Updated: Feb 12, 2019
It is common nowadays to come across articles that claim that robots will take over people's jobs. Some might even argue that this is already happening and will continue to increase with advancements in artificial intelligence (AI). In fact, if things continue on this course, all our jobs will be at risk.
It is always difficult to predict the impact of new technologies. However, we don’t need to look very far in the past to see that automation of various kinds has already disrupted the workforce. There are numerous examples of this, such as: factory automation, large-scale machinery, and even computing itself that have significantly changed the way we live and work.
Many of these changes have made both the workplace and the work itself better. We no longer need thousands of workers doing back-breaking work using shovels to mine for the raw materials that fuel our businesses, as an example.
Nevertheless, these kinds of claims stir up uncertainty and fear for those that are dependent on jobs that might be displaced. This begs the question as to what should we do about all this?
A question from the past
When I first started my career, I worked for a semiconductor manufacturer and was responsible for computing and information technology. At that time, enterprise computing was going through its second iteration with the introduction of ERP, CRM, and other company-wide applications. The possibility that certain jobs would no longer be needed was significant and this required careful consideration. On one occasion I met with the president of the company to discuss how to proceed. He asked me a question that I have not forgotten.
He said to me, “to understand how to deal with computing, you first need to answer the question, “what will people be doing 20 years from now?”"
This at the time did not seem like a practical question to be asking but in hindsight was exactly the right question.
Why do we work at all?
If you have teenage or even college age children you may have heard them ask similar questions, "why do I have to get a job and why do I have to work?" Perhaps, their motives for asking are less than noble. However, as parents we try to come up with a suitable answer to persuade them to get a job. There are many arguments one could use as to why work is important and why we are meant to work. However, the most relevant, specifically when it concerns the accelerated advancement of robotics and AI, is appealing to human potential.
When we look at people (particularly younger ones) what we see in them is mostly raw potential. They have most of their life ahead of them and can become anything they want (more or less). Their potential has the ability to move themselves and society forward towards greater things. That is why we are saddened when people do not live up to their potential and why we celebrate, particularly when it is for good, when they do. However, to live up to one’s potential requires work and lots of it.
My parents worked very hard lives so that I and my other siblings could have a better life and for that I am very grateful. Given the chance my parents could have been so many other things. However, they took the potential they had and turned that into something tangible. All their hard work provided for our family so that we could have opportunities they did not. You could say they were passing their potential forward through their hard work.
Humans have been doing this for as long as humans have been around. Deep down we know that our potential is not effective unless it is converted to something real and this always requires substantial amount of work. In fact, quite often it requires a life time’s worth and only manifests itself in future generations.
Back to the future
So back to the question that was posed to me years ago and I believe is still relevant today, “What will people be doing 20 years from now?” Here is my answer.
We will always find ways to make work more efficient, robotics and AI are just recent examples. However, what is also in our DNA is our ability to take human potential and turn it into something great.
Robots may move things more efficiently and this will displace workers currently in those jobs. When this happens, we need to show dignity and respect for the hard work these workers have done. Who knows when we might be on the other side and told that our job is no longer needed. In fact, it is very likely that one day this will happen, if it hasn’t already.
At the same time, there is still room for hope. There will always be a need for humans to work as long as there is potential, and there is no sign that this is in short supply.
The purpose given for companies is sometimes stated as making profit. However, companies can exist for a greater purpose. They can exist to create opportunities for people to work so that their potential can be realized to some degree. The greater the degree, the more humanized the workplace becomes. At the same time, when workers are used like “machinery” the work becomes dehumanizing. Perhaps, this is where robotics can help the most, by replacing work that is inherently unsafe and unhealthy for human thriving.