Robots won’t just be taking our jobs; they’ll be forcing us to confront a major existential dilemma: if we didn’t have to work anymore, what would we do?
Optimists say that more robots will lead to greater productivity and economic growth, while pessimists complain that huge swaths of the labor force will see their employment options automated out of existence. What if both are right?
As robots start doing more and more of the work humans used to do, and doing it so much more efficiently than we ever did, what if the need for jobs disappears altogether? What if the robots end up producing more than enough of everything that everyone needs?
A future that looks more like Star Trek than Blade Runner, a lot of people could end up with a lot more time on their hands. The answer is both a quantitative and qualitative exercise in defining what makes human intelligence distinct from the artificial kind, a definition that seems to keep getting narrower.
Humans will continue to be useful workers, the argument goes, because of things like empathy, creativity, judgment, and critical thinking. Consider the all-too-common experience of calling customer service reps whose employers force them to follow a script—a kind of pseudo-automation. When made to follow a decision tree the way a computer would, all four of those qualities are sucked out of the interaction—no opportunity to exercise creativity, empathy, judgment, or critical thinking—and the service provided tends to stink.
“Detecting complaints is an AI problem. Sending the complaints to the correct customer service entity is an AI problem”. But customer service itself is a human problem. Those areas in which human compassion is important will be less changed than those where compassion is less or not important.
No Job Required
Increased productivity correlates with economic growth and job growth, since human labor has historically driven production. A robot workforce, however, can drive productivity and growth on its own, eliminating jobs in the process. That might mean the whole paradigm of exchanging labor for pay starts to break down.
The idea that robots could make employment itself optional may sound fantastic. No more work! But the end result could be more, not less angst. We’d still have to find our place among the robots, except this time without work as a guidepost for defining a sense of purpose. By eliminating the need for people to work, robots would free us up to focus on what really makes us human. The scariest possibility of all is that only then do we figure out what really makes us human is work.
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