Do you think you are a special creative snowflake? Well, guess what, you’re not that special after all. The robots are coming for you. Creativity may seem magical, but it isn’t. The brain is probably the most complicated machine in the whole universe but that hasn’t stopped us from trying to simulate it. As you’re reading this, millions of algorithms created by computer scientists are running frantically on servers all over the world with one sole objective: do whatever humans can do, but better.
You may think we’ve been here before. The industrial revolution gave us new kinds of jobs and improved the quality of our lives. In fact, countries which industrialized earlier on, are significantly bigger players in today’s world. Industrialization has only made our lives easier so far. Humans have spent the last several thousand years making tools that reduce physical labour. We have created mechanical muscles, faster, stronger and more tireless than our human muscles could ever be. That’s a good thing. Creating mechanical muscles helps us to get rid of the hard work and move to more specialized jobs. This is what drove civilizations forward in past times. One specialization after another, we have reached the point at which we are now trying to create mechanical minds. Yes, machines capable of doing mental work. Just as mechanical muscles made human labour less in demand, mechanical minds are making human brain labour less in demand. However, this time, it’s a different story.
When we think of automation, we picture a robotic arm fitting parts of a car together on the assembly line, blind to the world around it. This is the old kind of automation, these rather “dumb” robots would in no way take over your job. There is a new, eerie kind of automation. Meet Baxter. He is a general purpose robot built by Rethink Robotics, a startup company. He is capable of doing everyday tasks, like pouring coffee into a cup. Baxter has a screen mounted on top of his body, which allows him to express his “emotions”. He can even act confused if he doesn’t understand something. If that is not human enough, Baxter works not only using codes written by programmers, he can also be “taught” to do a certain task by manually moving his arm. Think about how computers, which started out as a highly customized machine which could do only one specific task, evolved into the general purpose computer that we all love today, capable of playing your favourite tracks and movies. Baxter today, is what computers were in the 1980s, not the apex of their kind, but a solid beginning to a much larger change that is to come.
Since mechanical minds are capable of decision making, they are out-competing humans for jobs. One might think that it is not a problem, since robots are taking over low level jobs that humans do not want to do anyway, and humans can switch to more skilled jobs, like they have always done. If you are a white collar worker and spend most of your time clicking away on a computer screen in an air-conditioned room, then you are yet another target for the robots. Software bots are intangible and much cheaper than physical robots. Considering that white collar workers are more expensive to retain and numerous, automation would find it a perfect spot to take. Picked up a newspaper or read the news lately? You most certainly would have read an article written by a bot. Fancy a cup of coffee made by a barista complete with charming latte art? There’s a barista robot for that too. Battles against automation have been unsuccessful in the past. There have been several protests by factory workers against robots making them unemployed, but the workers almost always lose. The term “Neo-Luddism”, an adaptation of the Luddite philosophy that originated in Victorian England, has emerged to describe opposition to various forms of technology.
We’ve been through economic revolutions before, but the robot revolution is different. Automation is inevitable. Although it may not seem overwhelming now, the rate at which technology advances is far greater than biology can match. In the future, bright graduate students may find themselves unemployable through no fault of their own.What do we do in a future where for most jobs, humans need not apply?
-an article by Sridhar Suresh
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