The well spoken couple were discussing the topic that has become our national obsession: immigration. In particular, they were dragging out that tired old rubbish about “them” coming over here and taking “our” jobs.
This dreary recital of imagined wrongs was taking place in the checkout queue at a well known high-street store. The self-service checkout queue.
Now, I’m sure operating a supermarket till must be one of the most tedious jobs going. But it is a job. Or at least it was. On that particular day in that particular store there was one till operated by a human being and five or six automated checkouts with a computerised voice thanking you for shopping at…
Had their brains not been similarly automated, the anti-immigrant ranters in front of me might have noticed the obvious. That the people who used to run those tills hadn’t had their jobs taken by immigrants – they’d been taken by technology.
Well, you can’t stop the march of progress, you know. And in some ways it’s good not to.
I’m not sorry that children aren’t still being sent down mines and up chimneys, or that cities like Liverpool and Bristol aren’t still thriving on the slave trade. (Although child labour and slavery are still rife in some parts of the world, but that’s another story.)
But there are better and worse ways of managing change, and I’m afraid we’re not managing it very well at all just now.
It’s over 30 years since I was out on strike in a dispute over what was then called new technology in the newspaper business. The kind of jobs we were trying to preserve then are now history.
It’s more than twice that long since my parents were involved in a Labour Party working group looking forward to an era of greater automation. The optimistic post-war idea was that with less work to do, everyone would have more leisure time to enjoy.
The danger was always that what work there was would be unequally shared out. That some people would be overworked, while others had no work at all. Which is, of course, exactly what came about.
And not, I think, by chance or mistake. It suits the entrepreneur capitalist class to have a large pool of unemployed labour available, to keep down the wages of those in work.
That is why the captains of industry tend to be in favour of immigration. Though I’m sure in some cases kind-heartedness, human decency and the honest enjoyment of cultural exchange come into it too.
But the question that inspired Mum and Dad in the 1940s, and vexed us in the ’80s, remains at least as vital today. How should society manage a world in which more and more jobs are taken over by machines?
Bill Gates, who became the world’s richest person by owning of one of the companies responsible – Microsoft – has an idea about this. On the face of it, it’s not a bad idea, either.
He suggests that the robots which take over people’s jobs (presumably including self-service checkouts) should be taxed like human workers.
“Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things,” Gates said in a recent interview. “If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”
I assume he means the robot’s owners – unless he’s contemplating a higher level of artificial intelligence than is out there yet.
Elon Musk, the high-tech guru and forward-thinking boss of the car and alternative energy company Tesla, has a different solution to the problem. “With automation, there will come abundance,” Musk says. “Almost everything will get very cheap. There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better.”
And that, he believes, means people will have to be given a univeral basic income. Not – as at present – given benefits as long as they are “looking for work”, but paid not to work. It’s a crucial difference.
As Musk points out, there is a psychological cost too. “If there’s no need for your labor, what’s your meaning?” he asks. “Do you feel useless? That’s a much harder problem to deal with.”
I wouldn’t put money on America being among the first to deal properly with either the psychological or the economic problem, even though Musk has been named as a special advisor to President Trump. And I can’t imagine Britain being in the vanguard either. Meanwhile I’ll go on using the staffed till while I can.