Right now, I’m sitting at a desk working on this article. Apparently, robots can do this job better and cheaper than I can (we’ll take out the fact that I’m a volunteer). Even more alarming is that, by 2025, robots may potentially replace almost 25% of jobs performed by human beings (according to Boston Consulting Group). From driverless cars to robots that can make and hand out prescription drugs, automated machines are already cutting down the need for human workers. Check out this UK website, which projects the likelihood of your job being completely automated in twenty years!
A McDonald’s restaurant in Phoenix is testing out its first ever completely robot-run restaurant. That means there will be no human workers! If this proves to be a success, McDonald’s plans to install over 25,000 more restaurants like this over the next couple of years. At these restaurants, robots have succeeded former human workers. People that relied on McDonald’s to make money have to now look elsewhere to supplement their lost income.
McDonald’s became interested in trying out a robot-run restaurant after worker protests for increased hourly wages. The self-awareness of our rights as humans sparked protests in America that only alienated big-name companies from their workers. Andy Puzder, CEO of CKE restaurants, also wants to replace most of his human workers with robots so that he can invest in healthier food options.
“[These robots are] always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case” ~ Andy Puzder
It is this impersonality of robots, one of the most obvious factors to divide emotive, creative human beings from automatons, that Puzder and McDonald’s want to capitalise on.
Of course, as robots never suffer from boredom and tend to be more accurate than human beings, they’re perfect for repetitive, menial tasks. If robots were to take most of our jobs, then that would leave us with more free time to do things that involve creativity and self-fulfilment. Apparently, scientists are programming robots to create art and perform music – activities that require the imagination and spontaneity of being human. This is where the pending loom of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” brings up an even more pressing question: What will it mean to be human in the future? We live in a society where our existence depends on our ability to produce and to work. Without work, we’re useless and obsolete.
But scientists are experimenting with robots that can detect and respond to human emotion. In Japan, for instance, human bank tellers at the nation’s largest bank have all been replaced by robots that are specifically designed to interact with human beings. Japan is also experimenting with “Pepper,” a robot designed to hold conversations with humans to offer companionship where needed. But Pepper and automated bank tellers could never replicate the kind of care that caregivers provide to the elderly and to the sick. Where human touch is needed, the robot clearly pales in comparison. The robots in Japan are redefining what it means to be human and continue to obscure the differences between robots and human beings.
Some people suggest that robots won’t replace human workers; rather, it is more probable (and reasonable) that they’ll work alongside human workers. Instead of creating unemployment, the inclusion of robots in the workforce would reallocate humans to other sectors. Humans may find work controlling machines. How well we adapt to this new future depends on how well we prepare for it. This means that we need to encourage programs like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education, which integrates learning across these four disciplines.
Robots are obviously not perfect, which is no surprise since they are man-made. It was for this reason that Microsoft’s Tay failed embarrassingly during its trial run. When robots are designed, they have algorithms that allow them to learn new things and adapt to changing situations. Tay was programmed to hold conversations with teens, which would teach him how to interact with humans. Unfortunately, Twitter users exploited Tay’s vulnerability by bombarding it with racist and misogynist lingo. Because of its programmed algorithms, Tay eventually learned to incorporate the new words into its vocabulary. Within 24 hours, Tay had reflected and incorporated the bias of human beings to become a racist and misogynist automaton.
Tay’s algorithm was built by humans, who overlooked its susceptibility to the potential hate and chaos of the social media realm. Tay’s bias could have directly stemmed from the lack of diversity in the robotics engineers who created it. If the engineers all look the same, then bias is almost inevitable in a manmade algorithm that tends to reflect ourselves more than it creates something completely new.
We’re looking ahead to a future that may possibly be shared with robots, whose existence continues to redefine what it means to be human. Imagine an automated doctor that can look at patient charts and medical records to make patient diagnoses and suggest treatments! Not only will robots assume many jobs that blue-collar workers are employed in, but they may also be interested in the legal and medical fields.
That has got to force you to ask: what will it mean to be human in the future if jobs are not secure enough for us to understand our place in the world?