Robots and Jobs; Man and Machine

clean towels yeah right do that without a washing machine

do that without a washing machine

A recent article in Harvard Business Review hit several key points I frequently find myself debating with colleagues who exhibit less than an optimistic stance toward the future of robotics and tech in society. Enjoy some fodder for your next futuristic philosophical discussion.

“It is becoming increasingly feasible and cost-effective today for robots to assume many of the repetitive, labor-intensive tasks that are part of many people’s jobs. … I do mean fortunately, because it is often these tasks that define the least meaningful and rewarding aspects of a person’s job.

I once mused on Quora that the biggest real first world problem is apathy. People too often live out their lives doing jobs they don’t really care about simply because those jobs pay the bills.

do this without a computer

do this without a computer

The past 20 months of my life have been spent at a computational neuroscience lab at MIT. I have a resounding, extraordinary respect for the capacity of a human mind. I find it sad – borderline tragic – for the majority of an adult’s life to be spent on a job that does not capitalize on the exquisite capacity of his or her mind. I personally find relief that there will be more creative, challenging jobs and fewer tedious, dangerous, repetitive ones in coming years.

Some think unemployment will skyrocket. Jobs will decline. Have those people forgotten the Industrial Revolution? It was challenging, but no doubt mankind has come out ahead. One glance through Steven Pinker’s stats tells you that we’re living in the most peaceful and healthy time in all of human history.

Thanks in part to an industrialized world, we enjoy modern resources like clean water and pleasures like the web. Job diversity has soared.

What’s more,

 “The robot has effectively assumed the responsibility for the dull, dirty or dangerous task – but has not replaced the human responsible for getting that job done. The robot in this equation is a tool – not at all unlike what a PC is for an office worker, a tractor is for a farmer, or a nail gun is to a home builder. All of those technologies were once speculated to be replacing or at least reducing the need for the humans that wielded them. Yet all of those professions still exist today, and the workers in those fields are better, happier, and more productive because of them.”

For more perspective on tech and innovation, I highly recommend The Pixar Story. In a nutshell, this documentary chronicles the co-evolution of computers and animation. Pixar saw computers as a tool for humans, not a substitute. Computers are not innately creative. They wouldn’t on their own accord animate Toy Story or Avatar. But humans with that’s a recipe for marvel. The same could be said for robotics. And with solid societal purpose.

“Over the next 40 years, we are going to see a dramatic drop in the percentage of working-age adults across the world. …. more people with fewer social security dollars competing for services, and fewer working people available to deliver those services to them… We will need robots to help us deal with this reality, doing the things we normally do for ourselves but that get harder to do as we get older.”

Final words of parting wisdom:

Before you dismiss this vision for a highly automated society, think about it the next time you put a load of laundry into your washing machine or hit the start button on the dishwasher as you head off to bed. These are tools that have automated unpleasant and time-consuming aspects of our lives, and given us more free time to pursue more productive or pleasurable activities.

Today most of us have great power and responsibility that we often take for granted: the power to choose how we spend our lives. As technological advances whittle away the availability of tedious employment, how will mankind respond?

Transitions are turbulent. But if the past is any indication of the future, humans will rise to the occasion.


Excel at Innovation

The other day while carousing Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues for the umpteenth time, two thoughts intersected, simultaneously stirring a bit of curiosity.

Junto is Franklin’s 1727 charter improvement and mental exploration club. Upon initiation, members swore to “endeavor impartially to find [truth] and receive it, and communicate it to others”. This group is responsible for the first public library, fire departments, public hospital, police departments, paved streets, and University of Pennsylvania. Perhaps even more importantly, it fostered an atmosphere of intellectual curiosity and discussion. It provided means for men to share ideas and exchange structured argument; to experiment with thoughts and expression and learning and reap the benefits of an environment conducive to exploration.

Junto is one half of my thought intersection. The remaining is TED. It is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, Design. Excelling beyond this definition, the “ideas worth spreading” house of ingenuity hosts conferences boasting internationally renowned speakers across categories such as creativity, discovery, simplicity, and wisdom. Intriguing conversations abound.

Junto. TED. Is today’s idea sharing group a reincarnation of Ben Franklin’s improvement society? Do the colaborations and developments TED has fostered over the years compare with the first library or public hospital? Difficult questions to answer without empirical datasets to directly link project development and implementation with TED events and networking (if such data exists, please share). In my opinion, then, Yes.

One thing is certain. Openness in mind and disposition, be it the 1700’s or the 21st century, always fares well for mankind. We social creatures must share inspiration to excel at innovation. One man quintessentially becomes many when he combines others’s thoughts and ideas with his own. And many men can become few if they disregard the potential of the world around them. Junto offered, as TED does today, the invaluable opportunities to develop and elucidate what we already know in pursuit of what we have yet to discover. And that, to me, is the most exciting thing in the world.

Be an open book,