I spend a lot of time thinking about technology. I’m a huge fan. I love all the state-of-the-art electronic gadgets and tools designed to make life easier or more fun. For example, I read about the new phones and laptops Microsoft announced today, and I started getting excited like a kid left alone in the toy isle.
Sometimes, after reading about a significant advancement, I think about jobs. If a computer can do the work that five people used to do, what does that mean for those five people? It probably doesn’t mean they get a vacation.
On a long enough time line, if we continue to create technology that is able to simplify human labor, or even replace human labor, what do the humans do?
Let’s consider a farmer. I know almost nothing about farming, but I feel like I can imagine it sufficiently to use it as an example. Let’s say the farmer works 12 hours every day, working his land, harvesting crops, preparing his products for sale at the market, etc. Then he acquires a robot that’s able to work the land for him. He still has to harvest and do other farming tasks, but now he only has to work 6 hours every day.
The next year, the robot is upgraded so that it not only can work the land, it can also harvest the crops, and prepare the crops for sale. Now all the farmer has to do is take his product to market. He’s again reduced the amount of labor required of him.
The year after that, he installs a system that ships his product for him, after the products have been purchased online. Another robot comes along and picks up the bundles for shipping. Now what does the farmer do? Is he even still a farmer? Or is he just a land owner?
On a long enough time line, the farmer’s needs have been met by technology. He can go fishing now, if he wants. Or maybe start a novel. Or work on his music.
“But the robots will require maintenance!” you say. “The labor and responsibility hasn’t been eliminated, just shifted!”
Then the farmer acquires a pair of redundant repair robots, designed to fix other robots. We’re talking science fiction, at this point, but it’s a science fiction that seems achievable in the near future. With recent advances we’ve seen in robots as well as 3D printing, it is very easy for me to imagine reaching this level of technology within my life time.
Actually, this type of automation has been happening for a long time. Computers have grown more powerful, and smaller, and cheaper. In addition, they’ve grown easier to use and configure. The internet has made the world a smaller place, which makes it easier to traverse and connect with people we otherwise wouldn’t have any contact with. The work force has already changed significantly within my life time.
Far enough into the future, what jobs will we eliminate with our technology, and what will become of the people that do those jobs?
Honestly, I think this has been happening for a long time. I think that the gap between the super rich and the super poor can only continue to grow, because the rich are equivalent to the land owners in my farmer example. They are the ones that can reap the most benefit from technology, while the poor have more and more of their useful assets reduced. How much will human labor be worth when super strong robots can do their job for free?
I know I’m not the first person to think along these lines. I wonder if there’s anything that can be done about it.
In a sufficiently advanced society, basic human needs should be free. That is: food, water, clothing, and shelter. I read somewhere that there are 3 times more empty houses in the US than there are homeless. It seems like homelessness should be a solvable problem.
Of course, now I’m starting to sound like a dirty socialist. But maybe that’s not so bad? If more Americans thought along these lines, we’d be giving up some profit margins, but we’d be taking care of people.
With enough time and technology, we could eliminate poverty, and give people time to pursue truly human endeavors. Art. Science. Creativity. We could be living in a Star Trek society.
That is, if we’re not lazy. I don’t know. If you didn’t have to work to make a living, and all your basic needs were provided for, what would you do? Would you do something creative, or would you veg out on the couch?