There’s a lot of talk these days about where we are headed in terms of jobs and the economy. On one hand is the ominous and growing reality of robots taking over jobs from humans. On the other is the wide open question, often posed thus: ‘Where is this all leading?’
Answer: nobody knows for sure, but science fiction writers are going to have lots to keep them busy over the next few years and decades. Unless of course somebody comes up with a robot that can do a better job.
Robot may not be exactly the right term, but we’ll use it because it is simple and understandable. It is also not something new. In one form or another, machines have been taking jobs away from human beings for at least the past 200 years. Somehow we’ve adapted, and the most prosperous societies seem to be the ones where this has happened the most. There’s less incentive to do it in places with vast pools of dirt-cheap labour.
Those vast cheap labour resources are part of the same story. If you can manufacture something in Bangladesh for a tenth of what it costs you in Missisauga or Burnaby, why wouldn’t you do it? Answer: you would and you do, and there go the manufacturing jobs.
A related question: If you can ‘hire’ a $30,000 robot to flip burgers in your fast-food restaurant, why wouldn’t you do it? Answer: you would and you will. It’s already happening. CBC Radio reported a couple of weeks ago the first-ever artificially-intelligent fast food chef had been engaged at a joint in California. If it works (Why wouldn’t it?), at stake are 2.3 million ‘McJobs’ in the U.S and maybe a tenth that number in Canada.
Another obvious question: What jobs or professions are secure from robotic take-over? Nothing that involves repetitive physical labour, for sure. Quick thinking? Why couldn’t AI handle that? Financial and legal advice? Why not? Bank clerking? Pretty easy to imagine. Driving? Driverless cars are already being tested.
So where is all this leading, anyway? To a prosperous society where nobody works? How does a government handle that scenario? By taxing robots, for one thing. And turning around and providing the necessities for the unemployed millions? It doesn’t sound all that healthy.
There are some very big questions to answer in this ‘brave new world’ we’re creating. It will definitely be interesting, but it might also be quite uncomfortable. If nobody is working, who is going to buy all those burgers flipped by those hard-working, punctual, reliable and non-complaining robots? You get the impression nobody really knows what we are creating here.