Will Technology Make Us Obsolete? What Will We Do Then?

Adam Lewis

The fear that one day robots will take over has been cemented into our communal psyche for decades. From novels like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to films like The Matrix where humans are being farmed by robots, we can’t help but project the worst onto the future. On  some level, all stories about robots are about their capability to replace us.

But telling these scary stories is a good way to inoculate against the temptation to pursue such a world. Thinking the worst and predicting how the worst could come about is already bringing new ideas to the forefront of technological design that will influence the course our society takes.

So far, much of the technology in development is not aiming to replicate humans in either looks or intelligence. However, many advances will impact the jobs we do and how we behave. Self-driving cars will come to replace taxi drivers; drones will probably replace delivery people; self-checkouts will replace most checkout staff. This suggests that while we are not explicitly aiming to make ourselves obsolete, our pursuit of smarter technology is forcing us to reassess how we work and what we do.

If you like Piña Coladas…

In an article for Forbes, Kalev Leetaru asks, “what will the future hold when machines can perform every human task? Will we all just sit around at the beach, Piña Colada in hand, while robots and AI manage our existence on the planet? What happens when machines become more intelligent than humans and reach technological singularity in which they no longer need humans and perhaps even compete with them for resources?”

Leetaru’s concerns are legitimate.

The best case scenario is that human obsolescence could result in a lifetime of leisure, but there remains that niggling doubt that giving robots the intelligence and capacity to ‘perform every human task’ could also result in a struggle for resources. After all, technological singularity – the ability for robots to design and build robots without human input – could, in theory, pitch humans against robots if we take the extent of this advance in technology as a form of evolution.

Another doubt is, perhaps, more worrying. If humans no longer need to work, what is the point of being human?

As society is currently structured, we go to work in order to earn money which we then spend on essentials such as food and shelter as well as pursuing leisure and luxury with any expendable income. The foundation of this system is having a job which means that if we no longer need jobs, we don’t have a structure to ensure the circulation of resources. If you can’t earn money, how do you get it? Will we even need money?

For most people, much of their life revolves around work. Work forms the bulk of our social interaction as well as providing us with a sense of achievement when we reach our goals. Our jobs, our success in our jobs, are often a factor in how we value our self-worth. In 2017, it has become something of a status symbol to work incredibly long hours but with so many technological advances, this will quickly become unsustainable. But if you don’t have a job, what are you going to do with your day – with your life? How will we value ourselves?

In order to develop technology and robotic help in tandem with our needs, we need to examine what it means to be human. Is it ethical to create a robot who can emulate human behaviour? Should we be pursuing technology that will make the masses obsolete? How will wealth be distributed when we no longer need to work? These questions aren’t just being asked by story-tellers, they should also be asked by the developers, the designers, the engineers and the CEOs who are constantly pushing up against the boundaries of what we can achieve.

The fear that an increasingly technological, robotic world will increase inequality is another legitimate fear. When Marx was writing, he focused on the factory owners as the controllers of the means of production. In the future, tech CEOs will replace the antiquated factory owner but they won’t just own the means, they will also own the workers – automated robots. Once everything is automated, all the profit will go to the owner of the company without a tax to equal things out.

The Robot Tax and/or Universal Income?

Bill Gates has stepped into this debate and has suggested a robot tax. This would both slow the speed at which robots replace the human workforce but the tax would also provide funds for training people in new skills and jobs. In both instances, the workforce is being taxed on their earnings but the robots will still provide ‘labour-saving efficiency’.

Slowing down progression may sound counter-intuitive but Gates reasons that we need time ‘to figure out, “OK, what about the communities where this has a particularly big impact? Which transition programs have worked and what type of funding do those require?”’ Suddenly making lots of people redundant and replacing them with robots would cause panic but people are generally more accepting of a gradual change.

Another suggestion to mitigate the potential loss of earnings is Universal Income or Basic Income. Though the idea came about in 1797 during the industrial revolution, when Thomas Paine suggested that governments ought to pay everyone £15 per year, universal income has gained traction recently as wages are not growing enough to boost living standards. As technology improves, many workers will be displaced by robots capable of doing their job, making it harder for everyone to gain employment and earn enough to live.

With the thought of being giving a fixed sum of money each month regardless of whether you are employed are not, the Swiss government suggested a few negative implications. Before the Swiss government held a vote on whether or not to implement universal income, they released an official opinion that they are, “worried that a basic income would be ruinously expensive and morally corrosive, leaving the country with unsustainable public finances and a society of unmotivated loafers.” On June 5th 75{2dccc6f52880b37d2d746d3abc02a4b8b9b58e2d7071b0dd811a90f113bde9b0} of Swiss voters rejected the initiative.

The Swiss concerns are echoed in the UK too where Conservative Damian Hinds said in 2016, “even the most modest of universal basic income systems would necessitate higher taxes. At the same time it would cause a significant decrease in the motivation to work amongst citizens with unforeseen consequences for the national economy.” However Caroline Lucas, Green Party leader, remains an advocate for the basic income and Labour’s John McDonnell has also said that Labour’s 2020 manifesto would likely include experiments on the proposal.

In fact, there are many European experiments currently underway in cities in Finland, the Netherlands, Italy and elsewhere in Canada. These experiments vary in who is entitled to the basic income. Some favour giving the basic income to the poorest families only; some to the unemployed replacing their benefits, others topping up their benefits; some schemes require evidence of job-hunting, others don’t; some require volunteer work in the community.

What all these experiments show is that there is a public appetite for finding a solution to stagnating wages and ‘broken’ benefit schemes. As we are already shifting from lifelong careers to a ‘gig economy’, having a basic income will give hesitant entrepreneurs a safety net to fall back on and a reason to take the risk as well as give workers more flexibility in the jobs they accept. It also gives those workers who are being replaced by robots the opportunity to continue lifelong learning or retrain to pursue another career.

In the Swiss referendum, one poster asked the question “what would you do if your income were taken care of?” While the fear is that many people would say “nothing”, it is difficult to see how this is possible, let alone relevant. It may be a cliché but when people retire, we often ask them what they are going to do with all that free time. I’ve yet to come across any retiree who has said they will “do nothing”, though they have certainly earned that opportunity. Instead retirees attend to the garden, take up golf, go on cruises, get a dog and go on walks… Anything but nothing. They remain active participants in the economy.

If we think of robots as our opportunity to retire instead of our opportunity to stop working, then factor in the fact that we are retiring at a young age, the possibilities are endless. Parents can choose to focus on being parents, artists can channel their boundless creativity, inventors will be able to spend more time inventing. In this somewhat idealistic world, our obsolescence doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, does it?

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