Robots will destroy humanity

It seems to me that we as a society are on the wrong track.  We are trying to eke out as much efficiency as possible out of everything that we do.  A common thing to ask now is “how can we do more with less?”  Simplistically, this makes sense, but I would argue that this, ultimately, is a horrible paradigm. For example – Robots!

While I really like the idea of robots, they could potentially be the ruin of our society.  I am not predicting an artificially intelligent machine launching nukes and destroying humanity.  No, machines are much smarter than that!  Look at the auto industry – robots make a lot of the components of cars that people used to make.  Look at the airline industry – who actually uses a travel agent anymore?  Why would you call someone or go somewhere when you can log into a website and get tickets for cheaper than through a travel agent?  

When are stores like Target and Walmart and others just going to disappear because you can just go up to your refrigerator and click on “order milk and toilet paper” on the integrated iPad ™ on your smart refrigerator and it will just show up at your doorstep a few hours later?  From the moment that you order this to it arriving on your doorstep, there may (eventually) be absolutely no humans involved at all.  Actually, you don’t even need to be involved at all either – we should have sensors that determine when the milk is low and when the toilet paper is almost gone, and your smart home just orders the stuff for us.  This is great! But, really, it is not.  

Think about how many people this is going to put out of work.  Where are those people going to get jobs?  Well, McDonald’s will eventually be run by robots too – people who work there are trained to be robots: do this task over and over again precisely like this!  When will McDonald’s have robots in the kitchen?  It will happen.  We will eventually have no simple jobs that people with little education can do.  This scenario is potentially extremely bad, because it will create a division in our society in which the rich will have even more creature comforts, but the poor will have even less opportunity, since there will be a gigantic step up to an “entry-level” job (robot repair person).

Robots will eventually work their way up to more intelligent jobs too.  For example, I can envision someone going to the doctor’s office and sitting down to an iPad ™ and telling it what their symptoms are.  Sensors mounted in the wall take their pulse (infrared cameras that identify their arteries), listen to their lungs as they breathe (super sensitive microphones with sophisticated low signal processing software), measure the way they move as they walk across the room to figure out how their joints are behaving (X-box Kinect), etc etc etc.  It then mines a database to determine what things may be wrong with the person.  It gives them actual probabilities of issues that they may have, instead of the doctor giving an “absolute” determination that may be completely wrong.  The robot could say, “you have a 40% chance that this is X, 30% chance that it is Y, and a 10% chance that you will just die in the next day (or something)”.  The person could get all of the information about success rates of different treatments immediately, remembering what medications that the person is already on.  This type of a system could revolutionize the medical industry, leaving doctors to concentrate on patients who can not be diagnosed or something.  It could also put a huge number of doctors out of a job.

Robots don’t care.  They will screw anyone over for their job!  People are actually making robots that can paint and robots that can produce music!  Holy crap – not even artists, who are supposed to represent the essence of humanity, will be free from the robots! Robots will be better than humans – they will be the ultimate humans!

What will society look like in 20 years from now when we have robots actually doing the jobs of a hundred million people?  Magazines like Wired say that this is a great thing, because it will free us to concentrate on leisure time, but this is complete bull.  Our American society does not value leisure time.  We Americans value hard work.  Let’s say that someone is born into a poor family and there are a bunch of robots that do the jobs that they would normally do if they were born in 1960 (can anyone say auto industry?).  Would we say, “congratulations, you are one of the lucky ones whose job has been replaced by a robot – pick up your living wage check at the corner store, sit back and watch Netflix for 8 hours a day.” (Oh – there won’t be corner stores anymore because Amazon drone delivery only takes 10 minutes to deliver cigarets and Miller Genuine Draft via drone. Hmmm, now what?)  No, we as an American society will say to the person, “get off your lazy ass and get a real job doing something that will allow our corporations to make a bit more money this quarter”.  And if you can’t find a job, you better damn well invent one!  Where are the jobs – both low skill and high skill – going to come from when robots can do just about everything that we can do?  How will we stop those hundred million people from being really pissed off that they are unemployed?  This is the question that our government should be seriously thinking about.

We are actually seeing these types of problems in society today.  This latest recession has really caused some major damage in the employment sector.  The next recession will probably be even worse, since corporations will try to streamline costs by replacing people with even more automation.  Then, when the recession is over, those newly unemployed (or fresh-outs from college and high-school) will have an even harder time finding jobs.  

While I like the Terminator movies, they were completely wrong.  Robots will destroy society by sowing discourse between the haves and the have-nots, eventually leading to massive inequality and death, destruction, war, famine and pestilence.  Luckily, the haves in society will have robots to do their fighting for them and they will just kill all of the have-nots (or section them off into highly concentrated poor housing that will have huge amounts of crime and other problems).  The haves will become a smaller and smaller section of society, living in greater and greater luxury, until there are only a few people left with their robot armies to manage the rest of society that is living off the dredges.

Wow, I have a great view of the future.  And some people say that I am pessimistic.  I say that compared to the possibilities of running out of oil or releasing a man-made super bug into the air (zombie apocalypse?), that I am quite optimistic!

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About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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2 Responses to Robots will destroy humanity

  1. I would agree with you but I look at history…we have found ways to keep ourselves employed through many technological revolutions across the ages. 50+ years ago we had milkmen…we don’t anymore, and while it was painful for milkmen who were unemployed after the collapse of their milk delivery system, society went on and life is better (and cheaper) for all of us because we have fridges and supermarkets. The unemployment rate is the same now as it was then. Somehow, we find ways to employ ourselves. We always have. :^] (robot smiley face)

  2. aaronridley says:

    Yeah, I have thought about this aspect of things too. I think that it is a question of influx and outflux of jobs/people that determines how quickly society can recover from innovations without having large-scale problems. If the outflux of jobs becomes too large and the creation of jobs in other sectors does not keep up, or pick up at a fast enough pace, then unemployment will go up dramatically. The question is how long with society sit around with high unemployment. I guess we have seen historic evidence that people will put up with it for a long time. So, maybe we are perfectly fine (as long as you are not one of the 25% unemployed…) And I guess that some recessions/depressions have nothing to do with technological innovations at all. I would imagine that this is just another “strain” in an extremely complex system. The more people who are affected, the larger of a strain it is. With Milkmen, it is a small section of society. With automakers, it is a gigantic section of Michigan’s economy. One could argue that it has pretty much devastated Michigan’s economy and bankrupted Detroit – well, maybe not robots per say, but a combination of cheap labor in Mexico and China and automation.

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