$25 BILLION OR BUST
Science Fiction Disasters That Never Happened: the Robots Will Make Us Obsolete
by Sarah Hoyt
Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
This one is tricky, because so many people still believe it. Kind of. Sort of. Or at least they piously believe it when people with socialist inclinations are in power and it’s a good way to explain why there are no jobs, as opposed to you know their craptastic policies causing it.
It’s still there. Still a believed myth. Just the other day (I think in Denver, but we might have been driving to Colorado Springs to see younger son) we passed a sign saying “robots can’t steal your job if you’re retired.”
Yes, people in other cars probably heard me rolling my eyes.
Sure, there is automation of industrial processes, but calling that robots taking people’s jobs is kind of like calling the ice age that never came “climate change.” Climate is always changing (with or without human help) and, btw, there are always new gadgets.
None of which means that robots are replacing humans.
To fully understand how pervasive and strange this expectation was, I need to take you back to a time when people actually believed this literally: not just robots, but androids, aka human-shaped machines were going to take over all the functions of humanity and either rule us (a sub function of “the computers will be our kings” something I’ll tackle separately) or just replace us.
Look, it’s easy to look at it as a metaphor. “People thought communism really worked” (yes, this was true in the seventies too. Not the least because our secret services bought the Soviet line. They’ve been incompetent a long time) “but it made people kind of robots, so their fear that the robots would displace the humans was related to the subconscious certainty that communism would win.”
Um…. Maybe there’s something to it, but I don’t think so. I have a degree in literature (it came with the languages) and what it has taught me, mostly, is that you can make up any sort of high falluting cr*p but in the end, the curtains are blue. Or in other words, looking for that kind of high meaning and metaphor in competent literature (we’ll leave the incompetent one that thinks it’s all about the meaning and metaphor aside, because that’s a corrupted product of an over-emphasis on academia) is like reading tea leaves or any other attempt to find meaning in a highly chaotic system.
Mostly—trust me, having lived then and “thought too much”—people really were afraid that robots would be better than human at being human and take over.
No, the Carter malaise didn’t help. Within the framework of believing that centralized systems were more efficient, and coupled with the leftist leanings of most sf writers, it was impossible to explain the crash in the economy and the lack of jobs save by saying that the robots and automation were already taking over the market, and it would only get worse.
Yes, the same thing surfaced under Obama’s Great Recession. You know, it amuses me that the left never realizes that robots apparently only take jobs under leftist presidents. Never mind.
The point here is that—besides the sporadic nature of the fear and its correlation to who is in power and how mismanaged the economy is—this fear never came to pass. And it’s silly anyway.
Sure, we have robots. Most of the assembly line type jobs—which the left used to write doleful stories about, btw. You might not have read those as they were mostly main stream—can be and often are more efficiently replaced by robots. Not anthropomorphic robots (I’m researching for a series that requires an anthropomorphic cyborg and let’s just say the tech is far more difficult than anyone in the seventies could even guess at. Mostly the power supply issues.)
But in our current economy, how many people really do/did assembly line work? Some, of course, as some still do farming, and some even do organic farming. But probably not, at any time since the seventies (and that change was regulatory, and law more than technology) any great percentage of the population.
Oh, sure, if you want to extend it, we also have automated checkouts, and I suspect most fast food jobs will be replaced by robots within the next twenty years (partly because of the daft drive to set minimum wage, as though economics were not a science and not run by hard numbers. Thinking you can set minimum wage and everything will be fine, and there will be no consequences is like thinking you can legislate it to rain every day. In Colorado. (Not that I’d put that past our governor-elect. He seems to have that brilliant an understanding of the world.) Economics always finds a way, because you can’t really completely change economic systems. You can just channel them in a different way.)
I never understood the idea that each stage of civilization is the “natural” one, and that once those jobs are gone there will be nothing to replace them, ever.
Sure, the economy is changing. Very fast right now, due to the second and third order effects of the computer/internet revolution. These are perilous times, because times of fast change always are.
But there was no big surge of computerization or robots during the Obama administration. What there was was the democrats standing over the prone economy, hitting it on the face with a bag of hastily printed money and demanding it get up.
IOW it was administrative and economic incompetence—not a big surprise from the party that more and more identifies as socialist—seeking to hide under “the robots did it.”
Look, I worked an assembly line job for a week, as a temporary worker. They really were fairly sucky positions in which human potential is almost utterly wasted.
Part of the problem is that the people who think robots will replace us also consider themselves way above the normal human being. So they think that most human beings are REALLY only suited to do that sort of repetitive, mind-killing job.
They’re wrong. Perhaps it is because I actually know a number of geniuses, but I can tell you this for certain: you don’t need to be incredibly smart to be successful or to create a successful job. Heck, most incredibly smart people seem to be working menial jobs while waiting for someone to recognize their genius (I blame our school system for that, but that’s another post.) And people who are “about average” often do very well, particularly with starting their own business or coming up with an idea for an unmet need.
Part of it is that we’re very bad at measuring intelligence, of course. But the other part is that humans are ingenious monkeys. Every step up the industrial/civilization ladder, jobs and occupations and ways of life have been abandoned in mass quantities.
And more often than not, what it has meant is the freeing of minds and energies for more interesting tasks and for creating things that in time displace other occupations and make other people’s lives interesting.
The one thing I can tell you is that save in some countries where 21st century recently met pre-history, we haven’t any great droves of displaced hunter gatherers, unable to find/do other work.
This is because humans aren’t robots. We’re not born programmed to a task. We adapt and change and find other things to do.
It’s probably not surprising that the people most convinced the robots are going to make us all unemployed and that there are vast masses of people who can only do “jobs robots do for cheap” are the same people who think of humans as sort of widgets, able to be controlled and commanded by a centralized government and reprogrammed over generations into the new man of the socialist future.
They’re wrong. Which is one reason the robots will never take over. Humans, even the dumbest of humans, have a capacity robots don’t have: we’re versatile, adaptable and unpredictable.
Bock one route, we’ll find another way. Which is why even in the Soviet Union there was a functioning market. It was illegal and dangerous and they called it “the black market” but without it, the robotic-commands of the red oligarchs would have caused even more starvation and deaths than they did.
Are the robots going to take your job? I doubt any time soon, unless your definition of robots include “automated self-checkout.” If it does, or if your job is repetitive assembly line, light-industrial? Sure. Probably in the next ten to twenty years.
But you’re not a robot. And no matter if one of our parties thinks some people can ONLY become wards of the state because they’re not bright enough to survive technological change, you have other options.
Find an unmet need. Make your hobby into a job. Discover a new way of working with the new technology.
Invent, create, look at things a new way. You’re not a robot and no robot can replace you. Because you’re not one.
You’re a clever ape, and there will never be any reason for you to sit with folded hands watching the machines work.
FREE TO THE END OF THE YEAR:
ILL MET BY MOONLIGHT.
(click cover to download from amazon.com)
This is the first book I ever sold, and a mythopoeic award finalist for the year it was published. Yes, cover needs changing, etc, etc, insert usual disclaimer here. (The rendering computer is up and running, btw.)
Young Will Shakespeare is a humble school master who arrives home to find his wife and infant daughter, Susannah are missing, kidnapped by the fairies of Arden Woods, the children of Titania and Oberon. His attempts at rescue are interrupted and complicated by a feud over throne of fairyland, between Sylvanus, king regnant, and his younger brother Quicksilver who is both more and less than he seems. Amid treachery, murder, duel and seduction, Shakespeare discovers the enchantment of fairyland, which will always remain with him, for good and ill. (This book was originally published by Ace/Berkley 10/2001)
“Filled with quotations and references to the Works of Shakespeare, this debut novel will interest the playwright’s fans of any age” VOYA
“Sarah Hoyt has taken tremendous chances:She has told a tale of how
Shakespeare became Shakespeare, weaving the language of the plays deftly
through the narrative. Reading the book feels like discovering the origins
of the quotes we know so well, rather than something derivative.”
— San Jose Mercury News.
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