It is a serious question, and there aren’t easy answers. One problem is that whether technology and robots will eliminate jobs tends to get conflated with political accusations like “you just want to keep wages down” and “you just hate immigrants.”
The two accusations are mutually contradictory, but let’s not even get into that just now. How about we ask some more fundamental questions first. For example, how can machines affect jobs that require a lot of thinking? In The Glass Cage , tech writer Nicholas Carr asks whether the current rush to automate is producing the desired results. As Patrick Thibodeau notes at Computer World,
This book is not a defense of Luddites. It’s a well-anchored examination of the consequences and impact about deploying systems designed to replace us. Carr’s concerns are illustrated and found in, for instance, the Federal Aviation Administration’s warning to airlines about automation, and how electronic medical records may actually be raising costs and hurting healthcare.
Not what you expected to hear? Well, we are offered some edited excerpts:
The problem, and we see it with pilots and doctors, is when the computer fails, when either the technology breaks down, or the computer comes up against some situation that it hasn’t been programmed to handle, then the human being has to jump back in take control, and too often we have allowed the human expert skills to get rusty and their situational awareness to fade away and so they make mistakes. At the practical level, we can be smarter and wiser about how we go about automating and make sure that we keep the human engaged.
On the other hand, if we use automation to simply replace hard work, and therefore prevent you from fully mastering various levels of skills, it can actually have the opposite effect. Instead of lifting you up, it can establish a ceiling above which your mastery can’t go because you’re simply not practicing the fundamental skills that are required as kind of a baseline to jump to the next level.
A silly anti-tech scare, right? Maybe, but as Ian Leslie recounts at New Statesman,
In Seattle in 2008 the driver of a 12-foot-high school bus ran it into a nine-foot-high bridge. The top of the bus was sheared off and 16 students were injured. The driver later told police that he hadn’t seen the signs and flashing lights warning him of the bridge ahead because he was following GPS instructions. In 2009 Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic, killing all 228 of its passengers and crew. A subsequent investigation showed the aircraft had run into a storm that caused the autopilot to disengage, which threw the plane’s human pilots into a panic. In the words of the report, the crew suffered a “total loss of cognitive control of the situation”.
No doubt in years to come, we will refine our relationship with technology. But here’s a thought: Technologies can change who wins and who loses, but they probably don’t really change us much.
To see why, let’s hear from a couple of Stone Agers who suddenly encounter the Bronze age:
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.
See also: Will intelligent technology create mass unemployment? Resulting in a brave new world of adult children who needn’t work?