The robots are coming for your jobs! This is the message we hear daily from every angle. Though I dislike agreeing with sensationalized media stories, it is true. The likelihood of you losing your job to a machine or a robot is pretty high. However, where I do disagree with these eschatological cries is that I do not necessarily see it as a bad thing. I do not mean to be insensitive to the hardships of joblessness, but I do think we will benefit from robots doing our menial labor as a species.
This is Not the First Time This Has Happened
One of the most important things to remember when thinking about our next labor revolution is that there have been many before this one. The two most famous are the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution.
About 10,000 years ago the majority of humans shifted their subsistence strategy -the way in which we acquire the needed materials to survive- drastically. The agricultural revolution completely changed the game for humans, and valued skill sets changed accordingly.
Without having to constantly be on the move to forage, hunt, and gather our foods meant cities could be erected. It is no coincidence that the oldest cities we know about began to spring up in 1) good farmland and 2) around the time humans adopted this new subsistence strategy. Farming allowed for a more sedentary lifestyle and freed up immense amounts of time for humans to pursue other goals.
The other readily obvious example is the industrial revolution which took place about 150 years ago. This increased the productivity of making goods, which brought down prices and enabled more uniform production of those goods. Labor became more specialized, meaning jobs changed. Work and jobs are not constants, they are malleable and flexible.
Putting this robotics and digital revolution in context makes it way less scary. Like the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution, the one we are at the cusp of will change how we think of work not decimate us.
Pursuing Humanity: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Robot
There are many good reasons to have machines do many jobs in place of humans from accuracy concerns, to workplace safety, to the bottom line of a company. Less defects, fewer human injuries in dangerous workplaces, and cheaper production for companies are all good things. But maybe the best outcome here is that without having to worry about many menial tasks, we can pursue greater collective human goals.
The golden age of philosophy as we know it was enabled by the fact that cities could exist due to agriculture and everyone did not need to spend time gathering food around them. Fast correspondence and travel would not be possible without trains, cars, and planes made possible by the industrial revolution. Even you reading this article is the result of a long line of revolutions (printing, mechanical, digital). Having computers and robots do the boring stuff in our lives means we can put more cognitive effort to other goals which robots perform poorly.
We can work on improving quality of life for poor individuals and make elderly care better. We can write more, create more art, and spend more time with people we love. We can start putting even more effort into interplanetary travel. We are social animals, this robotics revolution could help us be even better at being social.
I am not saying that revolutions like this are without their folly, but if we cannot see any positives in it or have a sober look at previous revolutions then we are willfully pessimistic.
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