Robots: friend or foe?
This question may sound simpleminded, or it may sound ridiculously sci-fi, but… well, not so fast! Today we already live in the science fiction of our childhoods, and the age of artificially intelligent robots is barely underway.
- Humans still remotely pilot drones (thank God), but still, they’re pretty creepy-cool, aren’t they?
- The little town of three hundred thousand where we live has a (human-powered) robotic surgery unit. That’s nothing but cool, unless your name is Joseph Ludd.*
- Daily – and that’s not an exaggeration – we hear reports of Google and Tesla’s progress bringing us autonomous (a.k.a. robotic) cars, and many other carmakers are building autonomous aspects into their cars. That’s supercool, with a side of creepy.
We could add to this list for hours, I’m sure. It may make a fun topic for your next dinner party: how many ways have robots entered our daily life and daily conversation?
But for today, let’s focus on this: artificially intelligent software (AI) is improving at speeds that boggle the mind. Computers remain better at analytical, “left brain” tasks than creative “right brain” work, which is why we moved so fast from a knowledge economy (1970s-2000s) into a creative economy (2000s-present).
In other words, right now the only career security we humans can still cling to involves solving complex, often human-related, problems and inventing cool new things seemingly from thin air. All the rest of our work, from checkout clerking to drawing up simple legal contracts? Not so secure these days.
So, will some combination of AI and robots take all our jobs? Will they kill us, too? Or will they equip us to do more fulfilling, fascinating work than ever before? Or maybe even bring us to a post-work utopia?
That, Dear Reader, is the question at the heart of all the others in our ongoing discussion on AI robots, isn’t it? Are robots a boon to humanity (friend), or are they its bane (foe)?
Full disclosure: I’m an unabashed optimist. Ever the entrepreneur, I carry through my life this unshakable belief that everything will turn out roses in the end. That’s good, in that it allows me to take actions that others consider risks, but I’m aware that it may not always be helpful.** Often, at least temporarily, things go badly.
In the robots vs. jobs sphere, one thing that could foreseeably go wrong for us would be if companies replace human workers with machines, and not enough new jobs are created to build more machines – or more software, or more art, or more… whatever the next thing only humans can do.
And this fear is playing out, at least a bit, in what we were calling for a time called the “jobless recovery” from our most recent recession. We remain in an economy where stockholders are benefitting wildly from the growth in corporate value, but this activity on Wall Street, in The City, and elsewhere, isn’t tied in any real way to the actual economy. This means workers aren’t really thriving at pace with shareholders.
If you’re a robot pessimist, you might look at earliest parts of the movie Elysium (before the shooting starts) and see robots doing nearly all the jobs, benefitting only a few ultra-wealthy stockholders, and humans having no worker rights or economic security. A lot like the so-called Gilded Age, the first age of the Robber Barons, which the Luddites so presciently feared.
Things worked out really well for workers in the long run, but for a couple of generations (1870s-1940s) advances in technology did not exactly bring a worker’s utopia.
I wish I had a definitive answer for you on this whole friend or foe question. I don’t – and anyone who does lacks either imagination or scruple: steer clear. What I have are questions for you to think about with me, lots of them. I also have some really great links to podcasts and articles that will give you an expanded perspective on the topic. …Which, of course, will lead you to ask more questions still.
I’ve been called a futurist a number of times, and maybe I am a near-futurist, because I find what’s just around the corner really, really fascinating. But what I actually am is a guy who knows what I don’t know. Nobody knows the future. We make it together, a little piece here, another piece over there.
Will AI robots make our world a better or worse place? Fortunately, that’s still very much undecided. It’s up to us. So, what do you decide?
Now, the links:
NPR Fresh Air: How close are we to a robot-run society?
NPR Planet Money Episode 622: Humans vs. Robots (three more great robot-related episodes linked within!)
The Atlantic: A World Without Work
Want more on artificially intelligent robots killing us – I mean, making our work more interesting? Check out Nate Schooler’s uber-popular post.
*Cliff Clavin factiod Number 1: Ned Ludd was the fictional leader of the quite real Luddites, the original anti-technology protestors of the early Nineteenth Century, who were convinced that machines would replace us at work and take our jobs. They were half right. Machines took the most basic manual labor of their day (thankfully)… and enabled new jobs to develop. Indirectly, your job exists because the Luddites lost their jobs to machines.
**Cliff Clavin factoid number 2: Psychologists tell us there’s something called “depressive realism.” Apparently, depressed people often see themselves and the world more objectively than the rest of us do. That’s to say, they aren’t self-deluded. But this unfiltered view of reality depresses them. Optimistic entrepreneurs and other achievers, on the other hand, tend to miscalculate their ability to succeed – often dramatically so! But this has a benefit, because it sets them up to try things most people are too rational to try. “That isn’t realistic” may be true, but it isn’t helpful. If you want success, you may want to buy yourself a pair of rose-colored glasses.