BEELINE TO THE FUTURE: Robots and the Job Market

Robert Bee
Robert Bee's picture

In Jack Williamson's story "With Folded Hands" he portrays a future in which humans have nothing to do because robots have surpassed them at all forms of work. The robots prevent most human activities, not out of malice but to take care of people, for their own good, with the motto, "To Serve and Obey, and Guard Men from Harm."

In "A Robot Stole My Job: Automation in the Recession"
http://singularityhub.com/2010/12/15/a-robot-stole-my-job-automation-in-... Singularity Hub suggests that one of the reasons we are in a "jobless recovery" is that robots and computers can now work many jobs cheaper and better than humans, and rather than hiring during a weak economy many businesses economize through automation.

The article suggests that the future is bleak for Americans who cannot do a job that a foreign worker, a robot, a computer, or a recent immigrant cannot do cheaper. Furthermore, many companies are learning to make do with fewer workers. The hardest hit are blue collar workers, whose jobs are rapidly being replaced by industrial robots and cheaper overseas labor.

Science Fiction writers have often speculated about the future of labor and robots, but the stories usually postulate this problem as emerging in the far future. The reality is that automation already impinges on the job market.

In science fiction, speculation about the effect of robots on the labor market varies from utopian to dystopian. The utopian argument is that all the mundane and boring jobs, such as picking up the garbage, can be done by robots, leaving humans free to concentrate on creative and rewarding work. This optimistic scenario ignores the fact that some people don't want to write novels or paint; many people want blue collar jobs that involve working with their hands. Furthermore, what will happen when computers are smart enough to paint and write poetry, will there be anything left for humans then? Although humans enjoy leisure, they also need work to feel satisfied with their life. Becoming obsolete and being left with folded hands would be a disastrous future for humanity.

Also, in the near future, if robots work most industrial jobs, will unemployed consumers have enough money to buy the iPhones, iPads, computers, and other products the robots are making? What sort of economic system could the modern world have if it's impossible for a significant minority, or even the majority of the population to find a job? Can the government tax the robot factories and give the majority of the population a negative income tax? Will automation make socialism inevitable, or is it possible for a free market to survive the onslaught of robot factories?

Despite all the negative scenarios I just laid out, I'm actually cautiously optimistic. I believe it will be possible to merge humans and computers, and create a consciousness that's superior to a purely artificial or a purely human intelligence, a networked sentience that has access to the accumulated knowledge of humanity and the faster processing capacity of artificial intelligence. Humans willing to embrace this union of machine and human will live longer lives and accomplish far more than even the most brilliant humans of the past. Humans afraid of the future and unwilling to embrace these changes will become obsolete and left behind. What's either terrifying or inspiring, depending on your point of view, is that these changes have already begun.

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Robert Bee is a freelance writer and a Librarian living in New Jersey, as well as our newest staffwriter. He can be reached at rightrob@republibot.com

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