Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What Will We Do When The Robots Take Our Jobs?

As a futurist, I tend to be optimistic about technology. If Ray Kurzweil says that The Singularity is not going to lead to robots enslaving the earth or systematically murdering us like in The Terminator, I tend to agree. But I also tend to like plans. So if we anticipate robots to be smarter and more useful to the point where they can start doing most human jobs, what's our plan to deal with that?

Stepping back, technology has been removing jobs for a while now. Tractors and artificial fertilizer reduced the number of farmers needed to feed us, desktop computers reduced the need for as many secretaries, and factory robots have been reducing the number of workers needed on the assembly lines. So far, that hasn't been a problem. Removing "grunt-work" jobs has freed up workers to take part in new jobs that opened up as a result of that same technology, so everyone stays employed, and overall productivity goes up.

Will this trend continue, or will robots start to replace more jobs than they create as they reach a certain critical point? Up until now, technology has been smart enough to augment human abilities: allow us to farm faster, build cars more easily, and distribute information more efficiently. These augmented abilities have allowed our population to effectively do more. Technology has also opened up new lines of work that tend to be more advanced in terms of skillsets; if you build robots to shovel driveways, you now need engineers to fix those robots, and those engineers replace the human shovelers but you need a degree to do it now.

What happens when you have robots that are smart enough to not only augment, but replace, humans with skillsets? What if the trend starts to be that the number of jobs eliminated are greater than the jobs they create, and the jobs created are too advanced for most people to do? If jobs opened up by the last industrial revolution are in turn eliminated by the robotic revolution and are not replaced with new jobs at an equal rate, what will we do about the growing throngs of permanently unemployed?

Below, I see a number of futures, depending on what plan of action various societies decide to take.

Option 1: Haves and Have-Nots
If a society decides to stick with its capitalist guns to distribute wealth, they will argue that it's up to each individual to find or create a new role after the "low hanging fruit" of unskilled and low-skill labor has been replaced by robotics. The unemployed will need to get degrees that will allow them to compete for the available medium-skill to high-skill jobs still available, and if they fail to get those jobs, they are out of luck. As the unemployment number skyrockets, increasing groups of people will start living "off the grid," forming their own communities that work without the use of robots. If you're an optimist, this could mirror the organic, local, green movements that we've seen to a certain extent now. If you're a pessimist, these would be the neglected slums of post-apocalyptic nightmares, full of the throngs of starving unemployed that lie outside the corporate city-state walls.

Option 2: Robot Welfare State
This idea was proposed by Alan Watts. Rather than replacing the jobs lost to robots, we abandon capitalism and simply redistribute wealth in the form of credit to everyone. So the surplus created by robotic labor allows a baseline of wealth that is available to everyone, and people work to gain additional credit or for pleasure. Our society would be a welfare state to the highest extreme, with robots doing most of the production, an elite group of technologists, politicians, and military leads keeping the system running and reaping the benefits, and the rest of the population enjoying the freely distributed goods and working if they feel like it.

Option 3: Mandated Jobs
I think of The Jetsons. Governments recognize that most jobs can now be handled by robots, so they simply mandate that robots be built to require humans to command and operate. Robot factories only work if there are workers to press the big red button. Robot nannies only take care of the kids if a nanny supervisor issue the permissions. And so on. People still work, but their jobs are invented rather than required, and this allows capitalism to continue to chug along, with the role of humans enforced by law. Bureaucracy saves the day.

Option 4: False Alarm
These are all unknowns, so it's possible that as jobs are eliminated, new jobs will continue to be created at the same rate or faster, so the issue of permanent unemployment will never come to pass. In this case, human society will simply become more and more productive with the augmentation of robotic assistance, and new jobs we've never imagined will come along that were once impossible. People will not need to be highly skilled to do these new jobs, because the technology itself will provide the training and abilities needed, adding to people's abilities to allow them to do the new work. This is capitalism at its most idealistic, with the system working itself out as we reach new pinnacles of productivity and happiness.

Which way will it go? What do you think? To me, it depends on just how smart these robots can get, and how smart we can get in comparison.

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