The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet. – William Gibson
I was glued to the telly during the Channel 4 series Humans which is set in our present day but with a fictional history of robotics. In this alternate present, robots, who are known commonly as synths, have advanced to the point that they look, walk and talk like humans.
However, they have replaced many humans in the workforce causing high unemployment, protests, and rioting. (They have their own twitter hashtag #WAP – We are people). Smart and computer-savvy teenager Matilda rebels at school because if the synths do all the jobs what is the point of her working hard to try and get one?
But, it is not all bad, synths do all the chores around the house. How fabulous is that? Looking on the tie-in Persona Synthetics website, I could get Sally the synth to do childcare, cooking, and personal training.
What a shame household-synths are just fiction, even hoovering robots, which do exist and look very cool, wouldn’t do much to alleviate the repetitive household tasks of cooking and cleaning. Alas, I just don’t see a robot coming onto the marketplace anytime soon to keep my home running efficiently. Nor, do I see them taking over the world and turning me into a battery.
Derek Thompson in Atlantic magazine is not so sure. He thinks it won’t be long before technological advances have made such an impact on our society that there are no jobs for people.
In his article A world without work, he says that robots are everywhere: Operating theatres, fast-food counters, checkout screens, and in the sky flying as drones. Currently in the US, manufacturing is on a cyclical upturn so we can’t really see where else robots may be stealing jobs until recession hits, which is when employers turn to technology to cut costs. The effects of replacing humans may not be seen until the next recession, or the recession after that. But in the meantime Thompson says Airbnb has cut hotel jobs and Google’s self drive car threatens the most common American job of all – driving.
As humans, we adapt very quickly. Ask yourself: Would I trust a car without a driver? I trust the DLR and that doesn’t have one. What about black cabs? Would I miss the friendly banter of a London cabbie? I think I’d manage.
And, research has shown that even areas in which we imagine robots wouldn’t be as useful, such as in the field of psychology, people are very happy. This is because they believe that robots don’t judge them like humans naturally do.
Sociologist Sherry Turkle took robots into old people’s homes and found it heart wrenching to witness one woman talk to an emo-seal about the loss of her daughter. However, I have to agree with Genevieve Tran’s comment below Turkle’s Ted talk:
The elderly person confiding in an electronic emo-seal is no different from a person praying to a god, who may or may not be there, or talking to a pet that definitely doesn’t have a grasp of life or death, but can give comfort by its presence.
And that is the point of inventing anything: to give comfort and to make life more comfortable for humans.
Making life better
Since the beginning of recorded time, humans have always created things or artefacts to make life easier and/or better. For example:
- The first arrow: This mammoth runs too fast, chuck this instead.
- Brunel’s Underground: Gah the traffic, let’s build a train underground.
- Bazelgette’s sewers: I am so sick of having poo land on my head.
These solutions probably created lots of new jobs such as butchers, engineers, drivers, night soil collectors, jobs which still exist today. Ghanaian night soil collectors I am sure would welcome robots and technology to help solve their sanitation crisis and worry less about being replaced or robots taking over.
The fear of humans being replaced by computers
Joel Lee is worried too and has written a blog post to reassure himself that humans will always be needed in the creative arts, professional sports, healthcare and medicine, education, quality assurance, politics and law.
Poor Joel! The comments below his blog say that computers can do these things already. I haven’t checked all the links but they sound reasonable enough: Computers create art. An IBM mainframe is working with doctors to diagnose cancer, betters than doctors do. And neural networks are reasoning up a storm in many areas. As for sports, I remember when Chris Coleman was manager at Fulham FC and was asked why his team had no one English in it one Saturday. He answered by saying that he would put out a team of aliens if it allowed him to win a game. So, I am sure he would definitely been open to a team of robots.
Technology creates jobs too
Technology may take away jobs but there are new jobs which could not be done without a computer: biomedical scientists, quantitative analysts, anyone working with big data: big data engineers are in fields from manufacturing right through to food production and hospitality along with big data architects who structure the big data, to name but a few.
However, these are highly skilled jobs in which you have to be skilled at the domain and skilled in computing. So, for example in hematology in biomedical engineering you have to know everything about blood and a lot about computing.
But, never fear there are loads more jobs with varying skill sets which didn’t exist before computers such as: twitter feed manager, video game designer, website manager, usability consultant.
I guess if machines got clever enough they could do these too. A quick google round the Internet shows me that a lot of people are upset about the idea that computers may one day do away with all jobs. But really, if we are so advanced why do so many boring jobs still exist today? And why are new boring jobs springing up all the time?
Humans do jobs computers should do
In one of writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcasts, Elizabeth talks to Missy, a Florida call centre worker, who has to follow a script when talking to people who phone up to sort out their insurance. Missy is not allowed to deviate from the script or engage with the human on the end of the line in any empathetic way otherwise she is reprimanded. Consequently, Missy describes her job as the most boring job in the world.
Surely this is a perfect job for automation – it doesn’t seem to have been designed with humans in mind inside or outside of the call centre.
The paradox of work
Sadly though, Missy is not alone. Investors In People published a survey at the beginning of this year which said that 60% of UK workers are unhappy in their jobs, citing lack of job satisfaction. The majority of people who work are doing for the money to pay for the things we need: food, shelter, etc., the things at the bottom of the pyramid of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Two years ago the Swiss voted no to universal wages which is a scheme which would ensure that everyone, who was legally entitled to work in Switzerland, whether working or not would be paid a basic income. Key supporter Enno Schmidt’s argument was that a society in which people work only because they have to have money is: no better than slavery. Instead, a universal income would allow people more freedom to decide what they really want to do.
The Guardian ran an article about writers on the dole saying that unemployment benefits have given many writers the freedom to learn their craft without starving. Imagine, if everyone got paid something without the need to explain themselves at the job centre. Oooh – no more jobs for the job centre workers. Interesting.
It wouldn’t be enough though would it? Because we define ourselves using a premise which is false: The more we do, the more we are worth. And so those people who used their universal wage to lie on the sofa and watch telly – very happily indeed,thank you very much – rather than tackle the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs such as status, reputation and self-actualisation, sadly, would be judged lacking. We judge everybody including ourselves.
And, this is perhaps where robots and computers can teach us something new and liberating, like the robot psychologists who don’t pass judgment. If we could all just be more flexible with our interpretation of worthiness and our expectations of how things like call centres should work (especially those ones in which humans are forced to behave like robots), then perhaps we could learn to love the machine and not rage against it.