I confess to being a sci-fi addict ever since as a young boy I first read Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Since then, much of the fantasy has become reality, along with other science fiction themes we now take for granted. (Imagine a smartphone 30-40 years ago!) While Asimov’s positronic brain in “I, Robot” still seems a ways away, we now have humanoid robots capable of dancing to a Motown beat, serving as companions to children and the elderly (in Japan), and robotic manufacturing continues to displace millions of workers in factories throughout the world. Do you know what is the number one occupation listed on IRS forms in the USA? It is that of a driver. Autonomous cars and trucks are already a technical reality, and while no one knows exactly how long it will take for them to replace many, if not most, of those currently employed as drivers, it’s not likely to be very long. From the viewpoint of companies requiring drivers to perform needed delivery tasks, the cost/benefit ratio is so huge that the decision to change is economically inevitable. That is, if the only economic interest is that of the company and its shareholders. However, when you look at our economy from a national or global perspective, the calculus is less straightforward. Who will buy goods and services when large masses of people are without jobs?
It was exactly a hundred years ago that the word “robot” first entered our language, thanks to the play R.U.R. (Ressum’s Universal Robots) by the Czech playwright Karl Capek. The concept of a mechanical humanoid creature goes back at least as far as the 3rd century B.C. in a story about Talos, the giant bronze guardian of the harbor of Crete. 16th century Jewish mythology gave us the tale of the Golem, a creature made of clay designed to protect the Jews of Prague. Finally, in 1818, Mary Shelley captured the world’s imagination with her classic novel, Frankenstein. (If you never read the book, Dr. Frankenstein was the name of the doctor, not the creature he created from body parts.) A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out that these stories, aside from their novelty in stimulating our interest, raise some very important and deep seated questions challenging us into today. “What makes us human?” “If we ever create a machine (robot) capable of independent thought, does it have any rights?” “How can we know what another intelligence is thinking?” And the question that is immediately pertinent today, “Do the benefits of progress outweigh its dangers?”
Growing up at a time of increased mechanization of manual labor, it wasn’t hard to foresee that opportunities for those who earned their daily bread by the sweat of their brow and the strength of their back would continue to decrease with time. The classic ballad of “John Henry” breaking his heart trying to keep up with the steam driven pile driver was a lesson to most of us. I chose to pursue higher education, and found a career in medicine. Now, I can see that even with 24 years of formal education, there is no longer certainty of employment in those following my path. Artificial intelligence is growing in its abilities to perform as well, if not better, at certain repetitive tasks previously thought impossible for anyone but a highly trained physician. This includes the ability to “read” and interpret X-rays, cytology specimens, and drug treatments. With the ability to send digitized images anywhere in the world, it becomes possible for doctors in other countries with lower standards of living, and therefore lower wages, to perform many of the same functions we do. This is true not only in medicine, but also in business, technology, and other “intellectual” professions.
The urgent question facing our societies is what to do with all the people whose livelihoods are being destroyed by the forces of technology, of progress? These forces are creating increasingly greater divides between the haves and the have-nots, between those who benefit from progress, and those who are harmed by it. Our ability to create new jobs and new opportunities for the increasing numbers of our citizens displaced by our current and future adoption of technology keeps decreasing with time. Part of this has to do with our education system’s failures, but also part has to do with the high complexity demands of new jobs that not everyone is capable of performing.
Aside from the financial benefits of work, somehow society needs to find ways for those who are not gainfully employed to find the social and emotional satisfaction that work provides, including a sense of self-worth. Failure to do so is going to result in massive and continued social unrest. Based on history, this type of unrest turns eventually to violent revolution or brutal suppression by those at the top of the food-chain. The movie “Blade Runner” was loosely based on Phillip K. Dick’s short story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Somehow, this dystopian story of a detective hunting for robots in our midst doesn’t seem all that far fetched anymore.