Anyone else visit Tomorrowland at Disney as a kid? Anyone else a little disappointed that, contrary to predictions, we are not currently zooming around in flying cars, chowing down on food pills, and plugging our brains in to our computers at work? Okay, maybe I’m not so disappointed that the last one didn’t happen, but I distinctly remember being excited at the notion that technology would one day make life idyllic. I was an adolescent when I made the pilgrimage to this magical place, and menial labour was about as appealing to me as dental surgery. I couldn’t imagine any human being turning down an offer to have something else take care of all the stuff we couldn’t or didn’t want to do. I had rosy visions of Rosie from the Jetsons, squeaky-wheeling around my house, with her marvelous New York accent and her purely-decorative apron.
Decades later, I still wouldn’t complain if someone told me I didn’t have to clean, lift, manufacture, maintain, or venture into anything I didn’t want to. And yet, on a regular basis, I read things like “Robots are taking our jobs!” My fellow humans are terrified of being usurped by machines, of being unceremoniously bumped from their place on the planet by gadgets of their own creation. How deliciously Frankenstinian, and a perfect opportunity to ask why robots make us so very uncomfortable. Yes, let’s, shall we?
I have several thoughts on the presence of our future robotic overlords:
- Robots are cool, shiny and slick. Humans are sweaty and awkward. Robots aren’t whiny, argumentative, or entitled like humans are. Robots not only do all kinds of stuff that we usually do, but they look awesomely composed doing it. And herein lies the rub, or at least part of it. They make us look pretty inept. What’s more confidence-ruining than having someone shine a big ole’ spotlight on our derpiness? They do things faster, more accurately, and in the process, they make work look good. Sigh.
- Those menial things we want robots to do might mean a lot more to us than we originally thought. In our primeval, larval stage (like, when we’re kids), we revel in dirt and activity. It feels really good to do stuff. The other day, I hauled about 10 wheelbarrow loads of dirt into the back yard. And I kind of liked it. I also like getting to the bottom of a basket of laundry, and assembling sensible, Swedish-made bookshelves (please, please don’t judge me). What if physical exertion and general hard work are a bigger part of who and what we are than we originally thought? Are we giving up something essential in having machines exert themselves on our behalf? Might we actually miss doing things for ourselves?
- With robots doing the menial, dangerous stuff we don’t want to or can’t do, we’re forced to find something bigger to do with our new excess of spare time. With our hands now free from toil, we might be expected to be inventive, creative, or perish the thought, rational. We might be required to use more of our brains. Scary.
- With robots taking over physical labour, we no longer get to put a stigma on humans who do it. Okay, we can still look down our noses at machines, but in truth, they give very little in the way of a satisfying reaction to our air of superiority. In the presence of worker bots, humans who still choose to work with their hands may become recognized as artisans, craftspeople, and historians. We already praise things that are “hand-crafted” or “hand-made”, so why not admire “hand-shoveled”, “hand-driven” or “hand-scrubbed”? Maybe robots will remind us to value all kinds of effort, all kinds of work.
- Ever noticed that a lot of the robots who do our physical work aren’t built to look human? I’m not sure we could bear having them pick up after us if they actually looked like us. We’re assured over and over again that robots don’t have thoughts or feelings of their own, but what if we’re afraid they might someday evolve to have these things? Can you imagine becoming dependent on an automated workforce for just about everything, only to have it turn around and give us the finger for making it do our dirty work? How deliciously robo-marxist!
I’d like to close with something that should go without saying. As cool and shiny and pervasive as robots may be, we do still have the power to say no to them, at least in our everyday lives. Okay, maybe we can’t personally fire the ones making our cars or scanning the bottom of the ocean, but it’s not to late to eschew things like automated coffee makers and the little hubcap-shaped dudes who clean the floor. Perhaps our nail biting over robots taking human jobs is largely because their presence reminds us of what we have that they do not- free will. We make robots. We put them there. If we don’t like the idea of them taking over our jobs, we can stop being apprehensive about them and choose to not have them there. We won’t even hurt their feelings if we make them go away. In the end, robots are things we create and use to make our lives easier, better. Believe it or not, this is kind of the point of most technology. If having robots work for us just ain’t working for us, we have the power to just say no. There’s probably even find a robot who’d do that for us too.