Robots, Jobs and Handbaskets

There is no shortage of handbaskets in which the world can go to hell, and certainly robots qualify as one. It’s something to think about, as technology more and more ‘disrupts’ one industry after another. What will be the impact of automation devices in the short- and long-term future? An interesting take on this is provided by the novel Robonomics, by S.A. Wilson, available on Wattpad. In this book teachers are the focus as the target of a general takeover by robot instructors. Told in the first-person by schoolteacher Andrea Anderson, society at large undergoes great shifts as more and more workers are replaced by automatons, unions are busted, protests are infiltrated and co-opted, the underclass grows and the world goes to hell. Wilson is a polished writer who covers a lot of bases in telling the story, and moves the tale forward mainly by dialog and critical events. I would have been interested to see more of the micro-experience, more of the inside-the-classroom-with-the-robot and perhaps a bit less of the macro-society stuff, but that’s just my personal preference. The story reminded me in some ways of a very different ‘handbasket’ story, Blue Tent by Carla Herrera, which is an intensely focused and more visceral evocation of a similar dark future.

There is no doubt that occupations face challenges from future automation. We already have more and more automated factories and warehouses, mechanical jobs that require minimal human interaction. A higher level disruption, such as teachers and doctors, is probably a considerable way off. It would begin, I think, with more low-hanging fruit, such as cashiers. There are now self-checkout lines in more stores, and jobs are certainly lost by that.  ATM machines are another case in point. There are definite limitations with this approach. These, like Facebook, turn the customer into the worker, and that doesn’t fly so well with the higher income levels, whose clear preference is for personal service. Rich people want to be served by poorer people, not by machines, and certainly not machines that make them do any actual work. It’s one thing for Home Depot to have self-checkout lines – that’s a store for do-it-yourselfers who are happy to do it themselves, but I doubt we’ll ever see such things in upscale environments.

Speaking of scale, that’s another reason why I don’t see actual physical robots replacing people in professions such as teaching. Instead, and we are already seeing this, online classes are far more likely to deprecate and deplete that profession. Sites like Khan Academy, and the growing popularity of Massive Open Online Courses, are based in the cloud which makes them not only much cheaper but also much more efficient and effective. These classes can iterate rapidly, weeding out the unproductive from the more productive, and self-improve at a rapid rate. In the classroom, teachers will likely – as in Robonomics- become more like monitors, shepherding students’ interactions with their laptop software, and possibly supplementing and guiding one-on-one a little where necessary.

Another reason not to be in such dread of ‘everyone losing their jobs to robots’ is the cost, especially relative to small businesses, which are still, and likely to remain, a large source of job creation. Small business with few employees are also less likely to automate with robots because of the customer service aspect. Kiosks work at airports for self check-in, but can you visualize your local liquor store being manned by a robot? Or the gift shop? Or any small shop in a touristy or trendy neighborhood? I don’t see it. Crappy jobs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, while some professional jobs may suffer from skills deprecation. We have automated stock trading, but we still have stock brokers. We have ATMs but we still have tellers, if not as many. There will probably be some self-driving cars replacing some taxis at some point and maybe fairly soon, just as there already are fully automated train shuttles at airports, but I think it’s still a way off before no human ever drives a car. The technological challenges are also stiff; human interaction requires deep awareness of context, and applications like Siri show that we have a long way to go before a true AI is achieved.

The future will be made by people, though, and novelists are among the people who create the visions and the expectations, as well as the warnings and the guidance which define that future, and novels like Robonomics are worthy contributions to that project.

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