When robots do all the work, what should we do?

Many believe that life would be miserable without a meaningful job. In other words, it's important for our wellbeing that we feel we’re doing something useful, either for ourselves and for our communities. But if robots take over most of our jobs, what will there be left for us to do?

An android developed for customer service in Japan. Responds to commands in Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and English. Photo by Gnsin and licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. 

It’s not a particularly new question and similar worries were expressed already during the Industrial Revolution. People were afraid that increasing use of steam power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the factory system would make hordes of people unemployed.

Recent developments in robotics and artificial intelligence have brought the question to a new level. It was also a key issue in this year’s World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, where the theme was "Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. Embedded in the theme was the idea that digital technology, artificial intelligence, robotics, and autonomous vehicles are expected to become commonplace, at least in developed economies.

Pope Francis sent a special message to the meeting participants, asking that "they should not be deaf to the cry of the poor and must consider their own role in creating inequality.” Furthermore, he said that "new technologies such as robotics must also not be allowed to replace humans with soulless machines”.

Typically when a religious leader issues warnings or gives moral instructions, my instinct is to "raise all shields and go to red alert". This time, however, I believe Pope Francis is on to something.

So far we've been able to deal with the fact that automation has done away with a lot of both blue-collar and white-collar jobs. We have adapted and new jobs have been created instead – though it hasn't always been easy. There are however those who think that the automation we’ve seen so far has only been a prelude to what’s about to come in the form of intelligent automation (a.k.a. robotization). In fact, people might not even begin to comprehend how many jobs will still be made obsolete by robotization.

You might have seen lists going around of jobs that are most (and least) at risk of becoming obsolete. For example the BBC, together with researchers from the University of Oxford and Deloitte, put together a comprehensive list. Typically the jobs that are claimed to be least at risk are jobs characterised by high levels of empathy, creativity, judgment, and critical thinking. In other words, jobs that require the “human touch”.

At first glance that argument seems logical, but then you hear of mind-boggling developments like the fully robotized hotel in Japan or robots that walk and navigate in forest terrain. Ironically, Hotel Manager was claimed to be the safest job in BBC’s list. Or what about robot nurses that can lift patients into wheelchairs? Nurses were pretty high on the list as well. There are even visions about robot caregivers, who could take care of lonely disabled or elderly patients.

As always, you can look at things optimistically or pessimistically. The optimists say yes, robots will take a lot of our jobs, but this will lead to greater productivity and economic growth. The pessimists think that a huge proportion of the labour force will see their employment options simply automated out of existence.

The split between optimists and pessimists can be clearly seen in a study made by Pew Research Center in 2014. Half of the experts questioned (48%) see a future in which robots have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers. Many expressed concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

The other half of the experts (52%) expect that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates. They have faith that human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Interestingly both groups believe that many jobs currently performed by humans will be substantially taken over by robots or digital agents by 2025. They also share concerns that our existing social structures, especially our educational institutions, aren’t adequately preparing people for the skills needed in the job market of the future.

Personally I believe that robotization will displace a lot more jobs than what is currently forecasted by most people. In the long term this is probably a good thing. But there's a risk that the change happens much faster than expected. This would mean less time for us to adapt culturally, socially, educationally and so forth. It's obvious that this could pose a significant problem. Simply put, everybody can’t suddenly become creative designers, empathic managers or philosophers. We could easily end up in a situation with mass unemployment and social unrest.

Humans always do something. It's not Human Being, it's Human Doing. The question is what that something is going to be, unless it's a decent job.