“They took our jobs” – The Coming Robotic Revolution

The quote in the title is from an episode of South Park where people from the future come back to the present time to work and send money to their families in the future that has become a very tough place to find work. It’s a hilarious episode if you have a sick sense of humor like me, but it’s accuracy is a bit lacking (as it should be).

However, jobs are going to disappear soon. In fact, some jobs already have. And we’re not losing them to immigrants, but machines. In a way this is nothing new. We lost many jobs to machines over the years, but nothing like what’s going to happen.

Historically, we started replacing human workers with machines by replacing human muscle. The cotton gin, the steam engine, airplanes, the telephone, etc. allowed us to do things we weren’t physically capable of doing like talking to someone over long distances or plowing a whole field in a single day. No problem though, because more jobs were created. Instead of driving a horse and buggy, people learned how to conduct trains or drive taxis. Instead of working in the field, someone may have learned how to build or repair farming equipment. Mail once delivered by the pony express is now delivered by trucks and planes operated by human beings. The jobs created by technology mostly used machines to do the physical work and used humans to operate them with their brain power.

In essence, most jobs are simply needs to be satisfied. When I order food at a deli I need food and therefore need it communicated what I want and then I need it prepared. A human is needed to understand my communication and interpret that into the physical manifestation of making a sandwich. But what happens when the needs of humans goes away? As with the industrial revolution, many of the physical needs were met by machines. The forklift allows us to satisfy the need of moving larger, heavier crates of products more quickly, easily and safely than having a bunch of humans carry it. But a forklift is a tool with no brain. The human brain controls it. Well, what happens when a piece of software has the ‘brain power’ to operate the forklift or make sandwiches?

What properties do human beings have to offer besides our bodies and our brains? Will we be needed? Despite what many people believe, I think the answer is ‘no.’

In China right now there are restaurants that have robots take food from the kitchen to the customer. They also take the food orders. So, the job (or needs) of a human waiter are now being satisfied by a non-human. You may think that these machines could never do as good of a job as a human. I haven’t been waited on by a robot, so I cannot say for sure that they are human level equivalent right now, but history gives us every reason to believe that whatever level robots are operating at the moment, that level will be much higher in the future.

Think about video games. There was a time when we sat in awe of a machine that allowed us to play a very rudimentary version of tennis called Pong. Now, our video games have the ability to show us nearly life like graphics and extremely detailed and complex scenarios and story lines. When I first played Halo I remember being in awe as well. The computer was smart enough to allow me to walk in any direction I wanted. The possibilities seemed endless.

Why should we think that robots will be any different? If the robots in the world right now are the Atari of robots, then what will the Xbox of robots look like? Much like we could barely imagine a game as complex as Halo back in the early 1980s my guess is that we can barely imagine a robot as complex as one made ten or fifteen years from now.

If you still don’t believe me just google a few things like ‘self driving cars’ or ‘articles written by bots’ or ‘Asimo.’ The robots we have right now both software (like Watson another fascinating thing to google) or hardware (google Baxter robot) are already impressive. Soon, they’ll be amazing.

Assuming I’ve convinced you that robots will soon have the ability to perform on par or better than humans, I have a question: Is it wrong to use robots to do human jobs if they can do them as well or better than humans?

Let’s take waiters for example. Many waiters in the US are young people who are just doing the job until they get out of college or sell their screenplay or find something better. But there are also many career waiters – people who whether by choice or lack of choice have accepted that they’ll likely wait tables the majority of their working lives. What happens to those people if robots can do their job as well as they can (or better)? Will restaurant owners still hire humans because they feel it’s the right thing? Maybe. But I doubt it. Employers are not evil or at least not necessarily evil. If I owned a restaurant and I could buy a robot for $20,000 who could do the job of a single waiter who would cost me around $15,000/year in wages, but would work seven days a week from open til close and never call in sick (or rarely need repairs) I would probably do it. What if the robot only cost me $10,000? Or $5000?

According to irs.gov over 27 million people use a piece of software to help them do their taxes. How many more people could work as accountants if everyone hired a person instead of buying software? What about websites? I hired a web designer years ago to build a site for me. Now, you can use free software to do it. What about my job? I’m an actor/entertainer. A hundred and fifty years ago if you wanted entertainment you had to pay to go see an actual live show. Now, with video games, Netflix, and youtube you don’t have to leave your home. Sure, humans are responsible for all of those things, so you’re still allowing humans to work, but how many more jobs would there be if everyone rejected technology and went out to see a live show any time they wanted entertainment?

My point is that we don’t tend to value the needs of putting people to work more than we value convenience and cheaper costs. That’s not to say we don’t value the need for people to work. We just historically choose convenience and cost over that.

But now, machines threaten jobs on a scale unprecedented and people are starting to notice. Most of us would likely gasp at the idea of putting approximately three million transportation workers in the US out of a job by replacing them all with self driving autos. But if the cost is lower, the work is done more efficiently, and the robots are safer than humans, can we really make an argument that we should ignore all that and still hire humans? I can’t see that happening. Those jobs will go away.

Here’s the problem that few people seem to understand. When the industrial revolution took jobs away, it offered more different jobs in their place. But if jobs are simply needs and humans only have two things to offer – body and mind – then what other jobs could be created for us? I don’t have a skill to offer the world beyond my body and my brain. And I don’t think that robots will be able to do everything humans are capable of (at least not yet), but they don’t have to do everything in order to have a huge impact on the world’s economy.

Basically, I’m saying (and it’s not an original thought from only me) that within the next 20-50 years the world will necessarily have to change everything we are used to in the way of jobs and how to live our daily lives. If robots take over transportation, restaurant service, manufacturing, cleaning, organizing and other types of jobs then we will have a huge portion of the population who are not only out of work, but who are out of options for work. And no amount of higher education will help, because the jobs simply won’t exist.

I for one am a fan of the future. I want robots to do more and more stuff. I want the roads to be safer with self driving autos. I want robots to be able to clean buildings without the need for janitors. Why? Because I want society to change. I want human beings to be forced to look at our circumstances and make real change to everything we know to be true. I think it gives us the opportunity to make society way better. It also gives us the opportunity to make society way worse. But I have faith that humanity will prevail. Is that faith misguided? I hope not. But think of it like this, 25,000 years ago humans needed to ‘work’ all day to survive. We needed to make animal skin clothing, hunt, gather, prepare meals, build shelter, build weapons, etc. Now we still mostly have to work, but we also have free time. Time to spend with friends or to enjoy a movie or even write a symphony. What fun, cool stuff will we do with ourselves if robots take care of the lion’s share of the necessary stuff and allow us more free time to innovate and discover?

What kind of change would society need to endure in order to balance all this? I’m not sure. But I know it would have to be big. Way bigger than any change I’ve seen in my lifetime. Probably bigger than anyone has seen ever. One possibility is the idea of doing away with the concept of money altogether. Sound impossible? It does to me too, but maybe future generations will look back at the concept of money as something as antiquated as the plague or eight track tapes.

Maybe society could live on a credit system where credits are given for many different reasons. Just like Monopoly, people would receive money simply for existing another year (or passing go). Maybe we could employ a baseline income that everyone gets. I don’t know how that would work, but I’m not an expert. What I do know is that these are the serious conversations we should be having right now. Maybe the US (or the UN or someone) should be holding conventions with some of the world’s smartest people to come up with a new paradigm shift that would aim to ease the inevitable transition from a human based economy to a robot based economy.

The first step is awareness. People need to know that robots are here and they’re improving. People need to know that this is not some scifi concept that may come true one day, but instead is a sci-real concept that is coming extremely soon. Hopefully, just making people aware that human jobs are going to go away dramatically will start the movement that everyone will be concerned with the future and encourage our governments to start planning.

To sum up my point, I believe the machines will take our jobs. I think we need to accept this, enjoy this and work hard to redefine society. We should not fear technology like so many luddites from human history, but rather celebrate our own abilities to advance ourselves to a point where we no longer live to work, but rather just live. And even more importantly, we need to prepare society in the same way we would batten down the hatches before a hurricane. But the robots aren’t a destructive evil force. We can prepare for good things as well just like we decorate the home for a holiday. The robotic revolution should be something to look forward to and prepare for…like a vacation to Hawaii or a surprise birthday party.

“They took our jobs,” doesn’t have to be negative. Rephrase it to say, “Thankfully they [robots] removed our need for jobs and allowed us to evolve into a new and interesting population of animal unlike any the world has ever seen.” Sure it’s not nearly as funny, but for me it provides a lot of hope.

Some of the links I used to research for this post:
http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/10/22/239789038/coffee-coming-up-nice-and-hot-and-prepared-by-a-robot
http://www.theverge.com/2014/5/28/5758734/uber-will-eventually-replace-all-its-drivers-with-self-driving-cars
http://online.wsj.com/articles/for-this-author-10-000-wikipedia-articles-is-a-good-days-work-1405305001

http://singularityhub.com/2014/03/25/more-news-is-being-written-by-robots-than-you-think/
http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/aug/15/harvard-kilobot-swarm-future-of-robotics

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