Moira Herbst wrote an opinion piece yesterday in The Guardian that is worth a read, entitled Robots Should be a Worker’s Best Friend. This article accurately points out a concern shared by thinkers such as Paul Krugman that automation may be changing the dynamics of hiring and productivity to completely as to cause chronic underemployment. Herbst responds by suggesting that the real issue is not how to stop robots from taking our jobs, but considering how the spoils of such an employment shift will be shared. Her suggestion is to share the economic fortunes resulting from this robo-employment with the former workers, not just with the business upper-class. Fiction often supposes a future where our lives are entirely leisure-filled because work disappears into the robo-woodwork; Herbst’s argument appears to embrace this notion and suggest that we forge an economic path to get there.
I think this is a discussion worth having, and I think there are at least two major obstacles that just may not be overcome. One is economic and cultural: can we really chart a future course in which profits resulting from productivity gains flow to the 99% rather than the 0.1%? For years now, the trend has been strongly in the opposite direction, as the gap between rich and poor increases in the developing and developed world alike. The second one is about identity: just what does it mean for us all to “engage in more creative or social work?” It is true that repetitive tasks are a grind. And yet- some of that repetition is beautiful. I go to a Japanese sushi restaurant in Pittsburgh whose owner makes the sushi, by hand, every single day, and deliciously so. It is his excellent in technique, combined with is caring, that gives the sushi a karma that makes the eating experience fantastic. Would it feel the same for me if he were replaced by a robot? And would he have the same pride in his life’s work? These are hard questions because so many peoples around the world depend, for their livelihood, on work that is very hard on the human body. But replacing all that and reprogramming humans for permanent leisure feels like it may take away a bit of our human identity as well. Then again, I am the kind of person that still grinds coffee beans manually, using a burr mill, because all that effort makes the first sip all the more special.