Will robots free people from slavery?

Even if automation makes human trafficking economically inefficient, that alone won't end this unethical practice.

Will robots free people from slavery?
  • Robotic automation may one day make slavery economically inefficient, but automation does not spring forth fully formed.
  • An interim period of piecemeal coverage may leave many at-risk, low-skilled workers in danger of exploitation.
  • Nor can automation sate the political and social motives for slavery found in some societies.


An estimated 40.3 million people suffer today in slavery. Living a shadowed existence between lawful states, victims yield their captors $150 billion in illegal profits every year. This most wretched of facts is made even more haunting when you consider that 1 in 4 victims are children.

"We know that if there are 40 million people in modern slavery, only tens of thousands of victims are being helped, assisted and supported, whether through the criminal justices system or through victim support systems," Fiona David, Walk Free Foundation's executive director of global research, told CNN. "It's a massive gap that we have to close."

Thanks to the efforts of governments and NGOs, that gap is closing.

There are fewer slaves in the world today, per capita, than at any other point in history. Chattel slavery, the kind that lead to the Atlantic slave trade, was once a human universal. Today, it is abolished and morally condemned. Other forms of slavery, such as child labor and forced marriage, are in decline. And the United Nations has set a target to end modern slavery by 2025.

We are closer to ending this morally bankrupt practice than at any point in our history. Will the final push come in the form of robotic automation?

Robots to end slavery?

A map showing the estimated prevalence of modern slavery (per 1,000 people) according to the Global Slavery Index's 2018 findings. The 10 countries with the highest prevalence are noted.

(Photo: Global Slavery Index)

The idea is simple enough. Slavery is an economic crime. Its perpetrators lure desperate and disenfranchised peoples with the promise of a livelihood. They then force their victims to do repetitive, physically demanding, and often dangerous work while cutting them off from any physical, social, and lawful means of escape.

By design, machines perform repetitive tasks without concerns for the dangers or physical demands. In richer countries, they are already employed in industries associated with chattel slavery abroad, such as mining, farming, and textiles. As the thinking goes: if automation were to become widespread and cost effective enough, it would eradicate the need for cheap human labor and render slavery economically inefficient.

At End Slavery Now, Cazzie Reyes details how such a future might play out. Currently, China's factories are losing their traditional source of cheap labor as worker wages and education levels rise. To address this labor gap, the country purchased 56,000 robots in 2014 and plans to rapidly increase factory automation.

As this shift continues, low-skilled workers may "be moved from completing routine to more value-added tasks" or even new jobs in robot manufacturing.

Robots may also challenge another form of slavery: sexual exploitation. In the Netherlands alone about 4,000 people are coerced into the sex trade every year. Worldwide 4.8 million people are sexually exploited with no means of escape, the vast majority young women and children.

But brothels have emerged in Europe and Japan that provide companionship with realistic sex dolls. In the U.S., Houston almost became the first city to open a robot brothel, but its city council banned renting sex dolls in October of last year (though businesses can still sell them for home use).

In Love and Sex with Robots, A.I. researcher David Levy argues that such institutions can reduce prostitution rates. As the dolls become more lifelike, he sees the world's oldest profession going the way of match girls and lamp lighters.

Futurists Ian Yeoman and Michelle Mars divine a similar future in their paper "Robots, men, and sex tourism." By 2050, they write, Amsterdam's famed red-light district will be dominated by hyper-realistic sex androids. The androids would not only allow the sex industry to grow but also curb the spread of STIs and improve the government's ability to regulate human trafficking.

Sold down the river

Many manufacturing jobs, like this silk factory near Dalat, Vietnam, are at risk as automation enters the ASEAN-5 countries.

Photo credit: Francesco Paroni Sterbini / Flickr

As automation spreads into new territories and industries, it may make slavery less economically efficient in the long run. In the short term, however, slavery will remain expedient, and economic expedience, not efficiency, has been a main driver of slavery throughout history.

That's the future predicted by Verisk Maplecroft's "Human Rights Outlook 2018" report.

The report estimates that over the next two decades, 56 percent of workers in ASEAN-5 manufacturing industries will lose their jobs to automation. With few skills and fewer options, displaced workers can become targets of the exploitative practices that lead people into slavery and human trafficking.

The ASEAN-5 countries already rank high on the Modern Slavery Index, and the report forecasts further deterioration. It is estimated that Vietnam alone could see 36 million people seeking new jobs in the coming decades, creating ample opportunities for human traffickers.

"Displaced workers without the skills to adapt or the cushion of social security will have to compete for a diminishing supply of low-paid, low-skilled work in what will likely be an increasingly exploitative environment," Alexandra Channer, Verisk Maplecroft's human rights strategy lead, said in a release. "Without concrete measures from governments to adapt and educate future generations to function alongside machines, it could be a race to the bottom for many workers."

Similarly, the belief that robotic sex workers will significantly reduce demand for sexual exploitation, let alone drive it to zero, is hardly universal. Opponents argue that sexual exploitation is as much about degradation as sex, that humans will always prefer other humans, and that there are lines that robotic sex peddlers won't cross but human traffickers will (i.e., the exploitation of children).

"So we're not just having a conversation here about objects that people rub on their genitals. This is not what this is about," Kathleen Richardson, director of the Campaign Against Sex Robots, told Feminist Current. "[Sex robots are] piggybacking off on those real lived experiences of real human women being dehumanized by the commercial sex trade."

Social and political death

Nor is slavery only an economic crime. It has many social and political causes that automation cannot address.

For example, North Korea has instituted a system of state-sanctioned force labor. Its government has arrested tens of thousands of people, typically for crimes against the state, and sentenced to work in labor camps. These prisoners work dangerous, long hours in mines, factories, and logging camps and may even be exported to places like China and Russia, where they yield North Korean leaders between $1.2 and $2.3 billion dollars annually.

While automation may, one day, reduce demand for North Korea's macabre exports, it is unlikely the totalitarian regime would do away with this system in the name of economic efficiency.

That's because this form of slavery is as much political as it is profitable. It removes dissidents from political life and places them in a type of social purgatory. Citizens who are tired, hungry, weak, and enslaved in a strange land make for poor revolutionaries.

Additionally, our modern definition of slavery has expanded to practices beyond chattel slavery. It now includes any practice that reduces a person to the statues of property and deprives them of their right to choose, such as forced marriage. However, forced marriage is as much a social and cultural transaction as it is an economic one. In countries that value such institutions, no machine could replace that form of social control.

Will automation be part of the solution?

Truth is, we don't know. As Pauline Oosterhoff, research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, writes: "The fact is that we do not have a sure-fire way to eradicate slavery in the existing economy. We are not really sure what role previous rounds of automation have played in either eliminating or encouraging modern-day slavery, and we do not know what effects new developments in automation and artificial intelligence will have."

Automation may make reducing chattel slavery easier in some states, but it can't inoculate societies from the social and political ills that create opportunities for exploitation. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, contemporary abolitionists focus their efforts on these strategies:

Better law enforcement. Governments can better provide law enforcement with the tools to combat human trafficking and streamline the court processes and laws to make legal efforts more consistent and effective.

Transparent supply chains. Modern businesses have complex international supply chains that may intersect with slavery — some even argue it's impossible to make a smartphone that doesn't rely on child labor. In addition to transparency laws, abolitionist call for mandating supply chain investigations and making ethical sourcing a central business practice.

More comprehensive and widespread reporting. Reports that name governments, businesses, and individuals complicit in slavery help lessen demand as such public shaming leads to social opprobrium and economic consequences.

Public education. Exposing abuses to the public educates them on modern slavery practices. This can help at-risk communities from falling prey to exploitation, and move constituents to support funding rehabilitation and prevention programs.

Will these efforts close the slavery gap? It will be difficult, especially by 2025, but at no other point in history has the will and the means to do so existed in such abundance. And we have 40.3 million reasons to make sure we do.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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