It’s being treated like a futuristic apocalypse that is just around the corner, coming faster and faster towards us with each passing year and new innovation. Robots getting intelligent enough to replace humans at the jobs we do. Self-driving cars, robo-baristas at coffee shops, they’re all coming soon. And this has got a lot of people worried in some way or the other, me included.
But when I think about it deeply, which to be honest, isn’t all that much, I get this feeling that it won’t be such a bad thing after all. It just might be a great future, one I would love to live in. The crux of my thoughts are like this, it would open a whole new world of possibilities, when humans are free from the menial tasks of everyday life. Let’s be honest for a second here, is there really any job that isn’t boring?
Think about astronomy for a second. We’ve probably had a sort of obsession with the stars and the night sky since before we, as a species, could talk. There’s something just so mysterious yet joyful about the night sky. The feeling of looking up at the night sky is that of wonder, curiosity, mystery and the need to get to the bottom of the mystery. And pure joy. Maybe it’s that realization that we are just so tiny, compared to the sprawling Universe we are a part of. Maybe it’s a familial feeling; we are made of stardust, so we are technically related to the other stars we see.
Think of all the advancements we’ve made in astronomy, before the 20th century. Constellations had been discovered and named by about 3000 BC. People were using the stars to navigate around, something that has stuck to this day in maritime navigation. So how did these humans, who were hunter-gatherers just a few thousand years ago, get so familiar with the position of stars in the sky? I think, and I’m not being some sort of conspiracy theorist here, agriculture played a huge part in this. With the advent of agriculture, the need to go out and hunt for sustenance dropped. No longer did they have to live life one day at a time, always going around trying to kill something to eat. They were free to do other things.
Why? With food being grown in fields and the grains being saved, humans had a “stash” of food, and they didn’t have to worry about it anymore. They could turn their minds to something else. With the (I imagine) dreadful task of hunting out of the equation, humans had time to think and wonder and ponder about the Universe and the world they lived in. Why did the Sun set everyday and then rise in the opposite direction the next day? What caused the seasons? What are those twinkling white dots in the sky? Looking up at the sky has always been an innate motivation of ours. Once free of tedium, minds began to work, ideas were exchanged and discussed. Knowledge grew and spread. Pretty much every ancient civilization knew of the constellations and planets, and their position in the night sky.
Our brains (which is basically, we) fear change. We fear change because what lies ahead is a mystery. The variables involved and the possible outcomes are unknown to us. Technological innovations often bring about vast amounts of changes in almost all areas of our lives. This is why most people are adverse to technological innovations and afraid of them. It’s not because innovation is necessarily a bad thing; it’s just that we are not fully informed of what might happen after this innovation is implemented. This explains why there is a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt regarding the possible future scenario of robots taking over our industries and jobs.
With each invention and innovation, it seems that there are incumbents who have suffered and been force to adapt or go extinct. Agricultural machines and farm laborers, the printing press and the monks who wrote books by hand, Uber self-driving cars, and taxi drivers, email and postmen. The incumbents of technological innovation have either co-existed, like email and the postman, or gone extinct. Now, living in a time where not many of us have to spend the majority of our time doing menial tedious tasks, we are free to explore, think, be creative, introspect. We now have time to think about the little things – what it is that makes us “alive”- and the big things – how did our Universe form, what is about the Earth that it is so hospitable to life?
So why the outcry against this? Why are we so enraged about the massive layoffs that will follow mass adoption of robots in various sectors of work? Sure, a lot of people would be left unemployed for no fault of their own. With robots taking over the workforce, more and more people would be out on the streets with nothing to do and no money too. And that, I think, is the problem. As Stephen Hawking points out, we shouldn’t be worried about robots and artificial intelligence, we should be worried about capitalism. By definition, capitalism tends to favor minimization of losses. To make it clear, this is why most corporations outsource their business to other countries like China or India. They get the same quality from their workforce for lower expenses. As a rule, capitalist entities will always go where the losses are low.
When robotics and AI advance enough to be able to replace humans, companies will look at humans as liabilities who need to be paid for their medical, dental and other insurance. They tend to fall sick, slack off and be unproductive and need benefits. Robots on the other hand are lethally efficient, need no “perks” or benefits and can work 24*7. So it’s not at all unsurprising that corporations will come to see robots as cheaper alternatives in the future and move onto hiring them. I’m not an anti-capitalist commie or an anarchist. No system is perfect and there will always be faults and problems in every system. In the case of capitalism, it’s the simple fact that minimization of losses is given priority that causes people to flare up against robots in the workforce. Without a job to earn money, the unemployed cannot afford the resources we all need.
The best course of action for mankind would be to move to a different system, before it’s too late. A system that guarantees equality of the quality of life for everyone once robots form a majority of the workforce. We might all have our differences and not always agree, but we need to find a solution together. Who knows, once people are out of the tedium of life we might put in more thoughts into what our Universe looks like beyond our planet. I’d hope to see a spike in interest in astronomy and space exploration in the future. We are explorers, after all.