Automated systems grow more sophisticated every day. They’re now poised to take on many tasks that we would’ve considered “human-only” just a few years ago. We’ve discussed that trend here several times, from robot nurses and lawyers to robots that drive your car.
While these developments are fascinating on their own, today I want to step back and ask the larger question: what happens if we carry this trend to its logical extreme?
The Future of Work
Three quick assumptions (as usual, quibble away if you wish). First, suppose robots become cheap enough to dominate manual labor tasks. Second, suppose Watson-type computers become advanced enough to take over the information sectors of the economy. Finally, assume the forces of globalization allow these trends to take hold everywhere. This means the vast majority of both blue- and white-collar jobs will be automated. Construction, manufacturing, and mining; sales, customer service, technical support and research.
(Notice I didn’t include any creative jobs on the list. The morning that I wake up to find a machine working on my novel draft is the morning I throw down my gauntlet and the Robot War begins in earnest. I embrace the future with open arms, but even I have my limits.)
Meanwhile, the world population will have nearly doubled. Where are all those people going to find work? I see two possible scenarios.
This Is Going to Be Great!
In the optimistic scenario, the development is a great thing for humanity. With all of our unpleasant, but necessary, work being done by robots, we’ll be free to pursue whatever we enjoy. Music, writing, painting and other arts would flourish. So would engineering, design, and technical innovation. In the extreme case, this scenario results in a post-scarcity world: we can collectively maintain our lives and our lifestyles without work, so employment becomes purely optional.
Before you dismiss this as silly fantasy, consider this: the fact that I have time to write this post, instead of spending my entire day foraging berries and hunting gazelles, is evidence that it’s possible in principle. At a mere 40 hours of labor per week, I’m already 3/4 of the way to a work-free existence (though I admit not everyone is so lucky).
Wait, This Is Going to Be Horrible!
The second possibility is downright dystopian, and springs from the fact that our society is ownership-based. Even if the world has sufficient resources and robots to provide for everyone, someone is still going to own those things. And those someones will be looking out for themselves. In a nutshell, it’s Karl Marx’s worst nightmare. Not only would the capitalists control the means of production, but they’d own the (robotic) labor force, too – every piece of the economic ecosystem would belong to someone, leaving non-owners with few options beyond subsistence farming. Still a technological utopia, but only for the privileged few. Maybe I could get a capitalist overlord to be my patron, commissioning a blog post every week in exchange for food.
Which Is Going to Come True?
Hell if I know. You tell me: is the human race headed for a permanent sunny retirement, complete with hobbies and family time? Or are we concentrating global power in the hands of a tiny oligarchy bent on squeezing and discarding us like old toothpaste tubes? One thing’s for sure, love ’em or hate ’em, the robots are here to stay.Enjoy this post? Want to stay up-to-date on the state of the future? Enter your email in the upper right to get free content, delivered fresh.