Speech to the Global Business of Artificial Intelligence & Robotics Class at the Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

22nd February, 2017



Hello everyone – it is a great honour to be here amongst you all.

Our worlds are very different, I think it is fair to say. The contrast between politics and robotics is nothing if not striking.


But the two worlds do overlap. Because what you study here- artificial intelligence, robotics, the pinnacle of technological development – has profound implications for what I do in my country- public policy, the delivery of public services, ensuring that our economy is competitive and our society is working well.


And that’s what I want to talk to you about today.




I would like to start off by saying what many people outside the world of technology say quite a bit- that the pace of technological change becomes more and more incredible.


You will no doubt be aware that, as Erik Brynjofsson and Andrew McAfee said a couple of years ago in their excellent book The Second Machine Age  “of the 3.5 trillion photos that have been snapped since the first image of a busy Parisien street in 1838, fully ten per cent of them were taken in the last year”.


The authors also draw a comparison between the Cray-2 super computer, which was the fastest machine in the world when it was introduced in 1985, and the iPad- ubiquitous in developed societies some 30 years later.


They point out that Cray-2 cost, in today’s money, $35 million and was, by comparison with the iPad, “deaf, dumb, blind and immobile”.


These changes represent huge advancements by humankind, but technological progress has real world implications for politicians like me.


I recently read an article about technological development and automation in China, by your own Will Knight.


He points out that automation has the potential to turn China from “the world’s sweatshop” into a hub of high-tech innovation.


Think about that for a moment.


And think about what it would mean for the 100 million Chinese factory workers.


Knight points out that in 1990 China accounted for just 3 per cent of global manufacturing output.

Today, four out of five air conditioners are made there, as well as nearly three quarters of mobile phones and nearly two thirds of the world’s shoes. 


When it comes to automation, at the moment, China has only 36 robots for every 100,000 workers, compared to 164 here in the United States and 315 in Japan.


The stated aim of the Chinese government is to overtake Japan in this area by 2049- the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.


But what of the people in the Republic?


The arrival of “dark factories”, with no need for human workers, offers huge opportunities but poses big questions too.




One of the key questions we, as politicians, are asked is how to share the benefits of increased prosperity.


This is quite a difficult concept, as often efforts to share prosperity result in a reduction in the total amount of prosperity to share.


For example, I believe we should tax better-off people more, so that we can redistribute wealth to those on lower incomes, and so that we can invest in services that poorer people otherwise could not afford.


But it is my job to ensure that it is done in a way that encourages the creation of wealth- set the taxes at too high a rate, people are discouraged from creating wealth and the Government ends up with less money to spend on socially beneficial programmes.


So it is with technological advancement as well.


You will be familiar with the concept of “bounty”- that is the greater choice, the lower cost and the increased quality of offerings that new technology has given us.


But you may also be familiar with the phenomenon known as “spread”- that is how this increased bounty has led to wider and wider gaps between, say those of us who are highly educated and those of who are not, between those of us in high-skilled jobs and those of us who are not, between those of us who have a job at all and those of who have not.


Technology is the primary driver of both these things- the bounty and the spread.


I go back to my point about Chinese factory workers.


The bounty brought on by automation and dark factories will undoubtedly be of benefit to American or Irish or Japanese mobile phone consumers.


But the spread will, almost certainly, have a negative outcome for some of those who today are working on those assembly lines.


Now, of course, one could argue, and many do, that ultimately technological development helps everyone- that technology means those same Chinese factory workers will avail of everything from cheaper consumer goods to better treatment in hospital.


Many also argue that since the Industrial Revolution, doom mongers have predicted that machines will replace human workers, resulting in mass idleness at a level that we cannot even imagine.


Since the Luddites first destroyed cotton mills, it was so.


And yet, unemployment levels have ebbed and flowed more as a consequence of the economic cycle than ongoing technological advances.


Nevertheless, we are faced with human consequences of robotic development that those of us in the policy making sphere must grapple with.




Similar, linked questions are raised about the role robotics, AI and technology have in the interplay between labour and capital.


Karl Marx, not someone I usually derive much inspiration from, was of the view that the economic system, in which we live, saw capital exploit labour to greatest degree possible in order to accumulate the greatest possible gain.


Over the last century, most politicians, be they of the left or right, have accepted this to some degree and have legislated to curb the worst excesses of a completely free market- that is why we have laws around workers’ rights, health and safety, the minimum wage and so on.


What, however, should be our response if the huge benefits of robotic technology mean that instead of using labour, private companies and indeed governments, can simply dispense with labour?


What is the policy response to the growing evidence that the share of national income generated by stock market returns on shares outweighs that share of national income from wages?


And is this even a phenomenon that will continue?


Byrnjolfsson and McAfee, again, say that “economic theory does not necessarily predict this will continue” because as the marginal cost of producing an extra computer chip, an extra Spotify track or an extra cell phone falls, the marginal value of capital will fall even though more of it is used.


Interesting stuff.


These debates, though, may seem a little ethereal if you are one of the 7,000 cab drivers in Boston who could, potentially, all be replaced by self-driving cars in the not-too-distant future.


Or a courier on the streets of my own city of Dublin, who looks at drone technology, and wonders.


Or if you are the last human worker to turn the lights off in a dark factory in China.




I am conscious, though, that I am posing more questions than answers. I do so because I don’t have all the answers- it is part of the reason I am here this week.


To learn.


But Brynjolfsson and McAfee have some ideas.


One of them is to invest in education and “teach our children well”. They advocate using technology in our schools that could revolutionise how children learn; where the school system uses devises to transmit the best classes from the best teachers to everyone, regardless of where they live.


Another idea is to more aggressively promote a start-up culture.


Not because, as they say, we think everyone should set up their own company and be their own boss, but because entrepreneurs bring new ideas and as we automate old ways of doing things, we need new ideas to spawn new industries and create new and better jobs.  


We need to invest in infrastructure too. This is a lesson that Ireland learned in the last twenty years, where we saw our economic development, which has been spectacular, enabled by investment in roads, public transport and all the other building blocks of a modern economy.


That investment attracted high tech-industries involved in everything from pharmaceuticals to software to locate and invest, replacing the old manual jobs that had left or were leaving with newer, more highly skilled employment.


Another idea that I am interested in exploring is that of a basic income where the State undertakes to provide a buffer against the effects of periods of unemployment in a more flexible, gig economy, automated world.




So, these are the kind of policy tools that may be needed to respond to the potential downsides of what are, without a shadow of doubt, the hugely positive developments in robotics and AI that can enhance all of our futures.


And just as I hope that my visit will help me understand more about what you do, I hope my comments today give you some insight into the impact of your work on what I do.


The quote: “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success” is often misattributed to Henry Ford, but it does ring true here.


Too often politics ignores science, and science returns the favour.


For a bright future with dark factories, let us work in unison.