The Droids you’re looking for

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Imagine you’re a guest at a hotel. You realize you forgot to pack a toothbrush, so you call the front desk to have a fresh one sent up. A few minutes later, the room’s phone rings, and a voice alerts you to the arrival of a bellhop. Open the door, and there’s your new toothbrush. But instead of a human bellhop handing it over, there’s a three-foot-tall robot in your doorway.

Meet Relay(by Savioke), a cylindrical machine on wheels, with a basin and a lid on top. It can hold standard room service items like toiletries, water bottles, and newspapers, and find its own way to hotel rooms. It can even ride the elevator.

By scanning as far as 40 feet ahead, Relay can map its route. Higher-resolution image sensors cue Relay if unexpected obstacles, such as people or laundry carts on the move, appear within a six-foot radius. Who doesn’t want robots like that. In fact, the robots and software applications we’re building are simply not something we can compete against. We won’t win.

However, as human beings, we can evolve and be happier and more fulfilled than we’ve ever been before. The key is a shift in our thinking—and in the value we place in the kind of work we want to do and how we enjoy free time.

In the future—with less work and responsibility due to robots taking our jobs and leaving us only to collect our Universal Basic Income(UBI)—we might find there is a lot more to life than buying the latest stuff, or zoning out late at night in front of a television, or worrying about how poorly our bosses treat us at work. Robots may take our jobs, but they bring us freedom as well. With that freedom, we can become the best human beings we’re capable of, full of passion, education, and a newly discovered drive of what it means to be alive.

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Robots won’t just be taking our jobs; but 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 getting narrower.

Humans will continue to be useful workers, the argument goes, because of things like empathy, creativity, judgment, and critical thinking. Consider a 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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Robots and the corporations have been taking our jobs for years, and they’re going to take a lot more soon

Many of robotics and automation technologies are ways off from mass adoption. But they’re there, and if they become cost effective—for giant retailers or fast food chains —another slice of the economy will surrender to automation.

Dislodging that major swath of the workforce will be much more problematic—we’re going to need to improve our safety net and rejigger income distribution to account for the coming disruption. The benefits of robots taking our crappy summer jobs and thankless permanent ones will only manifest if we take the proper steps to prepare for them politically and socially.


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