I get up in the morning and decide what to do that day. There is no obligation, no hurry, no compulsion. Should I go to the beach, practice my golf swing or begin that novel that has been buzzing in my head. I don’t have to go to work, not today, not tomorrow not ever. This may be a vision of the not too distant future.
I read with interest the post Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford. In that piece, Martin suggests that supremely intelligent robots, capable of thinking and learning, will be able to do most tasks performed by humans today, putting many out of work. Is this desirable? This is an important question and we have heard it asked many times in our history with the advent of any new technology.
I am a fan of Star Trek, and any Star Trek fan knows Commander Data, the android. He is almost human. He can do most things a human can, much faster and more accurately, but has problems with simple human emotions like love, romance, humor or sarcasm. I imagine it is hard to write a computer program for love or humor. Imagine millions of Data programmed to do our bidding, performing them cheaply and unquestioningly.
But don’t we have a similar situation already called ‘outsourcing’ where manufacturing jobs are moved to other countries with cheap labor? Look around an average home. I bet eight out of ten appliances, clothes, shoes and electronics are made in Asia. There, armies of workers work like ‘robots’ in crowded, unsafe conditions for long hours with meager pay, producing goods cheaply for us to consume. Why would replacing a ‘human’ with a ‘robot drastically change the situation? It may actually be a change for the better, humans won’t have to work under such miserable conditions.
It could even be awesome! There would be no need to work. Mechanical slaves will do it for us without a salary, without agitating for better work conditions, without taking coffee or lunch breaks, and when they break down or become obsolete, we just replace with others. However, there will always be the need for intelligent, creative humans to design and build more advanced robots and write the computer programs that drive them. And able supervisors to run the ‘manager robots’ who in turn run the army of ‘worker robots’, very similar to what we see today in any large enterprise or factory. I sincerely doubt that robots can take over completely as we see in many movies. We have to smart enough to write the programs that prevent them from harming us.
Obviously, these are serious disruptive technologies that bring many questions in their wake.
- What do we do with all that free time? My response: Anything we want, improve ourselves, follow our passions, our hobbies. Once we do not need to grow our food, build our houses, have robots to cook, clean, pick up or take down, we will have plenty of time to laze at the beach, listen to music or read a good book. A revolutionary concept is ‘not having to work could be a blessing’. If you enjoy the work you are doing, fantastic. But most of us don’t, at least, not every hour of it and often fantasize or dream of doing something else. For them, the majority, the release from drudgery would be very welcome. Here is an interesting thought experiment. Most of us work for a salary. What if someone says ‘I will give you the salary you are making as long as you live, but you don’t have to work. Go enjoy yourself.’ Would we be elated with the paid time off or sad because we cannot work? I am willing to bet that most would take the paid time off.
- How do we improve ourselves? Let’s try to be better human beings by conquering our baser instincts. We see hate, bigotry and differences all around us and their manifestations; wars, migrations, pogroms, killings. These are sometimes driven by shortages; that of food, water, job opportunities and resources (e.g. oil, land). Often, these are driven by ethnic or religious differences, the root being ‘I am better than you’. Today, with the free movement and intermarriage of people all over the world, the rigid ethnic differences are breaking down and will hopefully disappear over time. With better education and economic wellbeing, mankind may realize the futility of such strife.
- Who pays for this transition? Since robots are inherently more efficient, productivity will increase, hence the GDP of nations. Some of that productivity could be tapped to help those adversely affected. This is not too far-fetched. Finland is planning on ‘a universal basic income experiment’ where it will be giving a fixed amount to its citizens in lieu of welfare. Hopefully, larger economies like the US, the Eurozone and perhaps even China and Japan could do better.
- Are there jobs or vocations that robots cannot perform? Definitely, those would be by definition, work requiring a human touch. Some examples are doctors, teachers, caregivers, personal trainers, massage therapists. Other examples are in entertainment, like music, acting and sports, or those that require creativity (something intangible for which we cannot write a computer program), e.g. writers, painters, composers.
In the not too distant future, robots and humans may be living in harmony. The robots, under our supervision will be growing crops, tending cattle, sewing clothes and manufacturing goods for our consumption. Humans will be free to pursue their passions and dreams. Robots are here to stay and will assist us in leading a better life.
Ranjan Mukherjee is a scientist and writer (http://www.ranjanmukherjee.com)
Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford