How to Know Robots Will Take Your Jobs
In the ’80s we fantasized about the robots coming for our lives. Sentient futureware hurtled through time to kill the most important of us and cement their cold mechanical future.
In the ’90s we fantasized about the robots coming for our minds. Post-apocalyptic Hugo Weaving using internet virtual reality to keep us in a ’90s mental state to feed off our body heat and creativity.
In the 21st century we’ve fantasized about the robots coming for our sexuality: conversational, sensual machines with whom we could fall in love and never live without…. ever.
Whether robots kill us, enslave us, or get us pregnant and skip out on child support may be up for debate, but in the meantime, robots will continue to do exactly what they’re designed to do. They will take our jobs. As surely as the steam powered hammer drove folk hero John Henry to karoshi (Japanese word literally meaning “death from overwork.”), so too will the robots come and replace us all eventually. As it happened in the Industrial Revolution, we will need something to get done efficiently and precisely, and smart people will use their non-robot brains to create better and better mechanical brains and bodies that can do that work without all the icky human error. These robots will get smarter and stronger; their judgement better and better until even those of us in historically futureproof fields feel the sweet embrace of obsolescence.
That’s Why We Have Robots
Every time you use the automated check out at the grocery store, get cash from an ATM, or solve a customer service problem without demanding to speak to a human being, you are helping put another American out of a job. That is what machines are designed to do: make tedious tasks more possible, more bearable or unnecessary. In a way, creating something to replace ourselves is the most natural thing humanity does. It was a matter of time before we did this with machines rather than tiny grubby humans.
In Robotic Nation, Marshall Brain (which sounds like a name a robot would choose to sound human…) unleashed the following idea:
“…we are about to see a seismic shift in the American workforce. As a nation, we have no way to understand or handle the level of unemployment that we will see in our economy over the next several decades.”
Mr. Brain was then kind enough to project a step by step dramatization of technological development, widespread adaptation, and the reaction of our corporate overlords to cast off as much human dead weight to keep the costs of doing business as low as possible. “By “2055 robots had taken over the workplace and there was no turning back.”
It may seem impossible at first blush, but we barely had planes 100 years ago, didn’t have calculators 50 years ago, and didn’t have iPhones 10 years ago. In fact, if I don’t have my own personal Baymax nurse a la Big Hero Six when I’m 83, I will pretty much consider humanity’s 300,000 year history a complete and utter failure.
The Myth of the Future Proof
We’re already running out of jobs to give people. In 2013, business writer and “most honest person in America next to Kanye West” James Altucher wrote an article titled “Why 2013 Will Be The Year You Quit Your Job” as a personal favor to mankind. In it, he put forth the idea that The Great Recession of 2008 was more of a Great Culling as CEOs were able to use the economic downturn as cover to “fire all that dead weight” their companies had accumulated up to that point. In common vernacular, we call this the “hollowing out of the middle class” or “why people suddenly care about minimum wage.” All those middle class people working white collar jobs just weren’t needed anymore due to robots, networking, hatred, and old fashioned greed. Corporations could get rid of salaried employees along with their expensive retirement plans and benefits, and instead hire temps, outsource, or just do without anyone they couldn’t replace with robotic support.
McDonald’s recently launched kiosks for taking orders (and avoiding any minimum wage increase), but how much longer will they wait before having robots making burgers too? Based on what you know of Walmart, how long do you think they will wait before replacing their entire stocking team with robots? Recently, MIT unveiled a 4 legged robot that can jump over oncoming obstacles (I call it Cheetara 9000 because it’s so leggy… rawr). It shouldn’t be much longer before a crew of robots can do an overnight stocking job. Maybe even less time before Cheetara 9000 is chasing down perps.
Not Just Blue-Collar Jobs
It is far too easy to look at robots as a problem for “teenager jobs” or blue collar work. We have to remember that the robot brain gets bigger and faster while the human brain stays about the same but crammed with obsolete lessons. We are on the verge of self driving cars, Jeopardy-winning virtual intelligences that can simulate real human conversation, apps that can write articles, scripts, and songs (gulp). So what would be the point of hiring anyone that can do those jobs more slowly and inefficiently? Moreover, thanks to the power of the global internet, what would be the point of hiring locally for work that can be done remotely at a cheaper price. Doctors are already taking patients online. You think you’re safe because you’re a pillar of the community? If people can get it cheaper elsewhere, they will. The world is getting smaller every day.
Rise of the Machines
In the 50s, there was an idea that technology would lead to better lives for humans. Shorter work weeks, more leisure time, and more meaningful work were all part of the dream of automation and futurization. However, instead of an egalitarian approach, we have opted to have people working more hours than ever for less pay, a widening income gap, unchecked executive pay raises, and an unsympathetic culture that would rather point a finger than extend a hand.
Laissez-Faire Will Doom Us
Rather than deal with the issue of there being less work despite continued growth and productivity, rather than overhauling or replacing what no longer works, we are content to focus on forcing an an antiquated system to work harder and dumber. This isn’t totally nonsensical; much like with matters of race and class, the people on top who have figured out how to exploit the system for their own benefit have little incentive to change it. Also, in the past things would often seem to work themselves out. Technology would come in, blue collar workers would get laid off, but then they could get jobs making the machines that replaced them, or get an education and do “better” work than they were doing before, or just migrate to a different area where the work they do was still needed. The invisible hand of the market would carry us all to better opportunities, provided we played along with the Industrial Age system, and weren’t too minority or female of course.
Your Job Too
Unfortunately, this time the robots will be making all of the the robots. They will be a subspecies unto themselves. “Homo Roboticus.” Robots to do the work wealthy humans don’t want to pay people to do and can’t outsource. Companies that don’t get robots of their own will continued to be swallowed up by larger companies that did innovate. With service jobs being the bulk of the U.S. economy, what will happen when robots are easier and cheaper to employ than wayward millennials or ex-white collar employees. What will our truckers, Uber drivers, and wait staff do next? What will all the nurses do when that sweet personal Baymax comes out? What will teachers do when the best education is given online whenever the student wants to learn?
My biggest fear is that we will do what we always do. We will double down on a system that believes that as long as people are working legally, they have an inherent value to society. That we will continue to invent jobs for people to do and call it progress. That rather create avenues for people to be much more effective and valuable in their best ways, we will force them to compete with robots until millions are making so little they’ll be shunted off to more low income communities to keep them busy and out of the way and spending money in an economy that does not serve them. I am afraid we will continue to believe that long as people are working, everything else is someone else’s problem.
We will continue to spend billions for public schools that teach kids how to be obedient rather than creative, hold back rather than stand out, and sit still long enough to do quality factory or managerial work. Then, once they get out of school, there will be no jobs for them because the robots, applications, and 3D printers took them all. Then we will look at those kids and say that their failure to be “productive members of society” is both their fault AND someone else problem. Just look at the the backlash millennials are getting these days.
A Better Approach
Rather than making people busy doing work that doesn’t matter, perhaps we should be more focused on giving everyone the tools and the chance to be useful to society in more ways than a vessel of consumption. Recently, in Cracked Podcast #74, Co-Host David Wong poses the idea that the reason humanity has enjoyed such an explosion in technology, comfort and productivity is because there are fewer of the arbitrary barriers of race, class, gender, etc keeping people out of fields they might be geniuses in. We enjoy a world where people of all stripes have the ability to pursue passions with reckless abandon; a world where technology has given us the ability to take ivy league courses for free, connect with like minded people from our bedrooms, and be an artist of any level with a laptop and an imagination. Soon, that technology will give us the ability to eradicate the classical notion of “work”… because the robots are going to take all of our jobs. And rather than deal with that inevitability, we’re fighting about increasing minimum wage for jobs that won’t be there in less than 10 years.
So what do we do? Maybe the the hope for humanity in the upcoming Productivity Wars won’t be some great military mind inside of the body of a chiseled white male savior with perfect stubble and Channing Tatum abs. I believe human salvation will require compassion and nurturing innovation, doing what it takes to free people up to be their magnificent selves rather than punishing them for not being homogeneous. It will require spreading the wealth, trusting each other, and focusing on making life better for everyone instead of just the owners. It will need a post capitalist society that cares for its citizens as much as it rewards hard work and innovation. Luckily, as the robots continue to take our jobs, we’ll all have lots more invested in ideas like basic income, housing the homeless, and providing worthwhile opportunities to people who can’t find traditional work anymore.
If not, then I’ll see you at the bread line in the dystopian future. Long live our robot overlords!