Will Robots Take Our Jobs?

In 1920, Czech author Karel Čapek wrote a play about mechanical men replacing human workers in factories. The play, Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti ("Rossum's Universal Robots") gave us the word "robot," and we've been worrying about robots taking our jobs ever since.

Now reality seems to be catching up with science fiction. Last week, the first World Summit On Technological Unemployment was held at the TIME Conference Center in New York City. It was sponsored by the World Technology Network, which presents the annual World Technology awards.

This was not Comic Con cosplayers that had seen too many Terminator movies ("I'll be back--with my resume"); this was thought leaders from the worlds of technology and economics, including:

  • Gerald Huff, Principal Software Engineer at Tesla Motors
  • Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize-winning economist
  • Irving Wladawsky-Berger, former companywide leader IBM initiatives on Internet, e-business, supercomputing, and Linux
  • Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Clinton

They shared one common concern: the impact of robots on unemployment.
Not as sexy as killer drones from the future or, for that matter, sexbots, but arguably a bigger threat to humanity.

Take self-driving vehicles, for example. Google is already piloting this technology. Uber has made no secret of its long-range plans to replace human drivers with self-driving cabs. (Yes, the "Johnny Cab" from Total Recall is on the way.) But what happens to all these unemployed taxi, limousine, and truck drivers? Do they get retrained for exciting new careers in the digital economy? Or do they become a new permanent underclass?

Now add fast food workers, hotel desk clerks and bellboys, airport luggage handlers... the list goes on and on. And not just physical workers; the thinking and creative classes will be impacted as well. We already have medical expert systems that can out-diagnose doctors and legal expert systems that can out-brief lawyers. A recent study indicates a whopping 47 percent of U.S. jobs may be automated in the next 20 years.

(Personal note: I am old enough to remember ATMs replacing bank clerks. Where did all those human tellers go?)

The attendees split into two camps: the techno-optimists ("robots will generate more jobs and/or more leisure time"), and the techno-pessimists ("robots will cause mass unemployment and social upheaval"). This in turn led to sometimes heated debate on income inequality and a guaranteed basic income. (You can't enjoy your increased leisure time if you're broke.)

As James P. Clark, Founder/Chairman of the World Technology Network said in his opening statement:

Many of the so-called techno-optimists and the vast majority of capitalists argue that creative destruction due to technological innovation will continue to play out positively in the coming years and perhaps even without much of a hitch.

The most intense techno-pessimists think we are headed for a job-copalypse that will unravel civilization and that there is no way to avoid it.

Let's avoid dystopia and shoot if not for utopia than for something much better than what we've got, something MUCH more politically and environmentally sustainable. Something for the first time ever perhaps that is actually morally defensible in every way.

This was something, at least, the summit participants could all agree on. Now about those killer drones and sexbots...