Robots have loomed over the future of labor for decades—at least since robotic arms started replacing auto workers on the assembly line in the early 1960s. Optimists say that more robots will lead to greater productivity and economic growth, while pessimists complain that huge swaths of the labor force will see their employment options automated out of existence.
Each has a point, but there’s another way to look at this seemingly inevitable trend. What if both are right? As robots start doing more and more of the work humans used to do, and doing it so much more efficiently than we ever did, what if the need for jobs disappears altogether? What if the robots end up producing more than enough of everything that everyone needs?
The redefinition of work itself is one of the most intriguing possibilities imagined in a recent Pew Research report on the future of robots and jobs. Certainly, the prospect of a robot-powered, post-scarcity future of mandatory mass leisure feels like a far-off scenario, and an edge case even then. In the present, ensuring that everyone has enough often seems harder for humans to accomplish than producing enough in the first place. But assuming a future that looks more like Star Trek than Blade Runner, a lot of people could end up with a lot more time on their hands. In that case, robots won’t just be taking our jobs; they’ll be forcing us to confront a major existential dilemma: if we didn’t have to work anymore, what would we do?
The answer is both a quantitative and qualitative exercise in defining what makes human intelligence distinct from the artificial kind, a definition that seems to keep getting narrower. And in the end, we might figure out that a job-free roboticized future is even scarier than it sounds.
One prevailing answer kind of dodges the question, but it also seems like one of the most plausible outcomes. Maybe many jobs can’t be automated in the first place. Several respondents canvassed by Pew believe that the need for human labor will persist because so many of our basic human qualities are hard to code. “Truth be told, computers are not very smart. All they are is giant calculators,” game designer and author Celia Pearce told Pew. “They can do things that require logic, but logic is only one part of the human mind.”
Humans will continue to be useful workers, the argument goes, because of things like empathy, creativity, judgment, and critical thinking. Consider the all-too-common experience of calling customer service reps whose employers force them to follow a script—a kind of pseudo-automation. When made to follow a decision tree the way a computer would, all four of those qualities are sucked out of the interaction—no opportunity to exercise creativity, empathy, judgment, or critical thinking—and the service provided tends to stink.
“Detecting complaints is an AI problem. Sending the complaints to the correct customer service entity is an AI problem,” said one unnamed Pew respondent described as a university professor and researcher. “But customer service itself is a human problem.”
Overall, the kinds of jobs that respondents predicted humans would still be needed to do involved interactions with other people. Healthcare, education, and caring for the elderly and children were all seen as occupations that would still require a human touch. “Those areas in which human compassion is important will be less changed than those where compassion is less or not important,” said Herb Lin, chief scientist on the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board at the National Academies of Science.
Future job options may even extend beyond the caring professions to include work that the fluid integration of body and mind still make it most efficient for humans to perform. In a piece looking at the “instant gratification” economy of same-day delivery, San Francisco UPS driver Rafael Monterrosa tells Recode he’s not worried about a self-driving car taking his place. “As far as delivery goes, you still need someone to carry something up the stairs.”
Still, as industries from manufacturing to transportation to journalism are overtaken by artificial intelligence, the sheer number of new openings in more human service-related industries may not keep up with the number of other jobs lost. That could be leave many, many people out of work. But it could also end up changing our economy in enormous ways.
Traditionally, increased productivity correlates with economic growth and job growth, since human labor has historically driven production. A robot workforce, however, can drive productivity and growth on its own, eliminating jobs in the process. That might mean the whole paradigm of exchanging labor for pay starts to break down. “If we persist in the view that the dividends from robots’ increased productivity should accrue to robot owners, we’ll definitely come to a future where there aren’t enough owners of robots to buy all the things that robots make,” Cory Doctorow wrote in a recent Boing Boing post.
Doctorow suggests the possibility that robot-driven abundance could undermine the need for markets as we know them. “Property rights may be a way of allocating resources when there aren’t enough of them to go around, but when automation replaces labor altogether and there’s lots of everything, do we still need it?” Assuming a post-scarcity system of distribution evolves to peacefully and fairly share the fruits of robot-driven post-scarcity production, jobs as we know them might not just become unnecessary—they might stop making sense altogether.
The idea that robots could make employment itself optional may sound fantastic. No more work! But the end result could be more, not less angst. We’d still have to find our place among the robots, except this time without work as a guidepost for defining a sense of purpose. By eliminating the need for people to work, robots would free us up to focus on what really makes us human. The scariest possibility of all is that only then do we figure out what really makes us human is work.