In utopian science fiction, robots free humans from the toil and labor of the body so that they can live lives of enlightenment and enjoyment. In dystopian science fiction, robots become the masters or exterminators of humanity. As should be expected, reality is heading towards the usual mean between dystopia and utopia, the realm of middletopia. This is a mix of the awful and the not-so-bad that has characterized most of human history.
In some cases, robots have replaced humans in jobs that are repetitious, unfulfilling and dangerous. This has allowed the displaced humans to move on to other jobs that repetitious, unfulfilling and dangerous to await their next displacement. Robots have also replaced humans in jobs that are more desirable to humans, such as in the fields of law and journalism. This leads to questions about what jobs will be left to humans and which will be taken over by robots (broadly construed).
The intuitive view is that robots will not be able to replace humans in “creative” jobs but that they will be able to replace humans in nearly all physical labor. As such, people tend to think that robots will replace warehouse pickers, construction workers and janitors. Artists, philosophers, and teachers are supposed to be safe from the robot revolution. In some cases, the intuitive view has proven correct—robots are routinely used for physical labor such as constructing cars and no robot Socrates has shown up. However, the intuitive view is also in error in many cases. As noted above, some journalism and legal tasks are done with automation. There are also seemingly easy to automate tasks, such as cleaning toilets or doing construction, that are very hard for robots, but easy for humans.
One example of a task that would seem ideal for automation is warehouse picking, especially of the sort done by Amazon. Amazon and other companies have automated some of the process, making use of robots in various tasks. But, while a robot might bring shelves to human workers, the humans are the ones picking the products for shipping. Since humans tend to have poor memories and get bored with picking, human pickers have been automated—they wear headsets connected to computers that tell them what to do, then they tell the computers what they have done. For example, a human might be directed to pick five boxes of acne medicine, then five more boxes of acne medicine, then a copy of Fifty Shades of Gray and finally an Android phone. Humans are very good at the actual picking, perhaps due to our hunter-gatherer ancestry.
In this sort of voice-directed warehouse, the humans are being controlled by the machines. The machines take care of the higher-level activities of organizing orders and managing, while the human brain handles the task of selecting the right items. While selecting seems simple, this is because it is simple to us humans but not for existing robots. We are good at recognizing, grouping and distinguishing things and have the manual dexterity to perform the picking tasks, thanks to our opposable thumbs. Unfortunately for the human worker, these picking tasks are probably not very rewarding, creative or interesting and this is exactly the sort of drudge job that robots are supposed to free us from.
While voice-directed warehousing is one example of humans being directed by robots, it is easy enough to imagine the same sort of approach being applied to similar sorts of tasks; namely those that require manual dexterity and what might be called “animal skills” such as object recognition. It is also easy to imagine this approach extended far beyond these jobs to cut costs.
The main way that this approach would cut costs would be by allowing employers to buy skilled robots and use them to direct unskilled human labor. For simple jobs, the “robot” could be a simple headset attached to a computer. For more complex jobs, a human might wear a VR style “robot” helmet with machine directing via augmented reality.
The humans, as noted above, provide the manual dexterity and all those highly evolved capacities. The robots provide the direction. Since any normal human body would suffice to serve the controlling robot, the value of human labor would be extremely low and wages would, of course, match this value. Workers would be easy to replace—if a worker is fired or quits, then a new worker can simply don the robot controller and get about the task with little training. This would also save in education costs—such a robot directed laborer would not need an education in job skills (the job skills are provided by the robots), just the basics needed to be directed properly by the robot. This does point towards a dystopia in which human bodies are driven around through the work day by robots, then released and sent home in driverless cars.
The employment of humans in these roles would, of course, only continue for as long as humans are the cheapest form of available labor. If advances allow robots to do these tasks cheaper, then the humans would be replaced. Alternatively, biological engineering might lead to the production of engineered organics that can replace human; perhaps a pliable ape-like creature that is just smart enough to be directed by the robots. But not human enough to be considered a slave. This would presumably continue until no jobs remained for humans. Other than making profits, of course.
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