Jobs? We Don’t Need No Jobs!
And I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.
It’s kind of scary when you think about technology and innovation. With all the greatness it brings, it also slowly forces us to ask a really scary question: Why do we need humans?
That sentence may sound a tad provocative, but the more you look at the pipeline of technologies the quicker you realize that they have simply bulldozed industry after industry. Heck, I would say that the majority of us are not in competition with each other but in competition with increasingly more intelligent robots and computerized systems.
Think about it. Right now every car manufacturer is researching cars that drive themselves — bye-bye taxis and car sharing. Travel sites decimated travel agents. Tollbooth operator? Last tollbooth I drove through, I tossed coins into a bin or slid a few dollars into a machine. Work in a factory? Well, you know firsthand that modern factories look more like a sci-fi movie than the blue-collar iron mills of old.
The reality is that bit by bit, technological advances are quickly eroding jobs.
In our age, white-collar workers have long felt that they were immune to this trend. Go to school and get a degree or focus on something creative and then you, too, can avoid the continued encroachment of technology on the blue-collared class.
It turns out, however, that nothing is sacred. These days we have computers trained to do in-depth reporting and journalism; IBM has a machine named Watson that cooks up imaginative new recipe ideas (and also beat the world’s best chess player); and one group at the University of Malaga in Spain has taught computers to compose new music and paint magnificent pieces of art. Even the majority of stock trade decisions are handled by advanced computers trained to watch trends and make decisions in a nanosecond.
Recent plane crashes and disappearances have left some to question the need for pilots. The majority of a flight happens on autopilot, while drones have taught us that planes can easily be controlled remotely from the ground. Why not have a mission room of pilots controlling all flights vs. a weary handful in the cockpit? Why not centralize the activities of an airport’s ground control into one location?
The arguments against can be broken down to two simple things. An unwillingness to deal with an unemotional computer and the fear of what ifs.
I, like many people, curse under my breath whenever the automated customer service bot exclaims it has no idea what I want. I, like many, wonder what if something happens that simply requires the thinking of a human brain? Yet, when Google released information on all the accidents its automated cars have had so far (all fender benders), the human drivers were at fault, not the driverless cars. So, maybe we are the problem?
But could robots work for all industries? In New Orleans, known for tourism and service, could we replace a hotel concierge with know-it-all kiosks or our local bartenders with one of the many robots capable of making a perfect drink on demand? Waiters with tablets?
Maybe that has already started. Many national restaurants have adopted or at least tested table-side tablets capable of taking orders, making waiters simply delivery people. Hotels and airlines offer seamless checkin and checkout from your phone or a computer. As for hotels, minus the higher-end brands, kiosks or computer bays capable of printing maps have replaced the know-it-all concierges. Thankfully, my bartender is still human.
As a technologist, I find this amazing, but also very scary. The trend of constant disruption of industries begs the question stated above. Do we really need humans?
Larry Page, CEO of Google said in an interview that slowing the advances of technology to keep jobs or making technology less effective is a bad idea. He also predicted a future where most jobs become part-time.
On a slightly separate end of the spectrum, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk, among others, have increasingly warned that developing super-smart artificial intelligence is something to be feared. But they also imagine a world where the definition of a “job” is vastly different than what we see today.
Let’s all hope Gene Roddenberry had it correct with “Star Trek,” and in the future jobs are not something we do for need, but something we do because we love. A world where money or income has no meaning. Otherwise, I’m hoping our new robot overlords leave me in the matrix.
Jason MICHAEL Perry is the director of the Drupal Practice at Fig Leaf Software.
I’m too lazy to vacuum so I’ll just trigger my Roomba from my iPhone and maybe it can also write next month’s column… While I nap, tweet me at @jasonmperry or email firstname.lastname@example.org.