There always exist a fear of being replaced. In the workplace, on a team, or in a relationship, the fear of becoming obsolete is one of the great driving forces behind anything we choose to do with our lives. As we bravely plunge into the second decade of the 21st century, our attention is inevitably drawn to the way we humans live with the robots we create. It is hypothesized that by the end of this century, 70% of jobs that are now performed by humans will be performed by robots. Obsolete, replaced, and expendable, machines may very well rule the world.
But it's OK. It will all be fine.
While robots — and technology as a whole — continue to erode what we humans actually do, it is in the nature of humanity to create new purpose and directions for our species that build naturally on where we have come from since we were churning particles 4.5 billion years ago. Humans grow, adapt, innovate and can rarely accurately predict where we will be in the future.
The threat of machines eating away at the jobs that only humans could do at one time in history is a process that we can't help but go through over and over again. In a recent article for Wired magazine, editor Kevin Kelley introduces us to the circular reality of replacement we humans find ourselves in as we rationalize a world that is slowly being taken over by robots. Manual labor tasks such as repeated heavy lifting or precision tasks such as making microchips are just two examples of the many jobs that are currently being completed by robots. 200 years ago, 70% of Americans worked on farms; today, only 1% of farm-related jobs are completed by humans.
It is the way of the world.
But, even if it is the way of the world, there is that little twinge of fear that accompanies such revealing and stark statistics. To think that as my life goes on, I will watch as more and more jobs become the way of the past for humans as robots take on the bulk of the responsibilities. It seems that as robots and automated service emerge more and more into the public consciousness. As people begin to realize how much robots are actually doing in our everyday lives, the focus can begin to evolve into what's next. The Matrix makes a very valid case for what happens when humans surrender ourselves to machines, but if we just put that in the back of our minds, humans and robots have reached a point in time where it is necessary to work together.
This is not a discussion of humans versus robots. If we were able to see the future, I'm sure humans would lose. Robots are already much better at many things than humans, and the number of things that robots are better at is increasing everyday. Humans and robots are in a period of learning to work side-by-side.
Take the case of NASA. Space exploration in the 21st century is overwhelmingly left to technology and robots. However, robots are incapable of an important human element: the actual exploration of space. In "Robots vs. Humans in Space,"NASA scientists Greg Schmidt and Mike Hawes point out that only humans can decide what humans should do next. Only a human mind can look at the technology available to him or her and decide how to use it to further a human need. So, if humans were to travel to Mars with complex, highly capable machines, the machines would greatly assist the mission, but without the humans present, there would be no mission in the first place. It is the human mind which provides the desire to explore. It is the human mind which is curious, and it is the human being that adapts.
Looking at the adaptation of humans over 4.5 billion years, we see that robots as part of the larger sect of technology has been an evolution of sorts for humans. What we invent from our minds takes on a life of its own outside of us. Over the years, technology has become more and more complex. Now, we are starting to see technology become central in helping humans create new technology. Kevin Kelly, of Wired, has come to refer to this evolution of technology as "The Technium" or the seventh kingdom of life here on Earth. This grouping of technology helps to illustrate how humans and robots will evolve more and more cohesively with one another.
Humans over time, have been adding to our collective technology that we use. From fire, to stone tools, and the iron age all the way to the locomotive, the industrial revolution, computers and robots, we see technology being built naturally over what we've created, mastered and assorted into everyday life. With this thought in mind, we can think about each new invention as inevitable. Robots taking over the jobs of cashiers at the supermarket was a natural outcome of what we've already been collectively creating as humans.
It is the human mind we possess that arrives at natural places where we should move next, given the technology at our disposal. For example, the telephone was not a unique eureka moment to Alexander Graham Bell, and the light bulb was not a unique invention for Thomas Edison. These technological advancements came in waves of independent discovery that were meant to happen given the available technology and what human desire naturally would want next. Humans alone are responsible for what we use technology for, and it is up to humans alone to observe technology and create an idea of where it should grow next and help to curate it. A whole organic kingdom is essentially left in our care and guidance.
As a result of our creation of robots that mimic humans in the workplace and then replace humans, we begin to blur the line between what is a robot and what is a non-robot. In some cases, as Steven Rosenbaum points out in a short piece for Forbes, robots and humans can even be confusing. He goes as far to say that robots must blatantly say they are robots, and they cannot impersonate human beings. While on the other side of Rosenbaum's animosity towards robots are legions of "singularity people" who are working on developing robots that are virtually indistinguishable from humans.
In June 2011, Jon Ronson interviewed an early prototype of the Bina48 humanoid in a segment for Radiolab. While the robot largely spoke nonsense, Ronson did have one profound moment of connection with the robot, a connection that gives us a glimpse into what is possible in the future. Bina48 went on to deliver the keynote address at the Enterprise Learning Conference and Expo this past September. It was the first time a humanoid was ever a keynote speaker. Perhaps in response to our own self-aware mortality, it is our logical evolutionary step to guide the creation of technology that prolongs human life, even if it is in a synthetic creation.
As robots and advanced technology work alongside humans at greater efficiency and greater prevalence, it is hard to imagine a future where we co-exist in a world of machines completing most of the tasks we call jobs today. It is impossible to say where we will be or exactly how we will build upon technology next, but this is simply the way we have evolved since the beginning of time and we have little choice in what will happen next. Technology will grow as technology will grow, and it will inevitably leave our lives more simple than before.
So, in some final words on the next one hundred years and the emerging robot apocalypse: Don't worry. It will all be fine.