The return of the robots!

Beware the tin-tin bots, my friend!
The jaws that bite, the hands that snatch!
Beware the Jubjub can, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!

Beware, beware because the robots are everywhere. They take our cash, they send us our buys, they give us our tickets, they feed us our food. They file our taxes, they analyze our scans, they spit out our caseloads, they make us our coffees. They make, they make, they make and serve serve serve. Indeed, they search and search and search. We’d love them, each and every one of them, were it not for our creeping suspicion that they were making and selling and then taking our shirts.

Dystopian Luddite fears are nothing new, of course, but with an economy that has yet to recover some economists are starting to ask whether the jobs that went bye-bye are ever coming back or whether the robots have snatched them up. Since the birth of the Industrial Revolution, we have tended to adopt 3 conflicting views of machines:

  1. They will do our dirty work for us, thereby freeing us up for dignified leisure (otium).
  2. They will replace backbreaking labor with high skills work. We will become their managers, technicians, designers, and overseers.
  3.  They will replace us, making our labor summarily obsolete.

During the best of times, Optimists have plumped for either 1. or 2. or both while Pessimists and some Sci-Fi novelists have imagined an ominous universe in which 3. holds sway. In some circles today, the Pessimists are making their presence felt.

Take the Nov. 2 episode of On Point radio which featured Professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both of MIT. They query whether we’re now witnessing a new period of technological innovation in which machines are outcompeting not just individuals formerly employed in low skill service and manufacturing positions but high skill white collar professionals such as lawyers, radiologists, and accountants. It’s a wonderful episode, worth having a listen. Their solutions? No good ones apart from their call for crowdsourcing the problem.

My modest proposal would be that we change the topic of conversation from, “What do we humans do (or do well) that robots cannot?” to 2 philosophical questions:

  1. What is the form and function of the human being? (For Aristotle, to ask what it means to be human is also to ask what a human is for.)
  2. What life needs do humans have, and how can these be satisfied? (Cf. my piece on 3 needful jobs.)

It could be that asking these questions, as opposed to the more practical ones we’re used to, might set us off on rational inquiries into how to do good work in the early 21st C.

Further Reading

Kay Hymowitz, “How Brooklyn Got its Groove Back,” City Journal.

In the article, Hymowitz asks, “How did the Brooklyn of the Lehanes and crack houses turn into what it is today—home to celebrities like Maggie Gyllenhaal and Adrian Grenier, to Michelin-starred chefs, and to more writers per square foot than any place outside Yaddo?” The answer: a new wave of entrepreneurship. The problem: crippling poverty after the demise of manufacturing.

Editors, “Difference Engine: Luddite Legacy,” The Economist.

The Editors examine whether the Luddite Fallacy may no longer be fallacious.