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Asher '15: I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords

For an introvert like me, the self-checkout kiosks at CVS are a dream come true. I feel blessed to live in an age where, in the span of three minutes, I can locate and purchase deodorant, paper towels and SunChips without having to make eye contact with a single human being. Of course, I also have to deal with the occasional shame of impotently tapping at the screen as the kiosk tells me that an employee is on the way to assist me, but let’s stick to the positives for now.

Rather than considering why employers would want to use machines instead of humans, it is probably more of a challenge to consider why they wouldn’t. An ATM can’t show up late for work with a hangover, an assembly-line robot isn’t going to get distracted in conversation and forget to screw in a bolt, a self-checkout machine can’t make judgmental comments about your purchases — despite what we might infer from its tone. Let’s face facts: We humans are flawed, often unreliable, creatures. For the foreseeable future, the rule will be that if a job can be automated and performed by a non-human, it will be.

Bill Gates is in agreement on this point. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute — an economic think tank — about technology’s impact on the labor force last month, Gates predicted, “Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill sets,” Business Insider reported. “Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.”

A January article in the Economist agrees with this outlook, observing that for the first time in history, technological advances have not brought with them a surge of job creation and wage increases. And if you’re looking for a third opinion, as far back as 1970, Buckminster Fuller stated, “It is a fact today that one in 10,000 of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest,” and that this fact calls into question the “specious notion that everybody has to earn a living.” There is a paradigm shift happening before our eyes, and we need to readjust our “mental models” accordingly.

I’m not writing this as a doomsday column. First off, as students at a first-class university, we’re in okay shape. It will be a long time before people trust computers to make important decisions, and it may never be possible for robots to become community leaders. Brown trains us to fill vital societal roles that are not easily automated or outsourced. The second reason I’m not as worried about the impending robocalypse is that it’s possible that the ultimate worst-case scenario — a world where most menial labor is outsourced to robots — isn’t all that worst-case.

The big issue seems to be that we may one day not have enough jobs for everybody. In fact, we already don’t have enough jobs for everybody. Wages for most professions have stayed flat. No, this is not President Obama’s fault — this is a phenomenon that goes far beyond politics and beyond our borders. For example, odds are no politician ran on the platform of phasing out ticket sellers at the Providence train station in favor of ticketing machines — it just made sense. So the question before us is, if a large portion of the population simply has no vital economic task to fulfill, what happens then?

One possibility is a minimum, government-supplied income. In the United States, it’s the most cringeworthy of policy suggestions. For our culture, to imagine a society in which a significant portion of the population receives a monthly income, with no strings attached, simply for being human, is anathema. But this is not necessarily true of the world as a whole. The Liberal Party of Canada, which holds the third-most seats in the Canadian parliament, recently adopted basic income as a party platform. Basic income has already been tested in the city of Dauphin, Manitoba. Not only were the results of this experiment not disastrous; they were, by most standards, very encouraging. So as much as basic income may sound like a fringe, loony idea to us here in the United States, our neighbors to the north are slowly getting on board with it.

But basic income has yet to be put to the true test of nationwide implementation in any country. And even if its results are mind-blowingly positive, the political realities of the United States will likely put the kibosh on its adoption by our government in the foreseeable future. We have not yet taken Fuller’s words to heart, and possibly never will. Nevertheless, basic income serves as an example of the kind of radically out-of-the-box thinking that’s only going to become more important to adapt to in a world changing at an astounding rate. We must not become Luddites — we cannot afford to. Year by year, we’re getting better at integrating technology into our lives, redrawing the lines between what is possible for humans and what is possible for machines. Honestly, we’re not even sure what a “machine” is anymore. It is, in short, a very cool time to be in college trying to sort this all out.

 

Adam Asher ’15 is concentrating in classics. 



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