I just watched a short video of robots doing fetch and carry jobs in an Alibaba distribution centre:
There are numerous videos of robots in various companies doing tasks that used to be done by people. In most cases those tasks were dull, menial, drudgery tasks that treated people as machines. Machines should rightly do those tasks. In partnership with robots, AI is also replacing some tasks that used to be done by people. Many are worried about increasing redundancy but I’m not; I see a better world. People should instead be up-skilled by proper uses of AI and robotics and enabled to do work that is more rewarding and treats them with dignity. People should do work that uses their human skills in ways that they find rewarding and fulfilling. People should not have to do work they find boring or demeaning just because they have to earn money. They should be able to smile at work and rest at the end of the day knowing that they have helped others or made the world a better place. If we use AI, robots and people in the right ways, we can build that world.
Take a worker in a call centre. Automation has already replaced humans in most simple transactions like paying a bill, checking a balance or registering a new credit card. It is hard to imagine that anyone ever enjoyed doing that as their job. Now, call centre workers mostly help people in ways that allow them to use their personalities and interpersonal skills, being helpful and pleasant instead of just typing data into a keyboard. It is more enjoyable and fulfilling for the caller, and presumably for the worker too, knowing they genuinely helped someone’s day go a little better. I just renewed my car insurance. I phoned up to cancel the existing policy because it had increased in price too much. The guy at the other end of the call was very pleasant and helpful and met me half way on the price difference, so I ended up staying for another year. His company is a little richer, I was a happier customer, and he had a pleasant interaction instead of having to put up with an irate customer and also the job satisfaction from having converted a customer intending to leave into one happy to stay. The AI at his end presumably gave him the information he needed and the limits of discount he was permitted to offer. Success. In billions of routine transactions like that, the world becomes a little happier and just as important, a little more dignified. There is more dignity in helping someone than in pushing a button.
Almost always, when AI enters a situation, it replaces individual tasks that used to take precious time and that were not very interesting to do. Every time you google something, a few microseconds of AI saves you half a day in a library and all those half days add up to a lot of extra time every year for meeting colleagues, human interactions, learning new skills and knowledge or even relaxing. You become more human and less of a machine. Your self-actualisation almost certainly increases in one way or another and you become a slightly better person.
There will soon be many factories and distribution centres that have few or no people at all, and that’s fine. It reduces the costs of making material goods so average standard of living can increase. A black box economy that has automated mines or recycling plants extracting raw materials and uses automated power plants to convert them into high quality but cheap goods adds to the total work available to add value; in other words it increases the size of the economy. Robots can make other robots and together with AI, they could make all we need, do all the fetching and carrying, tidying up, keeping it all working, acting as willing servants in every role we want them in. With greater economic wealth and properly organised taxation, which will require substantial change from today, people could be freed to do whatever fulfills them. Automation increases average standard of living while liberating people to do human interaction jobs, crafts, sports, entertainment, leading, inspiring, teaching, persuading, caring and so on, creating a care economy.
Each person knows what they are good at, what they enjoy. With AI and robot assistance, they can more easily make that their everyday activity. AI could do their company set-up, admin, billing, payments, tax, payroll – all the crap that makes being an entrepreneur a pain in the ass and stops many people pursuing their dreams. Meanwhile they would do that above a very generous welfare net. Many of us now are talking about the concept of universal basic income, or citizen wage. With ongoing economic growth at the average rate of the last few decades, the global economy will be between twice and three times as big as today in the 2050s. Western countries could pay every single citizen a basic wage equivalent to today’s average wage, and if they work or run a company, they can earn more.
We will have an age where material goods are high quality, work well and are cheap to buy, and recycled in due course to minimise environmental harm. Better materials, improved designs and techniques, higher efficiency and land productivity and better recycling will mean that people can live with higher standards of living in a healthier environment. With a generous universal basic income, they will not have to worry about paying their bills. And doing only work that they want to do that meets their self-actualisation needs, everyone can live a life of happiness and dignity.
Enough of the AI-redundancy alarmism. If we elect good leaders who understand the options ahead, we can build a better world, for everyone. We can make real the age of dignity.