What We’ll Do When Robots Take Our Jobs

Robots won’t take all the jobs, just most of them. We asked futurists what life will look like for the permanently unemployed class.

Joel Balsam

Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been obsessed with the idea that machines will steal our jobs—and that fear appears to be playing out. 2016 was another year towards complete automation, with service and driver jobs—two of the most common professions in the United States—marching towards obsolescence.

The often-cited statistic is that 47 percent of US jobs will be lost to robots in the next decade or two, and a recent report from the United Nations raises that number, saying that two-thirds of all jobs in the developing world are at risk of being poached by automation.

But will robots take all the jobs? The popular opinion is that they won't. Communication, high-skilled and creative jobs won't be taken by robots in the foreseeable future, some say. And according to Google's chief futurist Ray Kurzweil, when the robots get smarter than us, "We are going to have new types of jobs creating new types of dollars that don't exist yet and that has been the trend."

But what if these optimists are wrong?

It's just too hard to predict which jobs robots will and won't take. For instance, you might think a job like an architect requires creativity, but robots could easily do most of what an architect does, as Oxford University Economics Professor Daniel Susskind pointed out to VICE.

It's quite possible that even if robots don't take all the jobs, they'll take most of them. And if/when they do, how will we spend our time?

The simple answer is: Nobody knows.

But here's one way things might play out: George Mason University Economist and Futurist Robin Hanson predicts in his book The Age of Ems that in roughly a century (a long way off as far as futurists predictions go), robots will become like the poor working class, doing most—if not all—of the jobs to make the world run efficiently.

The robots in Hanson's future are programmed with brain emulations—sort of like what you did with your Super Nintendo back in the day, but with your brain. The "ems" could then be put on fast-forward so 1,000 years of robot work would only take one-year of our time.

So with robots doing all of the work at mind-boggling speeds, what would we be doing?

"What [humans would] do is pretty much what all you and your friends would do if you were able to retire," Hanson told me.

I'll let your imagination wander on that for a sec…

Hanson says that while robots become the working class, jobless humans might be like ancient Greek elites.

"[The Greeks]... became more promiscuous and more leisurely and focused on travel and art and things like that," said Hanson. "In some sense our whole society is now enacting that as we all get rich and there's no particular reason to think that that trend doesn't continue."

Hanson doesn't expect that robots will become our overlords or try to kill us off. There wouldn't be a point. Humans would just be these weaklings chilling in retirement communities (perhaps turning their friends into zombies and fucking with dicks on their foreheads). And we wouldn't want to rebel against the robots because we're too damn weak.

The major hole in Hanson's theory—one he acknowledges—is that the money earned by robots probably wouldn't be distributed equally. Maybe monopolies that own the robots will take control of the wealth, or maybe governments will—but the majority of us will probably be starved and in agony, with no work left to do. That is, unless we change up the economic system and upend capitalism.

Sounds nutty when you put it like that, but the idea of spreading free money to everyone in the form of a universal basic income dates back as far as 1516 with Thomas More's Utopia and has been proposed by prominent Republicans and Democrats alike. And the idea has already been tried. Experiments have taken place in Manitoba, Ontario, Uganda and Namibia—all with hopeful results regarding the alleviation of poverty.

But hold on, who are we kidding? People are too lazy and they'll just sit around eating Doritos instead of doing anything productive, right?

Currently, there's evidence to back up the people-don't-do-shit-if-they're-not-working theory. Retired folks spend half their leisure time melting in front of the TV, and when we're not working we feel guilty about not being productive and shove our faces into a bowl of ice cream while watching Netflix instead. Besides, what are we supposed to awkwardly tell people at dinner parties when we're asked: "So what do you do?"

Our identities are completely shaped by our jobs. "Love and work…work and love, that's all there is," Sigmund Freud famously said.

But there's a group of people out there called "post-workists" who point out that work doesn't actually make us happy. Work makes us depressed and if you go by the traditional definition of happiness—having meaningful relationships, being good at what you do and having freedom—there are other ways to be happy outside of slaving over a 9-to-5.

Doing art or being an artisan, taking care of people and inventing shit currently aren't always paid a lot—if at all—but they all give you purpose, the feeling of independence and the potential to become really good at something. What else do you really need? And if we were given enough money in the form of a universal basic income, we'd be as content as can be, as the theory goes.

Unfortunately, there's no way to actually prove that we won't just sit around and eat Cheetos instead of doing something useful when the robots take our jobs. But that doesn't mean there's no evidence at all to draw from.

If we look to the past, farmers and their kids didn't have jobs per say, but they made themselves useful throughout the day. And if we go back further to when we were hunter-gatherers, humans made use of our time without institutions like religion, marriage or land ownership. Even in modern times, for the hunter-gatherer Pirahã tribe, work is fun and time off isn't something to feel guilty about. "We think it's bad to just sit around with nothing to do," said anthropologist Daniel Everett, who researched the Pirahã, to The Atlantic. "For the Pirahã, it's quite a desirable state."

So what will we do when robots take our jobs? Hopefully by then we'll have developed a universal basic income—for the whole world, not just each country—and be able to do what we really want instead of working for the sake of working.

But somehow it's easier to picture being picked apart by murderous robot tentacles than to imagine a work-free future.   

Follow Joel on Twitter.

Lede image: Flavio

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