On Radio 4 in recent weeks they have been asking the question ‘Can robots take over your job?’ and I’ve been wondering.
Asimov was the first to think about this and make laws for the legion of mechanical beings who might, if we’re not careful, rule the earth. Robot, the noun, is Czech, taken from the word ‘robota’ or ‘forced labour’ so they’re already on a loser. Sci-fi has not helped what with Hal and his obsession with airlock security and the mayhem that was Dark Star. In more recent days there has been the Will Smith epic ‘I Robot’. Need I draw further attention to the perilous shenanigans of the Fembots in Austin Powers?
They ask a lot. Robots. They make us question ourselves and our idea of our own importance. We’re already being overtaken, not all robots have a face. There are the self-service slave tills in your supermarkets and, during my library tenure, members of staff were regularly replaced by the RFID machines.
Can they do my job? Probably. I’m churning out words and we’ve tried the monkeys and the typewriters so why not give the Bots a quill and some ink. There is bound to be some science nerd somewhere coming up with an algorithm for the imagination, the creation of story.
They were talking this evening about the 3D printing of houses, curvy modern buildings that Kevin McCloud no doubt drools over. The engineer being interviewed commented that we haven’t changed our building methods since Roman times and won’t it be lovely when the builders don’t have to stand out in the cold in their high-vis vests, instead they can be indoors operating the 3D printers.
Maybe that is so. It depends upon the builder. I think that if someone wants to be in a factory operating a printer then they might have chosen that kind of career path. There will be brickies and roofers the length and breadth of the country who love their work, who like to be in a trench or drylining a luxury flat. They don’t want to be indoors, they enjoy their skill.
At the library it was depressing to me that we were told to push people towards the RFID and not deal with them personally. In the face of government cuts and austerity the big push has been towards a reduction of staff. Let the machines do it. Along the way the idea was forgotten, or perhaps dismissed, that many people come into the library in order to interact with a human, some people are lonely or isolated and they wanted to come in and rant about the inadequacy of the seafaring adventure novels on offer.
That said there were plenty of library employees only too happy to be excused from dealing with the great unwashed British public.
No preparation is being made for this Industrial Revolution Part II so perhaps we ought to look back to history and consider; the desperate violence of the Luddites, the starvation of the handloom weavers because, in the end, the people at the top only care about the people at the top. No one is looking downward and seeing trouble, they can be replaced, these serfs and servants and slaves. They don’t care now and they won’t care then when they can ditch everyone and make better profits because they no longer have to pay a Living Wage to a workforce of Golems, written into life with software and electricity.
It might be wonderful, this robot utopia. It might be that the government brings in the Universal Income where everyone is given a sum of money to live on regardless of means. We all get a base income of say £12,000, the figure currently bandied about. With the freedom from labour offered by robots we all have time to concentrate on the things we love to do rather than those that must be done to pay the bills. We can open a petting zoo or take up watercolour painting. We can spend that time with our family at last and take care of our own children. We might find a different and better meaning for life, one that is not circumscribed by status anxiety about the fact that we never did make it to CEO. We might, in the shadow of the robots, remember what it is to be human.