In his essay, “Better than Human: Why Robots Will—and Must—Take our Jobs,” Kevin Kelly informs the reader of some uneasy truths most readers find hard to swallow; or worse, invoke fear in them of what is to come. Kelly believes that 70 percent of today’s occupations will be replaced by automation by the end of the century, further asserting that the migration of robots into our workforce has already begun. Robot (or automation) takeover actually started in the 19th century when farming was the occupation of 70% of Americans—fast-forward to today, that number is closer to 1%. So what happened to the other 69%? The Industrial Revolution transitioned our workforce from hand production methods to machines with the development of machine tools and the rise of the factory system. Economic historians agree the onset of the Industrial Revolution is the most important event in the history of humanity since the domestication of animals and plants. Agricultural societies transformed into more industrialized and urban city cultures. Electricity, the transcontinental railroad, the cotton gin, steamships, and other inventions permanently changed society. Almost every aspect of daily life was influenced by automation.
The question is, though, has automation been a positive or a negative influence on society? My view is the advancement of automation has given us humans what we have desired, but most have found almost impossible to attain—the gift of time. Therefore, I say yes! Let the robots help streamline processes, produce faster, and perform better. Kelly very eloquently describes the effect of automation on humans over time by stating, “When robots and automation do our most basic work, making it relatively easy for us to be fed, clothed, and sheltered, then we are free to ask, ‘What are humans for?’ Industrialization did more than just extend the average human lifespan. It led a greater percentage of the population to decide that humans were meant to be ballerinas, full-time musicians, athletes, ….. and folks with one-of-a-kind titles on their business cards.” Kelly’s words reflect his confidence in our ability to adapt, reinvent, create and generate for ourselves new occupations, professions, and trends.
However, conventional reaction to such constant, rapid transformation from human to mechanical processes has caused some to panic, hesitate, or slow down the forward progress of technology due to fear of the unknown, and understandably so. After all, the majority of us are more conventional thinkers rather than risk-takers. Even so, this attitude has given rise to more radical groups opposed to automation who view robot takeover as a threat to human superiority, warning us robots will displace millions of workers, resulting in workforce disruption on a global scale and forcing millions into poverty. They even predict robot takeover will have dire and detrimental economic and political consequences. This level of fear-mongering has prompted studies be conducted on the subject by well-known research institutes. Although these studies seemingly maintained these doomsday-type theories, their supporting facts consisted only of the number and types of jobs that would eventually be replaced by machines. They did not weigh in on the human factor. Another study from the Pew Research Center asked 1,896 “experts” about the impact of emerging technology and less than half of them expressed concern of what they ‘envision’ robot replacement will lead to which, among other things, was a breakdown of social order.
While it is true that advancement has caused some measure of disruption, I would argue the benefits to society since the introduction of automation far outweigh any level of disruption. Presented with a challenge, humans will do what we always do when our survival is in question—we adapt and allow ourselves to think, to inspire or become inspired to create further changes—those farmworkers became factory workers; and when factories began replacing assembly line workers with machines, other types of jobs began emerging to pick up the slack.
A world in chaos where social order ceases to exist because of machines, as demonstrated in movies such as, “AI: Artificial Intelligence” and “The Terminator” series, is exactly the vision Hollywood movie producers set out to inspire in movie-goers. But let’s be real, these were Hollywood movies depicting the most exaggerated and wildly imaginative, futuristic life with robots. Moreover, their primary objective in creating this type of entertainment is to make millions by invoking fear—a means to an end. And it worked, I was scared. However, I realized it was just entertainment and not reality; but, apparently, some have not.
This is the reality—once the transformation to automation began, our human minds took off in all different directions, sparking our imaginations with new ideas and concepts on how to produce faster, perform better, streamline processes, etc. So why not unleash our imaginations to create futures we desire? Why accept the drudgery of going to work, day in and day out, when mechanical processes can accomplish the same tasks and free up our time to not only imagine, but actually experience bigger and greater things? I understand why Kelly urges society to dispel notions that smarter robots lead to no more jobs and embrace robot takeover, even as they get smarter and perform our jobs better. It is highly probable we will see a future in which humans and bots are able to work side by side in the capacity to which we are destined. This will occur gradually in time and we must ready ourselves—position ourselves to reap the benefits of advancing technology.
I, therefore, urge you to let the historical facts speak for themselves. For the first time in history following the introduction of automation, average income and population began exhibiting unprecedented, sustained growth. Additionally, the standard of living for the general population began to increase consistently. Mechanical inventions streamlined processes, thereby reducing manufacturing costs while increasing production units, and with more efficiency than its human predecessor. Whether unintentionally or not, we have inserted them into our everyday lives—touchless vacuuming by iRobot’s “Roomba” (completely robot-operated), internet access from a computer chip, tiny thumb drives capable of storing and recalling documents the size of a large textbook, xerox machines capable of sorting, collating and staple multiple sets of documents, keyless car starting, GPS in real time will audio guide you from point A to Point B—there is no end to our uses of automation today.
We must remember the farmers of the 19th century who did not sit idly by—they moved on to newer inventions, medical research and development; they learned aerodynamics and built locomotives and steamboats. They knew their potential and set out to realize it, as will we.