Islam & Robots: Will The Islamic Political Structure Stop Automation?

Malik Datardina

Question: “The question remains.. will the Islamic political structure stop automation or robotics from happening? Is it not allowed for me to have a fully automated restaurant. If it is not allowed then it means Islam hinders progress. And if it is allowed.. the it means.. we will have the job crises again.“

The answer to the question is: No, the Islamic State will enable automation and potentially an economy where most of the work is done by robots. In fact, some accredit a scientist who lived under Islamic rule, Ismail Al-Jazari, to be the father of robotics. So automation was something that did occur in Islam. However, what is more important the science is economic system. Why? Because it will enable the benefits of this automation to be reaped by the whole society as the ruler is responsible to ensure that the wealth is circulating in society.

There are two things we need to break down: Firstly, who wins the benefits that automation brings? And secondly what happens to the workers who are displaced by automation?

For the first question, we can look at Domino’s Pizza as an example. In 2017, they had 392 corporate owned restaurants and 5,195 stores that were franchised. Under Capitalism, Domino’s is likely the one that can invest in the R&D necessary to develop the automation required. Alternatively, they can use their connections with the public sector to procure the automation, then patent it and then monopolize the benefit of such innovation. If they found this automation to be profitable enough, they could eliminate the franchise model and repossess all the 5000+ franchised stores for themselves, thereby preventing the owners of the franchise stores to benefit from the automation. (Don’t underestimate their insatiable desire for profits. According to the Wall Street Journal, Domino’s was “us[ing] a payroll software system that undercalculated gross wages and failed to fix it when problems were brought to their attention.” So, if they would shortchange the workers, why wouldn’t they do the same with the franchisees?) What this means is that the rewards of such automation will be reaped by the 1%, i.e. the shareholders of Domino’s. In Islam, there would be no corporate stores, and so all the 5,587 stores would be owned by individuals or partnerships. Consequently, any gains of the automation would flow to the 6,000 partnerships instead of just the relatively few shareholders.

To answer the second questions, let’s say these restaurants can be fully automated and 90% (or 279,000) of its workers are fired. In this scenario, someone must supply services to the 6,000 automated stores, i.e. implementing the robots, servicing their parts, patching the operating system, updating the operating, etc. Under Capitalism, Domino’s itself would supply the services as they have a massive supply chain (which “accounted for $1.74 billion, or nearly 63% of our consolidated revenues”).

In Islam, these services would be supplied by other partnerships. And these partnerships would be able to access the so-called intellectual property for free; as there are no copyrights in Islam. (Essentially, the university or military that does the underlying research/innovation would distribute the know-how, and this in turn, would be used by the private sector for building and delivering the necessary machines and programs to automate the stores).

Who would form such partnerships?

Perhaps, the State could train the workers that were let go and fill the need. So, let’s say this would address 100,000 of those people, what would happen to the remaining 179,000? The state would need to intervene and find these workers either new work or help them start their own business ; as RasulAllah (saw) did with the Ansari, noted in the hadith below. The excerpt below is taken from the post I did on the minimum wage, so please refer to that for the full context.

WHO PROTECTS THE POOR?

In Islam, it is ultimately the State that is responsible to ensure that employees have their rights met. Also, all citizens (based on the hadith above) have the right to ask the State for the basic needs.

The State, however, doesn’t necessarily have to give  hand outs.

In the following narration Prophet Muhammad (saw) helped a man to start his own business:

“A man of the Ansar came to the Prophet  (saw) and begged from him. He (the Prophet) asked: Have you nothing in your house? He replied: Yes, a piece of cloth, a part of which we wear and a part of which we spread (on the ground), and a wooden bowl from which we drink water. He said: Bring them to me. He then brought these articles to him and he (the Prophet) took them in his hands and asked: Who will buy these? A man said: I shall buy them for one Dirham. He said twice or thrice: Who will offer more than one Dirham? A man said: I shall buy them for two Dirhams. He gave these to him and took the two Dirhams and, giving them to the Ansari, he said: Buy food with one of them and hand it to your family, and buy an axe and bring it to me. He then brought it to him. The Messenger of Allah (saw) fixed a handle on it with his own hands and said: Go, gather firewood and sell it, and do not let me see you for a fortnight. The man went away and gathered firewood and sold it. When he had earned ten Dirhams, he came to him and bought a garment with some of them and food with the others. The Messenger of Allah (saw) then said: This is better for you than that begging should come as a spot on your face on the Day of Judgment. Begging is right only for three people: one who is in grinding poverty, one who is seriously in debt, or one who is responsible for compensation and finds it difficult to pay.”

This is a good illustration of how Islam encourages entrepreneurship as a means to alleviate poverty. Prophet Muhammad (saw), who is the head of State, worked collaboratively to help the Ansari in the following ways:

  • Raise capital: through the sale of his assets, he got both seed capital to invest in his business as well providing the income he needed.
  • Assist the business:  Prophet (saw) assisted by fixing the axe so it could be used for cutting wood. In today’s context the State could invest or find other ways to help the business operate.
  • Assist with strategic/business planning: Prophet (saw) effectively gave the Ansari a business plan to execute, i.e. selling the wood.  Keep in mind that consulting companies make billions doing this type of work today.                                                                                                        (Source: http://www.freshonomics.org/20policies/)

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