Thursday, February 28, 2013

On Technology Replacing Jobs (Or… How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Robot)

60 Minutes back in January ran a piece on how Robots will start replacing humans in jobs, particularly in manufacturing.  The piece rang a sour note for me back in January, and after a month of digestion I think I can finally article why.

Robots are computers.  I see very little clear semantic difference between the two.  Both are logic-driven devices.  Both offer I/O as their primary way of interacting with the world.  Computers are commonly though of as not having appendages or flying through the air, but I see no reason why a robot should be more (or less) feared than a computer as a disruptive force.

With this similarity in terminology, one need look no further than the etymology of the word “computer” to know that they are designed to replace human labor.

A “Computer” is was coined in 1613 by Richard Braithwait, which he used to describe a person who does arithmetic calculations. For 400 years, the term “Computer” referred to a human.  In the 20th century, a “Computer” was a very natural choice of word to describe a digital calculation machine because they were named for the people they replaced.

(As an interesting aside: one of the first practical uses of a digital computer emerged during WWII, where digital computers replaced human computers in the process of breaking wartime codes used by the enemy.)

I wonder if the human computers were sore about being replaced by digital computers?  Was plugging and chugging arithmetic an attractive job before WWII? If yes, then history is repeating itself with assembly line labor and robots.  If no, then what is different this time around?  

The process of machines replacing humans goes back to the clubbed stick the caveman raised in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gutenberg replaced human text transcription when he invented the printing press. Every major invention has reshifted the necessity of human labor away from rote, mundane tasks towards more interesting work.  I have no doubt the robot revolution will fit perfectly in that trend.

There was a quote in a Wired article that captured this sentiment quite nicely (and hat tip to Michael Galpert for the link). From Wired:

In the coming years our relationships with robots will become ever more complex. But already a recurring pattern is emerging. No matter what your current job or your salary, you will progress through these Seven Stages of Robot Replacement, again and again:

  • 1. A robot/computer cannot possibly do the tasks I do.


  • 2. OK, it can do a lot of them, but it can’t do everything I do.


  • 3. OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often.


  • 4. OK, it operates flawlessly on routine stuff, but I need to train it for new tasks.


  • 5. OK, it can have my old boring job, because it’s obvious that was not a job that humans were meant to do.


  • 6. Wow, now that robots are doing my old job, my new job is much more fun and pays more!


  • 7. I am so glad a robot/computer cannot possibly do what I do now.