the future includes robots

Published another article at medium.


The humans need not apply video has been doing the rounds lately. An apt summary:

“Technology gets better, cheaper, and faster at a rate biology can’t match” + “Economics always wins” = “Automation is inevitable.”

So the message is, humankind should look forward to being treated like horses in the early 20th century and become obsolete as robots take over jobs previously performed by humans. And it’s presented like it’s a bad thing.

Here’s what I think. I think that automating tasks currently performed by humans is awesome. The cost of “running” a human is so astronomical compared with running a robot, and it includes errors and inconsistencies made by humans. Am I the only person who has been following news about driverless cars with enthusiasm and happiness? Driverless cars (and buses and trains and other modes of transport) will probably be much safer because robots don’t get tired, fall asleep, text, or get distracted while they are driving. The current difficulty of integrating driverless cars isn’t just the technology, it’s that these cars need to negotiate roads occupied by unpredictable human drivers. There’s not been any difficulty in using driverless trains or trams that use fixed tracks. I’m sure that the map of roads in a few hundred years will be vastly different from our network of highways, but it’s progress.

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There’s always been resistance to change over the course of history. People used to manually write out copies of books by hand, their jobs were eliminated when printing was invented. The Industrial Revolution replaced manual labour with machinery. The digital revolution had similar impact on jobs.

But every time there was a new invention or progress, as dust settled, people went on to do something else — trading, finance, services industry. Going back to the printing example, yes there was no longer any need for meticulous book calligraphers, so did humankind grind to a stop? History tells us otherwise. The widespread availability of books meant improved literacy and education. Humans who used to copy book contents went on to create content for more and more books. When robots assume the more mundane tier 0 or tier 1 tasks, a human brain is freed to take care of the more complex, emotionally driven, critical thinking tasks that robots can’t do yet. Robots can cook burgers, pizza, sushi, but they can’t create sublime dishes that are more art than mere food. I can live with robots at Mcdonald’s, but there will still be a place in the world for the Fat Duck or Noma.

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Leisure, that’s our lot in future.

Our ability to consume leisure nowadays is astounding and something that our parents’ generation would never imagine. When I think of horses, who, as the video told us have been deemed unemployable, I see them grazing in meadows. The ones who are working are mainly “employed” in the services industry — touristy horse-drawn carriages, horse racing or in the services of police forces or farms. Just as horses’ lives have changed, it is up to us, humankind, to find a new place in the brave new world of robots. As wired said (emphasis mine),

We’d still have to find our place among the robots, except this time without work as a guidepost for defining a sense of purpose. By eliminating the need for people to work, robots would free us up to focus on what really makes us human.

I admit, I’ve presented an overly simple and westernised view. How the next generation will work is unclear. May be we will see the end of robot-like commuting and fixed hour (9-5) work as people gain more flexibility not only in hours they work but where and how. The world is going through a prolonged recession, if I knew how the next generation of jobs will evolve, I’d be a famous economist.