People get worried about automation. Every time Google’s driverless cars hit the headlines, journalists fret that the people who drive lorries, taxis, buses and so on – will soon be out of a job. It’s probably not true. Trains have drivers even though they can’t be steered. Planes have pilots even though much of the flying process is automated. Lorries, taxis and buses are likely to have humans in charge of them for many years to come, even if only to sort out the problem when they break down, or when passengers or cargo create an unexpected situation. With any luck, the job will get less stressful, and much safer for the drivers and everyone else.
Most automation improves the productivity of human workers rather than replacing them. Expert systems don’t replace doctors: they make them more effective.
Some jobs do get automated out of existence, but this has been going on for generations – at least since the start of the agricultural revolution in the fifteenth century. In the middle ages, most people worked the land. Now only a tiny minority do that, and they produce vastly more output. The rest of us do different stuff.
Jobs which get automated are generally dismal occupations. In 1900 a “computer” was not a machine, but a person spending all day every day carrying out soul-destroying rote calculations. Their silicon namesakes ended this drudgery, and a laptop with a spreadsheet can now do the work of many human calculators. Factory robots haven’t yet displaced human workers from production lines, but they have dramatically reduced their numbers. No-one who has worked on a production line is likely to argue that it was exciting or enriching work.
That’s not to deny that when a profession does get automated, the effect can be acutely painful for the individual who loses her job, and for her family. Change can be very uncomfortable, but it’s hard to have progress without change.
Computers (and robots, their mobile incarnations) won’t make humans redundant as long as silicon devices remain unaware of themselves and their surroundings. Until computers pass the Turing Test, humans will be needed to provide context and commonsense. Machines endowed with artificial intelligence will contribute more and more to economic life, but humans will remain employed by scampering up the value-added curve ahead of them.
But what happens if and when a computer passes the Turing Test, and an artificial intelligence becomes the first artificial general intelligence? We may indeed become redundant then – and not just in the workplace.