It seems more and more jobs are threatened by automation as time passes and technology advances. We are already seeing robots working more precisely and consistently than humans in workplaces, and carbon-based lifeforms naturally feel economically jeopardized by machines that can do their job for free.
Amazon, for instance, has 100,000 robots working in its warehouses. The company still has 500,000 human workers because the robots lack common sense and dexterity — but for how long? Amazon is also experimenting with checkout systems powered by artificial intelligence, illustrating cashiers may be unneeded in the future. Other forms of automation include customer service chatlines, data analysis and spatial design.
What’s next? Will drones replace mail carriers? Will self-driving cars replace taxi drivers?
Perhaps a more important question to ask is “so what?”
Every concern in regard to automation critiques the possible economic impacts it may have on modern society. More specifically, people fear unemployment rates will continue to rise, and the cost of labor will plummet. But this assumes that our economic paradigm is fixed and unchangeable.
Outside of economic implications, why on earth would it be a bad thing for more machines to contribute to our workforce? This would leave citizens in a position to explore life independently from jobs simple enough to be programmed into a machine. Furthermore, it would encourage people to ponder what makes them human.
Perhaps there is a worker who worked 50-hour weeks in a factory and was replaced by a machine, and this worker has a brilliant mind that was not used to its fullest potential because so much time was spent working on mundane, tedious tasks. This worker now has all the time in the world to engage and expand their mind in ways a machine could never approach. Perhaps the worker is actually a game-changing musician, or filmmaker, or author, or painter.
For the worker, this does not mean an easy transition, however. Maybe they were working 50-hour weeks to support a family — and this is where the fundamental fear of automation comes in. If robots take jobs from hard-working citizens, it is unfair to leave them high and dry with no financial support. This is the same argument some use in racially-charged critiques of immigration: “They’re taking our jobs!” Similarly, criticisms of green energy argue these sorts of advancements will hurt hardworking coal miners and oil riggers.
These points make sense unless we adjust our economic system accordingly. There is no rule that our society has to be driven by profits, production and consumption, placing shareholder returns above the common well-being of human beings.
Our culture is so set on discouraging talent in the humanities. “Why go to college to study dance or postmodern feminism? You’ll never get a job,” they may say. Well, maybe there is actually a huge value in critical thinking and fine art.
Humans, at least in the United States, tend to be hesitant to drastic change. But this does not mean that alternatives to aggressive capitalism should be completely disregarded. Machines are tools, and it seems it would be just as easy to change our economy to match our advancing society as it would be to turn our backs on our species’ identity as the tool-using animal.
Maybe we could implement a universal basic income that would allow room for citizens to expand on their passions without feeling as much of the financial stress that comes with unemployment. A UBI could feed the urge of discovery and exploration that machines could never feel. People would have so much more control of their lives — they could travel, produce art or even devote their life to spirituality.
Perhaps they do nothing at all, and simply soak in the experience of being a human. Regardless, individuals would have a beautiful opportunity to follow their calling, and this could lead to a golden age of culture that is so desperately needed today.
Psychologists have theorized that work is crucial to human identity, as it offers the chance for individuals to directly contribute to things bigger than themselves and do something truly meaningful for the world or for society. This, they suspect, is what keeps people from simply drifting through life from adventure to adventure like a cartoon character — we thrive on consistency and meaning.
But at the same time, a Gallup poll concludes that an astounding 87 percent of people are not engaged at work these days. They are bored, careless, often unsatisfied and ultimately struggling to feel connected to what they do. It is clear that the vast majority of people want more out of life but are obedient to their day jobs out of necessity.
If our society were to offer UBIs, we should also offer citizens free or equitable, fair healthcare. And with so much opportunity to pursue interests, laborious jobs that have not been outsourced to robots could offer worthwhile wages.
Finally, almost every facet of our education system could be greatly improved. We already consider education to be crucial to our social fabric, but this is more of an ideological thought than a practical one. With so much more freedom given to citizens, there would be a great opportunity to bolster K-12 schooling, and curriculums could encourage critical thinking and self-growth on a larger, more equitable scale.
Of course there would need to be a thorough transition, as implementing this type of society involves redefining what it means to be a good citizen. But I can’t shake the feeling that people are waiting for a reason to begin this transition. Automation is a perfect reason — but we tend to forget that we do not actually need any such excuse to change at all, just as we do not need to wait for our atmosphere to implode before addressing climate change.
It is the easiest thing in the world to not change our ways and attempt to make sense of the consequences, but if we open our eyes to the possibilities of life and liberty, we will find that being a modern-day human can be so much more than jobs and politics. Life is an experience that machines will never feel in the same ways as us. But the only thing that differentiates us from them is our power to shape the world around us to match our desires. All that holds us back now is the fear of changing.