Robots taking our jobs will be the panacea for a desperate American workforce.
Automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning are the new idioms of today’s tech economy and also the fear of tomorrow’s. Worry that ‘robots’ will someday displace human labor continues with fervor, despite someday having already arrived years ago. Robotic welders and other programmable machines displaced unionized men performing predictable physical work decades ago in many industries; and Uber and Amazon have already begun replacing many more sophisticated human functions with robotic technology — be it warehouse picking and packing to order delivery and driverless taxis. It’s not just so-called blue collared work that is the target of job automation; knowledge work is equally, if not more so, in the crosshairs due to the higher labor cost — particularly data entry, data processing, and decision making — which in today’s digitized world is a significant portion of virtually every corporate job.
Yet while we fret our livelihoods being displaced by automation, in the long run artificial employees will be a good thing for society.
The rise of corporatism has roboticized many Americans into drones — salarymen as they are called in Japan and Korea. Look around, they are everywhere, you might even see one in the mirror. They spend the vast majority of their waking day indentured to their corporate employer, despite morbid consequences to their health and sanity. America’s infatuation with economic growth in the form of the pressure to continuously increase corporate profits has resulted in two detrimental effects on our society: the constant call to consume and the corresponding relentless pressure to work in order to pay for this consumption. This is evident in the ever-upward slope that is time spent working — despite, ironically, being constantly peddled new gadgets and services that promise to make our lives easier and more efficient. It’s a deep-seated hoax that has begun to reveal itself on the surface of America — depression, addiction, obesity, intolerance and violence are the ugly symptoms of desperation and diseases of excess. Many Americans see no way out of this vicious cycle of work, consumption and debt.
The problem is only made worse by the viral-like growth curve of online commerce,and constant connectivity, for they have deleted the line between when consumerism is “on” and when it is “off”. It is never off. We are constantly and incessantly prodded to consume, and as a result many Americans are always working to stay at pace with their debt load. Even when we are not consuming we are generating and giving away personal data to companies who aggregate and analyze it to find ways to sell you something the next time you look at a screen.
In effect, we are consuming ourselves.
But in the not too distant future technology and corporatism are likely converge into a solution that may be our saving grace. The future is likely to look like this: continued advancements in automation and artificial intelligence will result in companies, particularly large and mid-sized ones, implementing more efficient systems to handle everything except key decision making and business-to-business human interactions — networking or schmoozing as it were. While their motivation will be solely to increase profits by reducing the hard and soft costs of human employees, the end result is likely to benefit society as displaced individuals are forced to awaken and realize their only option is to pursue what really matters to them.
For instance, and much of this is already happening, computerized systems are replacing entire occupations and functions — for instance, IT and HR in companies may all be distilled down to a combination of several external companies providing centralized service while the client company relies on minimal in-house staff augmented by software and other data-analyzing methods to manage, for instance, employee recruitment, hiring, benefits and payroll.
But consider a broader example. Most corporate work today, regardless of actual functional title or duty, consists of entering and processing computerized information. Email and text communications, for instance, makes up several hours of the work-day. Most companies still utilize spreadsheets, word-processors and other comparatively archaic tools to capture, analyze and transmit information amongst individuals. Technologies are surely to be developed that eliminate this human-machine interaction — an ‘artificially intelligent’ version of you (or more appropriately, your job function) can determine which emails require a certain response (think of the standard vacation reply but with the ability to find the requested file or respond with the requested information) and system-to-system interfaces will source and parse the data directly without needing you as a middle-man or woman to type it into something human readable, only for your manager to key a decision back into some other system. In the not-so-distant tomorrow everything you do on a laptop or smartphone in the workplace will gradually be diminished by truly “smart” machines.
But what then will humans do?
The obvious and well precedented example is even those new technologies will create the need for new human jobs. But theoretically the net total human jobs should become less and less as the technologies become more efficient and displacing across industries.
However there will always remain a large number of occupations that are solely dependent on the synthetically unreplicable human characteristic set of intelligence, creativity, adaptability and compassion. Healthcare, social services, education, arts and entertainment, for instance, are unlikely to ever be fully encroached upon by automation. Trade work as well will remain in demand (and become more respected), and we are likely to see a resurgence back to craft and artisan goods and more localized food establishments as big chains move towards depersonalized automation of back and front of house functions.
While in contrast to today’s corporate lifestyles of big paychecks, long commutes, and hefty suburban mortgages, the new human future operates on a different paradigm: less consumption but a significantly happier society; one in which people pursue more humanistic and personally meaningful careers and occupations. It perhaps comes as no surprise that while the aforementioned jobs don’t come with fancy titles, annual bonuses and merit increases, they do come with high amounts of satisfaction and contentment. Moreover, they come with the most sought after benefit of all — time to live a life worth living. As American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau said:
“the cost of anything is the amount of life you give up for it”
— and we have been giving up a lot of our lives in the pursuit of work. Some are giving up all of life itself. Robots will end up saving us.