The year is 2016 and the human race, having finally adjusted to earthly supremacy, finds itself in an odd sort of limbo. The very technologies that bent nature to mankind’s whim, decreasing the burdens of the agricultural then industrial and information ages, have become so advanced an automaton revolution feels almost inevitable. The robots, like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, seem fated to embody nemesis. But does the anthropocene have to end badly? The press seems to think so.
Here’s a small sampling of the screaming headlines:
“Robots Are Coming For Your Jobs” — L.A. Times
“Smart Robots Could Soon Steal Your Job” — CNN
“How to Save Your Job from the Intelligent Robots” — Computerworld
“Americans Are In Denial About the Robot Job Apocalypse” — Vocativ
“The Robots Are Coming for Wall Street” — New York Times
Premise granted: Robots are getting really good at everything. Already, their capacities have eclipsed those of humans in some realms, and it’s reasonable to think that, in the not so distant future, humans will be inferior in most realms. Steve Jurvetson, a tech luminary who advises — among other notable companies — SpaceX and Tesla, recently warned Financial Times readers of this imminent shift. “There isn’t a single mechanical or physical thing a human will be able to do better than a robot,” he said.
Even writing jobs are in no way safe: robots can now spit out article and video summaries that shave minutes off your daily duties. A robot could, right now, summarize the remainder of this article for you. Heck, a robot could probably even write this article: As far back as 2011, robots were already freakishly good at (sports) journalism. Manufacturing is, of course, an easy target: automated assembly lines — if they’re not already — will soon be far superior to human assembly lines. Self-driving cars are rapidly becoming more reliable than humans at avoiding accidents and navigating treacherous conditions. Very few fields are truly immune to automation.
But here we begin to see the problem with these headlines, with this sort of talk. “Robots are x” is a facile sentiment. “Robots can y” is meaningless. The very language here misses the point: we’re ascribing agency to something that (in its beta version, anyway) will lack agency. Robots will do and be what humans want them to do and be. To suggest otherwise is to willfully misunderstand both technology and history.
In a sense, the way we talk about robots is not unlike the way we used to talk about natural phenomena, ascribing motivations to the winds by thinking of them as individuals. But robot mythology is potentially harmful. If we consider roberts an inexorable, invading force — á la Battlestar Galactica and Terminator — then we effectively ignore the more complicated questions: the individuals’ relationship to the economy or the concentration of economic power. We fail to have real conversations about what we want (or don’t want), from our mechanical little siblings.
Do we want to continue working for money to maintain a standard of living? Do we want leisure to replace the status quo? These are questions that deserve honest debate.
Most people are naturally in favor of doing less work, but we also fear boredom and for good reason. According to a study by the National Institute on Aging, boredom actually accelerates cognitive decline. “The basic idea,” former NIA director Robert Willis told Freakonomics, “is that if you exercise your mind and you’re in a stimulating environment and you’re motivated to use your mind that you’ll maintain your cognitive abilities. Conversely, if you are in an unstimulating environment, don’t exercise your mind, the effect would be negative on cognition.”
There’s an alternative, though, as President John F. Kennedy, way back on September 27, 1962, explained: “We believe that if men have the talent to invent new machines that put men out of work, they have the talent to put those men back to work.” And that’s what it would take. If we continue to decide that we want robots to do our more menial services for us, we would need to find other jobs for those displaced workers. The catch here is that “we” is a misleading term.
The rate at which technology is advancing far exceeds the rate at which we can modify the existing economic paradigm. When robot labor becomes cheaper than human labor, human labor’s value will suffer. As a result, those people who pay for human labor — which is to say the economic elite — will pay less for that human labor. We the people may not want robots, but we the wealthy will likely benefit from their proliferation. Hands will be forced. And that’s all the more reason we need to have a discussion now, while robots remain fairly expensive to purchase and maintain, about what life should be like for people on planet Earth.
That conversation is starting now around universal basic income. Men and women advocating for its adoption in Switzerland dress as robots for a reason. If we’re going to let companies “hire” robots and fundamentally reconstitute our labor market, we should consider the ramifications. There are serious consequences in emboldening the leisure class and perhaps even more serious consequences in vastly expanding it. And Kennedy could well be wrong.
There are a lot of ways this could go, but it won’t go well if we continue to cosplay as powerless flesh puddles. Mankind will not be overthrown by a robot army. The future’s lifestyle may well be unrecognizable, and it may well be desirable, but we need to acknowledge both our collective agency and our individual motivations so as to fine-tune our approach to that future.