Our advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and other technologies are staggering; we’re running fast into a new landscape filled a lot of new ways to live, facilitated by new technologies. Huge parts of many people’s lives are just beginning a bigger change than we can imagine. What is happening is that machines are getting better and better every day at helping us live more fully and freeing us in new and wonderful ways. There is, as always, potential for missteps, but the reward of more abundant time and resources is very exciting.
Late last year Kevin Kelly published the piece “Better Than Human: Why Robots Will — And Must — Take Our Jobs” in Wired. In the article he explored the impact robots could have on how we work in the near future. And he’s not underestimating just how big a change this will be when he talks about jobs in many fields being altered forever.
First, machines will consolidate their gains in already-automated industries. […] Fruit and vegetable picking will continue to be robotized until no humans pick outside of specialty farms. […] Next, the more dexterous chores of cleaning in offices and schools will be taken over by late-night robots, starting with easy-to-do floors and windows and eventually getting to toilets. The highway legs of long-haul trucking routes will be driven by robots embedded in truck cabs.
All the while, robots will continue their migration into white-collar work. We already have artificial intelligence in many of our machines; we just don’t call it that. […] Any job dealing with reams of paperwork will be taken over by bots, including much of medicine. Even those areas of medicine not defined by paperwork, such as surgery, are becoming increasingly robotic. The rote tasks of any information-intensive job can be automated. It doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, lawyer, architect, reporter, or even programmer: The robot takeover will be epic.
All this may sound scary and unprecedented, but we’ve had this kind of change to work before and emerged better because of it. When we shed the idea that AIs and robots should be human-like, we can both see how they are already very important in our lives and their roots in the industrial revolution, as Kevin points out in the introduction to his article.
Two hundred years ago, 70 percent of American workers lived on the farm. Today automation has eliminated all but 1 percent of their jobs, replacing them (and their work animals) with machines. But the displaced workers did not sit idle. Instead, automation created hundreds of millions of jobs in entirely new fields. Those who once farmed were now manning the legions of factories that churned out farm equipment, cars, and other industrial products. Since then, wave upon wave of new occupations have arrived—appliance repairman, offset printer, food chemist, photographer, web designer—each building on previous automation. Today, the vast majority of us are doing jobs that no farmer from the 1800s could have imagined.
Cory Doctorow, publishing through Boing Boing, commented on Kevin’s piece with “Robots are taking your job and mine: deal with it“. Cory brought in less optimistic commentary by economists and writer Bruce Sterling, but ended the piece questioning how the transition will play out.
On the other hand, the Internet-age’s sweetest dividend is the creative possibilities: the chance to sit in your little grass shack or organic farm or urban crackerbox and use the tubes to carry on debate; to contribute to software and Wikipedia; to crowdsource capital for your creativity; to find makers who have solved 90% of the problem that’s nagging you and who will help you solve the remaining ten percent; to access a library of human creativity and knowledge without parallel; to have your art and creativity accessible to all, and to find the mutants who’re wired the same as you and jam with them.
That world of de-marketized, non-market, non-commodity and/or gift economy living is something that seems tantalizingly within our grasp today, and it feels like automation holds the key to so much of it. But is it just the latest version of the dream of a leisure society? Or can we Craigslist and Kickstarter and Freecycle and Etsy and Thingiverse and Open Source Hardware and Wikipedia and Creative Commons our way to a world where the means of information is owned by no one and yet tended by all?
I make no attempt to hide the fact that —much like Kevin— I’m an optimistic futurist, and writing about technology in this way does require me to check that optimism against some caution being spread about technology. The industrial revolution had many negative side effects and countless people had their lives negatively disrupted; adapting to new technologies can be very difficult. Even so, I am a firm believer in the value that technology adds to all our lives.
Accepting the goodness of progress, the question then becomes how we adapt to it. Kevin suggests the following steps are ones we already are undergoing to understand technology taking our jobs:
1. A robot/computer cannot possibly do the tasks I do.
2. OK, it can do a lot of them, but it can’t do everything I do.
3. OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often.
4. OK, it operates flawlessly on routine stuff, but I need to train it for new tasks.
5. OK, it can have my old boring job, because it’s obvious that was not a job that humans were meant to do.
6. Wow, now that robots are doing my old job, my new job is much more fun and pays more!
7. I am so glad a robot/computer cannot possibly do what I do now.
That feels much too streamlined and easy to reflect the real struggle many people are going to have with technological change. But it does indicate the types of shifts that will happen, smoothly or not, as we transition into a world where even more of the work we do is conducted by machines. And Kevin suggests we should get on with the shift, because it will lead to better lives:
We need to let robots take over. They will do jobs we have been doing, and do them much better than we can. They will do jobs we can’t do at all. They will do jobs we never imagined even needed to be done. And they will help us discover new jobs for ourselves, new tasks that expand who we are. They will let us focus on becoming more human than we were.
Let the robots take the jobs, and let them help us dream up new work that matters.
We’re going to have to get comfortable with robots doing more for us if we want to have better lives. We should be ready to shape ourselves and machines in ways that generate better relationships. Just as the healthiest and happiest people have learned to live and work well with other people, the best way to live in the future is in harmony with machines. There’s a lot of important work that isn’t being done in this world and if you, myself or a robot can get it done, I say bring on the future.