To Fear, or Not to Fear, the Robots

To Fear, or Not to Fear, the Robots

Cue the experts. Experts that tell us not to fear the robots. Robots aren’t coming for our jobs after all, they say. Robots will only perform tasks. They won’t take entire jobs.

I suppose that the experts know best, right? They are, after all, experts. From large universities. Large corporations. Certainly, if they tell us to have no fear, then we can just get back to work.

But yet, everywhere I look, I see jobs lost to some sort of automation. 

At one point in our not so distant past, it took a crew of three to pick up our garbage. One to drive, and two riding along on the back of the truck. Throwing garbage in as they made their way down the street.

Once robotic arms were integrated into the trucks, and garbage bin design was standardized, a crew of three was no longer necessary. It now takes one. A driver. 

Don’t the other two jobs count as a loss? Overall, aren’t fewer people needed to do the same work?

And, what about self-checkout at the grocery? Now that we’re providing the labor, hasn’t that reduced the overall number of cashiers needed per shift?

What about when we travel? We can use self-service kiosks at the airport. We can even use an app to check-in to our hotel rooms. And, with digital keys and self-checkout, we don’t even need to see a front-desk clerk. Perhaps, throughout our entire hotel stay.

It is true, in these instances, that automation has not completely eliminated entire classes of jobs. But, a number of jobs within a class have, in fact, been lost. 

Isn’t that what matters? That one day, a certain number of people were needed as garbage haulers, cashiers, and desk agents, and now, we need fewer people doing that work. That is, by definition, a loss of jobs. Right?

Everyday, in one way or another, we’re interacting with fewer humans than we have in the past. Sometimes it’s obvious. Like when we print our own boarding pass via an app and bag our own groceries. 

Other times, it’s not at all clear whether we’re interacting with a human or a bot. Like when we receive customer service via an online “chat.” Some of that is automated. Automation disguised to seem human.

And, it’s quite possible that when we placed our last order with Amazon, a human wasn’t required to process that order until it was placed on a truck, or walked to our door.

So, we know, from our own experiences, that automation is taking jobs. Making the assertion that we have nothing to fear seems disingenuous, at best.

That’s not to say I’m advocating for a collective freak-out. That we succumb to worry induced insomnia over the advance of automation.

But, to have experts talk to us, as if we are children. Patting us on the head and telling us to not fear the monster under our bed, well, that’s just insulting. And, completely, unhelpful.

We need to be clear about what’s happening. We need to have honest conversations about strategies for dealing with job loss. 

And, more importantly, we need to talk to our kids about what’s happening. What’s expected to happen.

Just telling kids that we don’t know what jobs will exist in the future isn’t enough. We need to talk about how to navigate through the unknown. We need to connect the dots between the 21st century skills they’re learning — like communication, collaboration, and creativity — and how they get applied. Not just at work. But, at finding work.

Showing kids a list of “future skills” isn’t enough. We need to talk to kids about the fact that they may need to acquire new skills more than once throughout their careers. That their world of work will not look the same as it did for their parents. That career advice from grandparents, even parents, is outdated.

I appreciate that people are talking about the Future of Work. That, in and of itself, is a good thing. But, what we say, and how we say it matters. Especially, if we want people to listen. To invest their time and energy into understanding how automation and AI are impacting the world of work. 

If that’s what we want, then, we need to be sincere. We need to acknowledge what people already know. That robots are taking jobs.

Maybe robots won’t take all. the. jobs. But, if they take your job. Or your kids’ dream job. Then isn’t that enough? Enough, maybe not to worry and fear. But, enough to want the experts to be more honest about what’s ahead.

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