Dawn R. Norris, Ph.D.

The Next Step

Robot Workers: Destroying Civilization or Making Us Happy?

Believe it or not, good things could come from a fully automated workforce.

Posted Jun 29, 2017

A few days ago, I wrote about some bad things that could happen if computers/robots were to take over all jobs within 120 years, as some researchers predict.  (This idea was mentioned in a recent BBC article covering May 2017 research).

But technology in itself is neither good nor bad; rather, its worth comes from what we do with it and how we use it.  So I’ve been thinking about some of the good things that could come from a fully automated workforce.  Here are my ideas:

1. Personal Economic Security

Progressives and conservatives alike are once again talking about a guaranteed minimum income.  (Conservatives champion the idea as an alternative to existing need-based assistance, which requires additional funds to manage and monitor.)

If most jobs were done by technology, one option would be to take the money earned and goods produced from this increased productivity and channel it directly to all citizens to cover survival and well-being basics. 

This could free people from worry about having a place to live, getting healthy food, and obtaining health care.  (You could be on your own for luxuries and extensive recreation.) 

The result?  We would likely see mental health strengthen nationwide as money anxiety becomes a thing of the past.

2. Emotional Rewards, Personal Development, and Relationships

Although productive work is essential for good mental health and a sense of meaning in life, it need not be paid work to serve this purpose.  A guaranteed minimum income, combined with an automated workforce, could allow people to explore the voluntary work, tasks, or challenges in which they are most interested, rather than only focusing on what will make the most money.  

Source: Richard Foster/Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]

For example, today do we want to make home repairs because we wish to learn the needed skills?  Tomorrow, do we want to work on songwriting?  Work could become truly rewarding. 

We could work when we feel creative, refreshed, and ready to do our best instead of going to work because it is 9 a.m. and we must “punch in.”  We’d develop a stronger sense of control over our work and lives, which supports mental health. 

And having a more flexible schedule would also allow us to focus on relationships.  Imagine spending all the time you would like with your partner, a new child, or a terminally ill relative instead of worrying about how much sick leave you have available.  We could take the time we need to develop the relationships that are so important to our happiness.

3. More Appreciation for Personal Qualities (and Less Stigma)

In the U.S., we often confuse people’s actual worth with what they do for a living or how much they earn (ex: “He’s worth $60 million.”)  But if most jobs were handled by technology, so few people would be employed that it would be tough to use these criteria to judge others.

So we’d be freed up to appreciate people for a broader range of strengths, many of which may not translate to a traditional paid job.  Is Jackson a really good listener?  Can Selena make beautiful handmade birthday cards?  All of these qualities might finally be valued as much as we value paid work today.

When personal worth is no longer tied to paid work, this could also reduce stigma for people who are ill, disabled, and/or old.  It would allow us to see the worth in each person — beyond their ability to work.  For example, is Grandma really good at storytelling?  Is Simon a really attentive father?  It would be easier to value the unique characteristics each person brings to society.

Technological advances are inevitable.  Both good and bad can come from these changes.  We have the opportunity, as a society, to create something wonderful from it.  But it will take effort, and that will be the topic of my next blog entry.

References

Grace, K., Salvatier, J., Dafoe, A., Zhang, B., & Evans, O. (2017). "When Will AI Exceed Human Performance? Evidence from AI Experts." eprint arXiv:1705.08807.