If Robots Take Our Jobs, Do People Still Need to Work?

Robots are coming for (some of) our jobs. The question is, how many of our jobs can we expect to lose to automation, how soon will it happen – and most importantly, what will happen to us, the humble humans who are used to trading labor for cash, and cash for the things we need to survive?

robots are coming

(Photo Credit: CJ Isherwood/Flickr)

One Oxford study found that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk for being replaced by automation. Some fields are more susceptible than others, of course: researchers said that “wages and educational attainment exhibit a strong negative relationship with an occupation’s probability of computerisation”; in other words, the more training you need to do a job, and the more money you earn from it, the less likely you are to see yourself replaced by machines.

But, that doesn’t mean that all skilled occupations are immune to the threat. At The Guardian, Michael Belfiore points out that robotic surgeons, albeit ones that still require human supervision, now exist, as do pilotless aircraft (a.k.a. drones).

robot quote from gerald huff

(Photo Credit: JD Hancock/Flickr)

When Will Robots Replace Us?

Short answer: not yet. For every scary story about investment in industrial robots growing a potential 10 percent a year, there’s another about how creative, nonlinear jobs – or ones that rely on human interaction, like many healthcare roles – are still pretty hard to automate.

Then there’s the DARPA Robotics Challenge, an event run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which showed that while robots are scary-advanced, they’re maybe not quite at human replacement levels yet.

Of the “deadly” looking Atlas, the hardware platform created by Boston Dynamics, Belfiore writes:

“Atlas certainly resembled the deadly Terminator more than the affable C3PO. Stripped of flesh and standing implacable in all its nude hydraulic glory, it was a study in black plastic and chrome. …But for all its apparent capacity for work and even mayhem, it was a baby, barely aware of the world and how to move about within it. I watched as an Atlas belonging to one of the teams stared in apparent perplexity at a door handle. With its slightly stooped posture and seemingly stunned inaction, the robot looked like nothing so much as a dunce made to stand in a corner for not learning its lessons properly.”

Don’t Be Fooled: Automation Is Coming

A few months ago, in London, an Intelligence Squared Debate examined the issue of whether or not will take our jobs. Called Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: The Robots Are Coming and They Will Destroy Our Livelihoods, the debate pitted internet entrepreneur Andrew Keen and independent economist George Magnus on the pro side against Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson and H Robotics co-founder Dr. Pippa Malmgren on the con.

Isaacson, in his prepared statement, summarized the “don’t worry” argument thusly:

“Technology can indeed be disruptive. It can disrupt certain jobs, as Mr. Keene has said, but it always has, and I submit always will produce more jobs, because it produces more wealth, more personal income, more per capita wealth, and thus, more things that we can make and buy.”

Sounds good, right? Here’s a rebuttal from Gerald Huff, principal software engineer at Tesla Motors, writing at Medium.

“When Isaacson says ‘it always has, and I submit always will produce more jobs, because it produces … more things that we can make and buy’ he is falling into the Labor Content Fallacy,” Huff writes. “Without repeating the entire argument in the linked article, there is no law of economics that says a product or service must require human labor. …In the coming decades, for the first time in history, we will be able to ‘make and buy’ a huge variety of goods and services without the need to employ people. The historical correlation between more human jobs due to increased demand for goods and services from a rising population will be broken.”

That’s true, Huff argues, even for creative jobs, since computers, unburdened by assumptions or perspective or conventional wisdom, can truly think (or at least, “think“) out of the box.

The End of Employment

Before you throw out all your business casual and start prepping for the zombie apocalypse, however, maybe it’s time to start thinking creatively ourselves, before our robotic brethren beat us to it.

“…I don’t believe we need to be afraid,” Huff writes. “I think this technological progress can be an amazing achievement for humanity, if we adjust our mindset appropriately. With machines doing most of the work we will need a new social contract, new mechanisms like a basic income guarantee, and new conceptions of a meaningful life.”

Perhaps we should think about how to build a society without jobs as we know them right now. It could be time for a truly brave new world – one in which robots liberate us from having to work, instead of stealing our means of survival.

Tell Us What You Think

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