Robots already took jobs from a whole generation of manual laborers. Now software agents, sophisticated surgery robots, and autonomous devices are encroaching on professional workers too. But don't worry — there are some jobs only humans can do, and the Homo sapiens job sector is set to explode.
I started thinking about this a couple of weeks ago at the Berkeley Ideas Festival, when I had a chance to corner the economist Brad DeLong and ask him about our coming robot overlords. He's actually pretty sanguine about the future of human labor because he takes the long view. When people abandoned farms for factories in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he noted, whole new classes of jobs opened up to claim those displaced workers. The tricky part is predicting what those new classes of jobs might be.
DeLong had some ideas, though he cautioned that the future always holds surprises. He thought there would be a massive uptick in jobs that could be classified as specialist service or helper positions — from the person at Kings Cross station who directs you to the right train, to somebody like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose job is to tell Mark Zuckerberg that he's not going into meetings to show how smart he is, but to cut deals. DeLong noted that this is a class of jobs that has potential, because there is such a broad range of salaries and responsibilities in it.
So let's assume there's a whole class of human advising jobs that robots won't do. If DeLong's hunch is right, more of those jobs will open up as robots take over traditional number-cruncher jobs that are now being done more often by algorithms and analytic tools. We'll lose a whole class of jobs for quants, analysts, and researchers. But humans will gain more jobs aiding each other, helping each other tackle problems that require more than pattern recognition and probabalistic modeling.
There are other helper jobs that will always belong to humans as well. It's likely that we'll soon have robot police, robot marines, robot surgeons, and robot healthcare assistants. One can even imagine, for example, that robot police would be an improvement over emotionally volatile police officers who get scared and shoot when they shouldn't — or get mad and beat a suspect who is taunting them. Same goes for surgeons or marines, who need to be graceful and dexterous under pressure.
But a human will always have to be in the command structure for all these professions. They will have to make crucial decisions about where to deploy officers — and when to stand down, if the situation goes off-script. They'll have to be there with a patient who is deciding whether surgery or medication is the way to go.
Humans need each other to aid in decision-making. Executing the decision or analyzing data is great for robots. But advising humans, helping them come to the right decision? That's something only another human can do. Robots will be doing jobs filled by Homo sapiens now, but we will always need a human to manage them and author the strategies behind their deployment. It's possible when more humans are freed up to ponder how to make these decisions, that our choices will be smarter, better informed, and more ethical.
And here's another thing that only humans can do: testing software, hardware, and anything else for usability. Sure a robot can help design a videogame. But it can't figure out whether the thing will be usable for humans. So you can expect robot user interface designers to be getting a lot of bug reports from slightly miffed Homo sapiens in the QA department.
The other thing to consider about robots is that they require a big initial capital layout. In other words, businesses that replace humans with robots have to have enough cash in the bank to take an initial hit before the cheap robot labor pays off over time. Small business owners probably won't be able to afford the initial investment, even if they might save money in the long run. So don't expect your local mom and pop store to be staffed by robots anytime soon.
The Slow Analysis Movement
Speaking of small business, another place where humans will always have work is in the artisanal human-crafted goods industry. A human-made item of clothing might become a status symbol in a world of shirts made by disembodied mechanical arms. And what about a human-analyzed piece of information? A piece of research done by an actual person? Slow research and slow analysis could become a craze among those with the time and money to enjoy it.
We are in a transition period economically, where robots are swarming into jobs we never imagined they'd have. But are we really any different from the agriculturalists in 1750, wondering where all the new jobs would come from when everybody had moved to the cities? Though we can speculate, just as they did, about what's to come, the future of jobs is always weirder than what we expect.
The robot uprising may mean more humans working together, rather than less. And the more we work alongside each other, the closer we'll get to overcoming human problems that seem insurmountable now. Maybe the age of robots will be the last age of war.
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9, and this is her column. She's also the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter.