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Sure, a robot could do your job -- but what would be lost?

The Infinite Robot Theorem could replace us all


As a young journalist nearly 40 years ago working on my first real newspaper job – sweating bullets every day that I wouldn’t measure up – I had an editor who would regularly throw my copy back on my desk with the delightful comment, “I could get a monkey to come up with this crap in less time than you did. So remind me why I need you.”

It was his take on the Infinite Monkey Theorem, I guess, and I was sure the next day I would come to work and find a chimpanzee at my desk. I read recently that software developed at Northwestern University can take, for instance, sports statistics from a game and turn it into a serviceable news story without the need for a human reporter. I can imagine that this same software could take corporate data like EPS, ROI, etc. and replace 90 percent of today’s business reporters. Who knew that the monkey on my back for all these years would turn out to be my laptop?

What got me thinking about all of this was a news article I read, with a photograph, of a humanoid robot manning the counter at some fast-food joint in Tokyo; pretty soon, according to its developers, “Would you like fries with that?” will be asked by McRobots everywhere. This automation has been coming for years – robotics began replacing factory workers in automobile plants decades ago – but lately has been accelerating.

ATMs have been supplanting live tellers for years; “smart” gas and electric meters have undone meter-readers; and we are well on our way to self-driving vehicles that will take over for truck drivers and cabbies. And lest you think that such artificial intelligence (AI) mechanisms are a stand-in only for menial jobs, my research into the subject indicates that robots are already performing surgery and may soon be able to do so without human physicians in the loop.

And, of course, such autonomous devices have no need for lunch breaks or vacations; they don’t join unions; they make correct change and, presumably, can be programmed to be cheerful. Attempts to “program” humans for such tasks and traits have proven to be limited at best. I was going to add that such autonomous devices don’t get sick either, but just as I was typing it a “virus protection update” popped up on my computer, reminding me that machines may be as fallible or malicious as humans, especially in a world of malicious human hackers. None of this gives me any comfort and, frankly, I’ll take my chances with a human surgeon, thank you very much. (I like real bank tellers and live people answering phones, too.)

The conventional wisdom these days is that the U.S. is losing jobs to factories and call centers – and even computer programmers – in other countries who work cheaper, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the major culprit in lost jobs is, in fact, automation – ever-less-expensive and efficient robots and rapidly improving software.

This isn’t the first time that technology has threatened jobs; the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century was economically wrenching, and it took decades for people and society to adjust and re-educate for an evolving economy. But today the pace of change is very rapid. One wonders what people will do for a living if just about every job can be automated out of existence.

We can’t all be “machine tenders,” as famous sci-fi author Isaac Asimov predicted in 1964 for the world of 2014. We can’t all be computer programmers, software engineers, high-tech geeks, CEOs, or professional athletes. We will need just everyday Joes and Janes, or the McRobot burger flippers won’t have any paying customers, and I’m pretty sure that even electronic brain surgeons won’t work for free (it is, after all, brain surgery).

So what is the point of automation? Yes, a particular company can save on labor costs. Perhaps roads will be safer if software drives. Maybe even medical operations will be more precise if handled by AI.

But society at large – the economy at large – will surely suffer without humanity.

The Infinite Robot Theorem will replace us all, and sooner rather than later, leaving us with nothing to do but monkey around. That can’t be good.

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Jeff Rundles

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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