Gradually computers are taking over many of our tasks. With the usage of digital tools and trained robots, humans have less to do as days go by.
The robots haven’t just landed in the workplace—they’re expanding skills, moving up the corporate ladder, showing awesome productivity and retention rates, and increasingly shoving aside their human counterparts. One multi-tasker bot, from Momentum Machines, can make (and flip) a gourmet hamburger in 10 seconds and could soon replace an entire McDonalds crew. A manufacturing device from Universal Robots doesn’t just solder, paint, screw, glue, and grasp—it builds new parts for itself on the fly when they wear out or bust. And just this week, Google won a patent to start building worker robots with personalities.
As intelligent machines begin their march on labor and become more sophisticated and specialized than first-generation cousins like Roomba or Siri, they have an outspoken champion in their corner: author and entrepreneur Martin Ford. In his new book, Rise of the Robots, he argues that AI and robotics will soon overhaul our economy.
Robots have loomed over the future of labor for decades—at least since robotic arms started replacing auto workers on the assembly line in the early 1960s. Optimists say that more robots will lead to greater productivity and economic growth, while pessimists complain that huge swaths of the labor force will see their employment options automated out of existence.
Each has a point, but there’s another way to look at this seemingly inevitable trend. What if both are right? As robots start doing more and more of the work humans used to do, and doing it so much more efficiently than we ever did, what if the need for jobs disappears altogether? What if the robots end up producing more than enough of everything that everyone needs?
The redefinition of work itself is one of the most intriguing possibilities imagined in a recent Pew Research report on the future of robots and jobs. Certainly, the prospect of a robot-powered, post-scarcity future of mandatory mass leisure feels like a far-off scenario, and an edge case even then. In the present, ensuring that everyone has enough often seems harder for humans to accomplish than producing enough in the first place. But assuming a future that looks more like Star Trek than Blade Runner, a lot of people could end up with a lot more time on their hands. In that case, robots won’t just be taking our jobs; they’ll be forcing us to confront a major existential dilemma: if we didn’t have to work anymore, what would we do?
The answer is both a quantitative and qualitative exercise in defining what makes human intelligence distinct from the artificial kind, a definition that seems to keep getting narrower. And in the end, we might figure out that a job-free roboticized future is even scarier than it sounds.
One prevailing answer kind of dodges the question, but it also seems like one of the most plausible outcomes. Maybe many jobs can’t be automated in the first place. Several respondents canvassed by Pew believe that the need for human labor will persist because so many of our basic human qualities are hard to code. “Truth be told, computers are not very smart. All they are is giant calculators,” game designer and author Celia Pearce told Pew. “They can do things that require logic, but logic is only one part of the human mind.”
Humans will continue to be useful workers; the argument goes, because of things like empathy, creativity, judgment, and critical thinking. Consider the all-too-common experience of calling customer service reps whose employers force them to follow a script—a kind of pseudo-automation. When made to follow a decision tree the way a computer would, all four of those qualities are sucked out of the interaction—no opportunity to exercise creativity, empathy, judgment, or critical thinking—and the service provided tends to stink.
The advances happening in technology continues to rise and it’s becoming evident that computers, machines, robots, and algorithms are going to be able to do most of the routine, repetitive types of jobs. That’s the essence of what machine learning is all about. What types of jobs are on some level fundamentally predictable? A lot of different skill levels fall into that category. It’s not just about lower-skilled jobs either. People with college degrees, even professional degrees, and people like lawyers are doing things that ultimately are predictable. A lot of those jobs are going to be susceptible over time.
The idea that robots could make employment itself optional may sound fantastic. No more work! But the end result could be more, not less angst. We’d still have to find our place among the robots, except this time without work as a guidepost for defining a sense of purpose. By eliminating the need for people to work, robots would free us up to focus on what really makes us human. The scariest possibility of all is that only then do we figure out what really makes us human is work.