Work that can be done by a robot should be done by a robot. Growing food, building houses and transporting goods are all examples of essential industries that are necessary for our way of life, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t do them more effectively, faster or safer by removing humans from the equation.
Throughout history, humans have been devising newer and greater ways of producing more with less. We gave up our nomadic lives as hunters and gatherers to live in settlements and grow food. We domesticated animals, developed the plough and eventually moved to modern industrial agriculture. The same is true of every other technological improvement from fields and farms to furnaces and factories. As time passes, we have created newer and better ways of working, producing more with less effort and involving fewer people.
There is an unavoidable trend here that seems to be leading to total automation1 of every productive industry. As unappealing as it may be to render groups of hard-working individuals unemployed as they are replaced by machines, I don’t doubt for one second that it will happen. There are simply too many benefits of automation over human production. There are no wages to pay, lower risk of injury, more consistent output, robots don’t get tired or bored, and they can work twenty-four hours a day. The list is long, and with good reason; robots are simply the most recent incarnation of human ingenuity when it comes to doing work while making our own lives easier in the process.
And isn’t the whole point of building these machines is to do things that we can’t or don’t want to do ourselves? Our civilisation has a lot of work that has to be done just to maintain everything; growing food, producing energy, building houses, and transporting goods. These are industries in which human work can be augmented or entirely replaced by increasingly sophisticated machines. We should be excited to let these industries become safer and more efficient by removing unnecessary human labour from the system.
Is there any good reason why we should have people picking crops on a farm rather than building a robot to handle it? Should we really expect human beings to do back-breaking work for long hours and low pay simply because we have some outdated notion that jobs are important regardless of the work involved?
I think we’re in the middle of a societal reckoning with the idea of what work is and what it should be. There are some challenging questions about what happens to a society when a significant portion of the workforce becomes effectively unemployable through no fault of their own. We will need to re-evaluate our ideas of human ability and what exactly it is that we expect from a productive member of society. I am personally hopeful that we will move towards a system of work that prioritises human cognitive and creative capacity over our physical abilities. Then we can leave the other stuff to robots.
Total automation doesn’t necessarily mean zero humans. Simply that the system is as automated as possible and only involves humans as overseers rather than an integral part of the system itself. ↩