It’s the stuff of science fiction movies that aired when TV reception was limited to a few channels and most often in black and white: “The Robots Are Coming for Your Job.”
Yet that was the headline on the cover story of the July-August issue of Christianity Today, which included the ominous prediction that robots could take half of all jobs during the coming decade.
The story noted a comment that appeared in the Apr. 3 Harvard Business Review.
HBR authors Richard Straub and Julia Kirby wrote, “At their worst, smart machines have the potential to marginalize human contributions, automating cognitive work and leaving society with, as Bill Davidow and Michael Malone vividly phrased it, ‘hordes of citizens of zero economic value.’
“The situation creates huge responsibilities for politicians, educators, executives, and others to manage the transition and the hardships that may come with it.”
The Threatening Revolution
In the same way that 2017’s retail apocalypse threatens long-standing traditions, so does the robotic revolution.
The future appears bleak for the uneducated and low-skilled workers who used to make a decent living on assembly lines that paid a living wage, even if the repetitive, boring work made employees long for the exits.
(Years ago, I met a business consultant who spent a year with one of Detroit’s Big Three automakers. After regularly pulling mandatory double shifts, he crawled out of the restroom window one night and never returned. He said of his experience, “There isn’t enough money in the world to pay me to work a job like that again.”)
Despite the implications of the technology that threatens to turn millions of humans into expendable parts, I also found reasons for hope in CT’s story.
Especially the comment by author Michael Harris, who in The End of Absence wrote that the most advanced adaptation of artificial intelligence still lacks the honed narrative impulse of a single human mind.
“Software and circuitry might model the mechanical transactions of a brain, but they can never fully replicate the omni-layered complexity of a mind,” comment professors Kevin Brown and Steven McMullen, authors of the CT article. “As scientist Emerson Pugh pointed out, ‘If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.’”
A Non-Transferrable Asset
In an age marked by wholesale turning away from faith, we shouldn’t be surprised that human reasoning propels the fiction that machines can be designed to replace the creatures that God created.
Yet University of North Carolina professor Fred Brooks, one of the world’s top computer science pioneers, told CT that the human ability to exercise judgment and care for others is a non-transferrable asset.
“Are robots going to help do a nurse’s job? Yes,” Brooks said. “Will they do it as well as a human? No. Robots will be able to administer medication without mistakes, and eventually they will be able to talk to you, but it will not be the same.”
After a recent trip to the hospital, I would observe that one of the most enjoyable aspects of my stay was the interaction I had with nurses (and doctors).
I particularly enjoyed conversations with a male nurse who constantly joked and made wisecracks when he came to draw blood or give me medication.
It was the kind of repartee that could never be programmed; I doubt the jokester knew what he would say before the words popped out of his mouth.
Humans. They are never-endingly creative, surprising and sometimes maddening. But they can’t be imitated by machines.