The robots are coming

Robots are changing our world, and there’s nothing strange about that anymore. Movies like I, Robot are no longer far-fetched, otherworldly science-fiction depictions of robot-infested societies—they’re becoming more like realistic projections of what our lives may look like in a few years. We are getting more and more comfortable with the idea that technology is leading us further into the 21st Century, not humans.

We talk through text, we keep up with each other by following the tweets of electronic blue birds and the word “feed” has nothing to do with eating any more. We might as well just have robots do it all, right? Then we wouldn’t even have to use our fingers. There would be no work involved.

That’s not such an unrealistic idea. A recent CBS 60 Minutes program looked at how robots are replacing people in the manufacturing industry at alarming rates, and according to MIT Professor Andrew McAfee, “We ain’t seen nothing yet.”

McAfee and his colleague Dr. Erik Brynjolfsson, have been studying the impact of robots on the U.S job market and have found a direct correlation between the lagging national employment rates and the technological advances resulting in the increased presence of robotics in “middle-skill jobs.”

The 60 Minutes program featured a distribution center in Devens, Mass. where 100 employees and 69 robots were working side by side. An employee scanned a barcode and a few minutes later, an eager little robot scurried up, merchandise in hand. The director described how in the past, the employee would have had to walk through the warehouse looking for the items—a job that now, thanks to a complex configuration of algorithms, the robot can do in a matter of minutes.

The bots whizzed to and fro, never colliding, always moving and definitely never stopping for a lunch or smoke break. How utterly efficient.

It was all very organized and productive, yet I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would be before even the person doing the barcode scanning would be obsolete. From start to finish, the process would be run exclusively by mathematical equations. Envisioning a day where factories are completely filled with metal and not an ounce of flesh and blood is disturbing.

Imagine the sterile silence instead of the stories of so and so’s weekend escapades, the gray gleam of metal catching in the florescent lighting instead of the “Virginia is for Lovers” t-shirt your boss wears every day, and the blinking and winking of error buttons instead of colorful F-bombs filling the air.

An entire segment of our population could be rendered irrelevant in one generation. Manual laborers, people who work day in and day out with their hands, are being pitted in a war against the future. As convenience, efficiency and let’s not forget the most important one—low wages—become ever more important in our consumerist societies, human beings are falling by the wayside.

It won’t stop there. The report showed how computer programs are taking the place of people at law offices, for example. Sifting through boxes of old cases and files used to be the job of several people—now a computer carefully organizes everything. The self-serve check-in at the airport means far fewer people at the desk. Self-checkouts at the grocery store mean we can rush through without having to politely ask Suzie how her day is going. Suzie doesn’t have a job any more.

There’s got to be an upside to all this right? Rodney Brooks, robotics pioneer and founder of the most successful robotics company in the U.S—I Robot—certainly would have you believe so. In the 60 Minutes interview, he gleefully explained how his innovations would mean bringing jobs back to America.  With a satisfied smile, he revealed that after all the calculations, the cost of one of his robots works out to about $3.40 an hour. Can’t beat that! $3.40 is less than what we’d have to pay the average Chinese worker, which means outsourcing would become a thing of the past. Yeah, American jobs!

Except for one little detail—they’d all go to robots. Not people.

McAfee explained that despite astronomical advances in technology and the unmatched progress and growth of companies like Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, when it comes right down to it, they are creating next to zero new employment opportunities. Together they represent approximately $1 trillion in market capitalization, and yet collectively they employ fewer than 150,000 people. This, he went on to clarify, is “less than the number of new entrants into the American workforce every month.”

No, I’m not naive and old-fashioned enough to suggest that technology is simply a job-gobbling monster. For every downside to it, there is undoubtedly an upside. Cures for diseases are being discovered at record pace, world-wide communication has brought people across the globe  closer than ever, and lives are being saved and improved daily because of technology. One day we may even have a robot that can perform surgeries from start to finish with a 100 percent success rate.

It’s never all evil. It’s also never all good. As we strive for newer, better, faster and cheaper, we’re losing aspects of what make us human. We’re replacing the warmth of a handshake with the click of a thumbs-up icon. We’re taking the labor of hardworking people who rely on it for their livelihood and giving it to a piece of metal. Just so we can save a few bucks.

I’m afraid of what our future will look like. By the time our kids are entering the job market, will middle-class, wage-earning jobs be obsolete? Will humans be irrelevant? There’s no stopping the technological tide we’re on, but now is the time to ask questions and to decide what we want our world to look like. I don’t want a machine to nurse me in my old age. I want the touch, the care and the humanity of a person whose heart is beating, not battery-charged.

The moment we say that blood runs too thick and that oil is better, we lose the beauty of fallibility, the wonder of community and the unsurpassed comfort and albeit messiness of relationships. That’s not something we should be ready to give up.