One piece dealt with our working lives and how long we will be toiling for. In the developed world longevity is the new buzzword. We are living longer. We might not be procreating at the same rate but third age denizens are all the rage at the moment. Unintentionally, mind. We are living longer because our standards of living have also improved. We have fewer life-ending wars. A population-decimating event like the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, which killed between 20 and 40 million people, is unlikely to happen again. Whether you are in favour or against them, many modern diets provide healthy options that were unthinkable only two generations ago. That is why the recent deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman caught us all by surprise. They were both expected to live longer.
The second article focused on the long-heralded arrival (and conquest) of robots. Well, robots have been with us for many, many years but apparently their role in society is about to change drastically. The appropriation of the world by robots will be apparently in the form of emulations. They will be modelled on the best and brightest 200 human beings on the planet. Add quick decision-making and overall expediency and... voilà, the robot revolution is here!
Why do I think that the two pieces are related? Because if, on the one hand, we are living longer and therefore retiring at an older age, where does that leave us in relation to robots? If they are coming to take our jobs (pardon me for sounding like a Daily Mail or The Sun reader), what is left for us, the humans who breathed (metaphorically speaking) life into their metallic bodies? There seems to be a hitherto-unnoticed contradiction. Or perhaps there is no contradiction but intent.
It was John Maynard Keynes who promoted the idea that in the future we would have more time for leisure activities. Technology would take care of the daily grind. Workaholics would be looked down upon and pitied. But even one of the more important economists of the 20th century could not predict the arrival of zero-hour contracts, outsourcing and consumerism. Together these elements (and others) sustain our on-one-leg-balancing economy. Workaholics, far from being treated with quasi-condescension, are worshipped and imitated.
|Sorry, mate, but I've come to take your job|
In a generation’s time, if we are still living as long as we are living today and retiring at, say, 80, what will we be exactly doing? If robots are fast taking over and within a few years they will be performing most manual and technical roles, what do we, then, do with the rest of the population? Remember that we are talking here about self-managed machines. No need for Joanna or John to go to uni for three years in order to get a degree in engineering. The robot already has an in-built function that makes it (it? How about “her” or “him”? Why not?) plan its professional life as if it were a human being. You see, the robot is emulating one of those 200 eminences grises.
As I mentioned before, the automated future has been with us for many years now. But it has never felt as threatening as it does now. I guess one of the reasons is that the world of robotics felt distant; not so much an Us vs Them scenario but more like an Us and Them. Yet, that “and” still meant distance. It is not the same now. Now there is a real possibility of Sam at the till in our local supermarket being a robot. If that means giving hot-blooded, human being, 60-year-old Susan the heave-ho, then, so be it. What happens to Susan, then? She still has another 20 years before retirement, has worked at the local supermarket for more than 30 years and is not qualified to do anything else. Where’s the Plan B here?
You can see now why these two pieces of news, which at first sight seem unrelated, scared the living hell out of me. At almost forty-five, I am no spring chicken but I think I still have another twenty-five years inside me of active toil. I love what I do and for the life of me I cannot see a robot doing my job. Then again, technology is moving at such a fast pace that I would not be surprised if one day there is a knock on the door and I open it to greet an R2-D2-looaklike with a simple message: I have come to replace you.
Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 1st June at 6pm (GMT)