The first R-rated movie I saw was 1984’s The Terminator. To a 12-year old, it was as enlightening as you’d expect, but I’m beginning to believe it instilled in me a fear of the future with respect to artificial intelligence and robots, a fear that is surfacing more lately as articles like this gem, Experts Predict When A.I. Will Beat Humans In Everything, become more numerous. Apparently, in just three years, artificial intelligence might beat humans at Angry Birds. A few years later, it might be able to create a pretty catchy pop song. About a century after that, it may be better than us at everything.
I don’t have impressive credentials for predicting the future — in 2008 I bought and sold Netflix shares for $2,700 that today would be worth about $115,000 — but it doesn’t take a talented investor to recognize that jobs in danger of disappearing within a couple decades include drivers, warehousers, manufacturers, janitors, and landscapers…
Google “jobs that AI will replace” and you’ll see there are many other professions, including white-collar jobs such as tax preparers, at risk of obsolescence. So, it’s as good a time as any to ask this pertinent question:
…is automatic machinery, driven by limitless power, going to leave on our hands a state of chronic and increasing unemployment? Is the machine that turns out wealth also to create poverty? Is it giving us a permanent jobless class? Is prosperity going to double back on itself and bring us social distress?
“Great question, sir!” I might have said to the insightful source of those questions, Secretary of Labor Jim Davis, way back in 1927, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Fine, so technology has disrupted the work force for a very long time, people have fretted about it, yet human labor has thrived because we find things to do that machines can’t yet accomplish. When tractors and other machines made farming more efficient, farm workers found employment in factories. When video cameras enabled movie-making, we lost the traveling theater, but we gained teenage movie theater employees (theater associates?). When we developed the worldwide web, we lost pesky trained journalists, but we gained legions of fake news bloggers. Hooray?
One might be tempted to say, then, “The human appetite for stuff is so vast, that we will always think of new things to want and to do, and therefore there will be new products and services for people to supply.” That’s what we’ve seen in the last 100+ years.
But it’s different this time, because the “for people to supply” part of that argument – the important part – is unlikely to be true in the future.
Take professional drivers, for example. When approximately 4 million U.S. bus, taxi, and truck drivers lose their jobs, 10,000 highly-paid software engineers at Uber, Lyft, and Google will have replaced them over time. The 4 million displaced drivers will just have to do something else.
Like construction! There’s always a need for construction workers, right? Oh, wait, a new brick-laying machine can lay 6 times as many bricks as a human laborer. Goodbye all ye human bricklayers!
“Who cares? Construction sucks!” the former drivers might say, “We’ll become landscapers, instead!” But they’ll soon find out that iRobot and its competitors are developing terrifying robot lawnmowers. Why pay $1,000 per summer for a landscaping crew for 10 years, when you can buy an automated lawnmower for $1,000 that lasts 20? How about if that machine can dethatch and aerate your lawn, too? Sounds good to me!
So landscaping is out. Manufacturing? Ugh.
How about waiting tables? One can always count on the services industry, as long as it’s not this Korean BBQ restaurant in California, which just rolled out robotic servers. I’m not kidding.
Granted, robotic wait-staff lacks the human touch that many people might like about their favorite restaurant — where everyone knows their name. But what if it didn’t lack a human touch? In the future, it’s not going to.
Robotics, artificial intelligence, speech recognition, and machine learning will continue to develop to the point where it’s hard for a person to tell the difference between human and machine – think the operating system in the movie Her, which was expertly empathetic, combined with the physical abilities and beauty of the robots in the film Ex Machina. With error-free, lifelike robots at our service, produced at scale by a handful of large companies, the value of human labor will be, well, low.
Further, if humans do indeed think of additional wants and needs that can only be provided by other humans and are demanded highly enough to create a large labor force, how long before those handful of powerful robotics companies automate those products and services, too? Beyond that, how long will it be before programs build programs? Then, not even some of our highest paid professions – software developers – will thrive.
I’m not anxious about the future because I believe that machines will turn against us, Terminator-style. I’m worried that they’ll be better at us at everything, relegating the vast majority of us into consumers, assuming we can get past the social upheaval associated with relatively sudden mass joblessness. In my 20s, maybe I would have been excited about being a consumer, but in my 40s, when life isn’t quite as “new” as it once was, this strikes me as problematic. Many studies link happiness to productivity, and I’m afraid that, before we know it, we’re going to lose a sense of productivity and purpose, as we spend most of our days being entertained and served. I’m uneasy thinking about where that might lead us.