Allow me to kick this off with a little anecdote. A year ago, I took a business class, trying to use my time in college to learn things not just English-related. I immediately disliked the professor, for a variety of reasons, but that’s hardly the point. He made it clear time and time again that we needed to keep up with the times, with expectations of the workforce, with relevant skills, because we were fighting against the inevitable robotic takeover. Feeling a tad spiteful, I envisioned a world where robots were in charge of the world and tried to write a story about it. Spite, it seems, is not a good motivator for my writing process, but it still got me thinking.
An underlying theme of the science fiction genre is that at some point robots are going to become so prevalent in the work force that they’ll displace human workers and things will get so terrible that no one will be able to get a job. If I’ve got any fellow Doctor Who fans out there, one of the most recent examples I can think of is Jodie Whitaker’s Kerblam episode (season 11, episode 7). To prevent humans from becoming completely unemployed, they made a law that companies had to have a certain percentage of workers (10%, I believe) be human.
I’m no economist, but those numbers don’t seem to add up. Simply put, if only 10% of the workforce is human, then who’s making enough money to purchase these products or services? If no one can buy the products, then businesses themselves are not making money, and will therefore have to shut down, causing an even bigger shortage of jobs, and the spiral continues.
Not to mention, an oft ignored fact of robots or other machines is that like humans, they require upkeep. They may not need 8 hours of sleep, or a lunch break, or to sit down after a certain period of time, but they run on some fuel or another, and their parts need replaced, and eventually the machine itself will wear out. They are not a perfect solution. They are not as immortal as we like to believe.
But let’s go there, for the sake of the argument. To a very real degree, machines do appear to be much more efficient in the workplace. It makes sense that, where machines are better suited for the task, they take the place of human labor. What these doomsday sci-fi writers fail to imagine is something that rarely happens in history: past mistakes being intentionally repeated, but in a good way. Again, I’m no history expert here, but humans have relied heavily on segregated labor so that some people have to do the dirty work while some can be creative and others philosophize, et cetera. The difference between history and what seems like a very logical solution to me is that rather than have humans do the dirty work, we can have robots do it so that humanity itself can focus more on things that only humans do: imagine.
You might say, “Okay, well, humans still have to make a living, and how are they going to make a living if they aren’t working?” The answer is obvious, I should think, except I haven’t seen it in any sci-fi story to date: make the cost of robots low enough that your regular every day person could purchase them. Think of it as a sort of investment. People will purchase robots, which, unless they’ve got some pretty complex AI, will clearly be way more ethical than, you know, purchasing real, thinking people to do the physical labor while you lounge around and think about your place in the cosmos. The robot goes to work, does its job, returns home, and you get the paycheck because it is your bot.
You could purchase a fast food robot, and those will probably be pretty cheap, you know, but they’ll make some money. Or maybe you’ll purchase a sales robot, along with certain updates that might cost more money but will make the robot worlds better at its job. (Which, obviously, means more money for you.) You could buy a trash collecting bot or a plumbing bot who (because this seems a bit sci-fi already, why don’t we make the scenario in which they’re found in match that level of sci-fi-ness) can scan your plumbing system like those machines scan your car at their checkups, and fix whatever problem there is. See what I mean? The possibilities are endless.
Because of course there won’t be enough jobs for people if companies are the ones who own the robots or other major machinery needed to keep business going. If the people themselves own the bots, though, corporations will still be employing those people through the bots that they send in to work. It’s not a flawless plan, of course. Robots can be damaged in the workplace or potentially sabotaged for whatever reason, and then you’ll have the problem of determining who has to deal with those damages. Depending on the route things go, the bots may require AI in order to do their jobs the way they need done, which means we’ll have to figure out what constitutes as a “person,” which is already complicated enough as is. Just visit the BBC show Humans to see what bad things can happen when AI are not given their due. I’m not sure if those flaws, however, are enough of a deterrent to prevent this as a potential future for humankind.