Will robots take over our jobs?
In a very important episode of the hit television series South Park, people from the future come back to our time in order to seek work. It appears that there will be (is?) severe unemployment several hundred years from now. The response from our contemporaries? "They're takin' our jerbs!"
Our great, great grandchildren do not at present seem to be unemployment threats. But in the view of many, a different type of our progeny is now or soon will be taking on this role: robots. This is more than passing curious, given that our unemployment rate is now at historic lows. Nonetheless, there is fear in the land. According to McKinsey, 45% of current jobs can be automated. Martin Ford has written a tome entitled Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, published by prestigious Basic Books.
Is this a serious threat? No. Let us look at our past experience with machines. Cell phones to a great degree replace cameras. Thousands of jobs at Kodak bit the dust. Did this boost unemployment? It is difficult to see how that would be the case. Computers substituted for typewriters. Job loss? Yes, in that industry, but not overall. Similarly, cars replaced horses and buggies, washing machines and dishwashers substituted for human effort, electricity took over from candles — the list goes on and on. Repairs of all sorts of things from shoes to clocks have all but disappeared; it is often cheaper to build new ones than fix old ones. Lots of employment slots in repair were lost.
What is going on here? Why is it that new jobs keep replacing those that went missing? In a word, this is due to the fact that human wants are indefinitely large. As we become more and more opulent, do we become satisfied? No — we are pleasure piggies. We want cures for cancer and heart attacks, kidney disease, etc. We would like nothing better than to live happy, healthy lives until the proverbial 120 years. No, check that — we want to live forever in the bodies we had when we were twenty years old. While we're asking, it would be nice to have colonies on the moon and Mars, to start with. And then on to the other planets and solar systems!
But are not robots different, radically so, from these other past technological changes? Yes, they can do more, much more, at least potentially. No Model T Ford could ever beat a chess grandmaster at his own game. But this means only that we can get farther down our almost infinite wish list than before, and at an increasing pace, thanks to these mechanical children of ours. It certainly does not mean we will run out of things we now want and will desire in the future. As long as they cannot keep pace with our gargantuan wishes, there will be jobs for us to do, if only to order them about. And if, per impossible, they become like Aladdin's genie and grant us not three wishes, but as many as we want, why, then there will be no need for employment.
What about rebellion on their part? Will they take over and boss us around? Well, our nerds had better stifle any such tendency on their part. But this is not a problem of joblessness. No, the robots will not be "takin' our jerbs!"