Tech Savvy: An automated future
When people describe the concerns surrounding automation, they're often in bleak, dystopian terms, typically filled with images of malicious robots or omnipotent A.I.—you know, something straight out of the "Terminator" franchise.
The fact is that automation has been a part of our society for some time. More likely than not, you've driven past a vehicle that's piloting itself. The vehicle itself was, in all likelihood, assembled by a horde of robotic implements. You've probably spoken with an artificial call agent (and never realized it). If you've ever used the self-checkout line at Walmart, you've experienced the wonders of automation firsthand.
So, in many ways automation isn't the scary prospect that pundits make it out to be—at least not in a worst-case scenario, apocalyptic sense. However, there are a lot question marks surrounding automation that we don't have answers for. There simply isn't a precedent for the kind of changes we'll likely be seeing in every strata of the labor force.
The conceptual underpinnings of automation
Often, when the topic of automation comes up, you'll hear people throw out catchy one-line rebuttals like "Every time a job is lost through innovation, two more are created to support the new technology" or "The human mind can't create a mind greater than itself." Basically, both arguments can be broken down to a position of scepticism based on precedent.
Yes, every prior industrial revolution has created more jobs than its eliminated and, yes, to a certain degree, we have not created an artificial intelligence superior to our own intellect.
People have a hard time fathoming such a paradigm shift because it represents something our species has never experienced before. On one side, every industrial revolution has been a revolution of muscle power—for example, the domestication of horses because they're stronger than humans, then the invention of steam power to replace horses, then the invention of the combustion motor in our cars.
Here, in the late 2010s, we're looking at an industrial revolution of mental power, not just muscle power. While we have not created a mind greater than our own, in certain limited functions like memory recall and data processing, the "mind" of your smartphone is vastly superior to yours. Who's to say other human functions—even sacred traits like logic or creativity—won't be replaced in time?
Automation is slavery without oppression. Robots don't grow tired. They don't need sick leave or vacation time. They don't unionize or demand benefits. They aren't prone to human errors. They're more accurate, more comprehensive, and they do it in a fraction of the time while being able to work nonstop, 24/7, infinitely.
The impact of automation
And so, the question is, will any corporation opt to stick with old-fashioned manpower? And is there a logical reason to do so? That isn't to say all jobs are threatened right now, but it may mean we're going to see the most significant change to our labor force since the advent of agriculture. Already, jobs in transportation—which number about 3 million in the U.S. and approximately 70 million globally—are squarely in the path of automation and may be gradually phased out over the next 10-15 years.
Jobs in manufacturing and retail are not far behind, but if you're thinking white-collar professions are safe from the plight of blue-collar workers, merely look to the changing face of medicine, administration and law to see how automation is taking traditionally cerebral positions and automating them.
Even computer programmers are, in essence, working themselves out of a job by creating self-teaching software robots that can observe humans completing tasks and mimic them. When robots are able to write their own code—which is a likely inevitability—all bets are off.
All in all, between 400-800 million jobs will be replaced with robotic labor by 2030 across the world, according to a study conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute in 2017. The social strata that is predicted to get hit the hardest? The middle class.
And why wouldn't they automate? The cost of constructing machines, even sophisticated models, has been plumuting in recent years, dropping 40 percent since 2005, according to a report by the Boston Consulting Group. Mechanization is more affordable than ever, and it looks to be a more and more wallet-friendly option going into the future. Every leap in technology first appears as something impractical, gaudy or even ridiculous—then it's a matter of luxury, a sign of prestige, before it becomes a staple of everyday life. Henry Ford, the father of conveyor line manufacturing, once said that if you asked a man in the 1890s what he wanted most, it would have been a faster horse. The idea of an "automobile" was largely unfathomable in the 1890s, yet fast-forward a century and suddenly the idea of a world without cars is nearly unfathomable to the modern mind.
So it was with cars and horses, so it will be with robots and us.
A new social contract
As terrifying as the "Terminator Scenario" may sound, it's important to remember that while automation may solve (or steal, depending on your perspective) the need for labor, it doesn't necessarily mean we're losing our reason for living.
A world where most labor is automated is one where people have more time to devote to pursuits that matter to them—spending time with loved ones, learning, exploring talents or areas of interest, developing healthier and more fulfilling habits. Often, the rat-race of the 9-5 simply does not allow these side excursions. In an automated future, this is a little more realistic if—and this is a big "if"—modern societies can move past a system where a person's worth is largely determined by where and if they work.
How often do we introduce ourselves to others by asking what a person does for a living? It's a natural impulse that goes back much further than Henry Ford's conveyor belt. Before we were just "cogs in the system"—whether it's in a cubicle, factory floor, field of wheat or out hunting in the wild—humans have largely determined their value by how they can contribute to the larger group.
This role, in which we contribute to something larger than ourselves, isn't always a "job" and hasn't always been a "job"—though, it's likely that way for most of us and has been for centuries. So we do these jobs, often to the exclusion of important things like family, personal interests or even our own health and well-being, because this job gives us purpose and a sense of belonging.
We need to be needed. The real threat of automation, if it is a threat, is that the world just won't need us the same way anymore. The social contract, where we buy into the system, earn our place in it and are rewarded by the system that needs us, may not function like it used to.
And where does that leave us?