Robots may never take all our jobs
The potential of foresight
What is a robot? Wikipedia defines it as “a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically”. Robots have existed for decades. They’ve been evolving for decades and they will continue to evolve for decades. The only limitation is the complexity of the actions that the robots are able to complete.
It doesn’t take a futurist, a technologist or even a journalist to work out that robots are getting smarter and more able-bodied every year. They’re also doing so a heck of a lot faster than we are.
That last sentence is probably the most worrying part. Think about it. It’s 2070. Your grandson wants to replace his iPhone, except your grandson’s IQ is 140, while his phone’s IQ is over 500 and it was running several hundred apps in the background while it sat the test. It’s a safe bet that his phone will be replacing him, not the other way around.
It might not happen overnight but if his phone can produce reports, negotiate contractual terms, mow the lawn and stimulate his girlfriend faster and more effectively than he can, a certain amount of replacement is bound to take place.One of the most powerful arguments against the world’s police forces becoming Robocop and the world’s dancers becoming Roboboogie is that humans will simply find other things to do. If for example, your robot housekeeper has an argument with your robot toaster, you might be required to weigh in and settle the dispute, not because you have the best answer or understand the language that the two are speaking but simply because you’re the homeowner and it’s ultimately the quality of your toast that is being argued over. How do we know that it will still be our toast though? What’s to stop robots buying our houses and using our food as a fuel source?
Humans are currently capable of anticipating and preparing for almost all aspects of the future better than robots. This means that in theory, as we increasingly anticipate a machine takeover, we will still have plenty of time to legislate against any excessive use of unemployment-creating robotics before our existing way of life is destroyed. There may still be task-specific and even industry-specific unemployment in the short-term as emerging technologies replace certain jobs but we will have the opportunity to create laws and organisations that protect against the obsolescence of the entire national labour force. Will we take that opportunity?
When looking for an indication of how humanity handles the macro issues that threaten it, environmental damage is an example that we might turn to. We have known about the possible implications of greenhouse gasses and resource depletion for generations and yet the general consensus seems to be that not enough is being done to combat the threat. Many scientists are worried that because large bodies of water and ice take centuries to respond to changes in temperature, the effects of our current actions may be devastating, yet hard to forecast and even harder to stop, yet we are taking action. We are innovating.
Fortunately, the onset of our substitution with the inhuman cast of the Transformers movies is likely to be more rapid and more obvious than climate change. It may be more comparable to the development of nuclear weapons or genetic engineering. Easy to spot. Relatively straightforward to outlaw. Potentially devastating and hard to completely insure against but so was SARS and humanity seized control of the disease relatively quickly.
Will robots take all our jobs? Maybe but maybe not. We’ll see them coming. In fact, we’ve already started thinking about it.