Robotics and Workplace: The Controversial Future of Employment

Robotics and Workplace

The world is entering a stage of transformation like never before in history. Technological advances not only follow each other at a high speed, but their powers expand throughout the world at an amazing rate. For example, if the invention of the telephone took 75 years to reach 50 million consumers, the Internet reached billions of individuals in just a few decades.

Under the power of ideas, technology brings us closer to the frontier of fantasy and, in case of crossing it, there will be huge and unimaginable changes that can mean the final goodbye to the world as we know it today: human affairs will change, and even the definition of what a human being is.

Man is a technological animal, an animal whose intelligence allows him to develop machines that improve his life. As an animal, its biological evolution, including its intelligence, is slow; But as the creator of machines, its technological evolution, which is the natural extension of its biological evolution, is exponential. And here some questions arise as follows:

At what point are we within the technological evolution? At that point where the distance between the knowledge, the machine possesses and the human diffuses. It was speculated, not too long ago, that a machine would never surpass the intelligence of a human. However, it soon proved that machines could think better and faster than humans. The field of experimentation was chess, where the number of different possible games is infinite for the human but finite for the machine. IBM’s Deep Blue won the best chess player of the moment, Gary Kasparov, in the mid-1990s.

In activities where behavior patterns are defined, machines already outperformed us. Moreover, in our daily lives, our capabilities have been expanded, thanks to them. Our memory is our cell phones, our work tools, computers. Also, in certain aspects, they control us: it is them that monitor at what time we enter and leave work, what activities we do or what our taste and preferences are. 

If activities are being automated, what jobs would be the most threatened? Human work will be obsolete in those fields whose activity follows fairly established routine patterns. But, in addition to this, the automation field expands and technology occupies more and more spaces. In transport autonomous cars, a reality that seemed far away from the difficulties involved in establishing all the rules to define their pattern of behavior already exists today. Therefore, not only one sector will be affected, but this revolution will affect all sectors in general and, within each one, the worst qualified and less skilled ones.

A study carried out by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, from the University of Oxford, warns that 47% of the 702 jobs analyzed are at risk of being replaced by computerized tools. It is true that probably the new activities related to robotization can generate new jobs that have not even been invented or imagined. But the risk is that, as John M. Keynes warned, the pace at which new technologies are discovered to economize the use of work exceeds the rate at which we can find new uses for work. In that case, we will face a problem of technological unemployment.

So, under this new technological revolution, will the world be better or not? It is not known. The new technological findings can mean a great step for the well-being of humanity or its extermination. It is speculated that artificial intelligence, nanotechnologies, and genetic engineering can eradicate poverty and disease, aging, and even solve the problems generated by the previous industrial revolution such as climate change.

In that sense, it can mean an economically more efficient situation in which someone improves without anyone getting worse. However, here is where the problem of inequality arises. Technological unemployment will not mean a big problem if that translates into a better quality of life for humans, with more leisure and enough income to lead a wealthy life. Men will be freed from the slavery of work.

However, the problem will be how the income will be distributed. That hypothetical future society could be hierarchized as follows: creators of robots, robots and the rest of humanity, the end-users. Will the income generated by the production of robots go almost entirely to the creators and owners of capital or will there be public policies that guarantee a fairer distribution of income? This problem is already present and is evident in the growing social inequality.

But there are those who go further and believe that there are major concerns about the possible inequality problems this situation can generate. Scientists and technological creators, among them Nick Bostrom, Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates or Elon Musk, fear that in the future machines will be smarter than humans and that the human species may be forging its self-destruction in case a superintelligence is created that has desires and can make decisions for themselves.

Is that future far away? Maybe not. An example that seems more or less close in time would be that of the elderly who receive help from robots given their inability to make decisions, it would have to be the robots who take the final call on their behalf. The question is, should we be giving decision-power to robots when it comes to human life?

The final question to be asked to everyone is, what does the future look like to you?