay attention. If we are not careful, we would have to rename May Day – Robot Day.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye is a writer at large whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling. He can be reached at   

Published on May 06,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 888]



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