The rise of the robots

The robots are coming for jobs and Billy MacInnes wonders what that means for us all

The threat of robots taking over jobs from human beings is real. We’ve already seen it in areas such as manufacturing and assembly. Now, they’re moving into more and more areas and all types of jobs are in danger of being made redundant. Automation is a massive trend and AI is accelerating and enhancing it. Who knows, in a few years time a robot could be writing this column. And possibly not long after that, a robot could be reading it.

But here’s a question: who pays us for spending more of our time doing something because large scale corporations have chosen to automate certain processes and replace human workers with machines? Take automated supermarket checkouts, for example. Companies are removing people who have developed the skill of being able to scan items quickly through hours and hours of repetition and they’re asking you and I to do it instead. In the process, they’re saving the cost of paying salaries to those workers.

We might not think scanning is a particularly difficult skill but guess what? Most of us are not very good at it. That’s why you still have someone hovering near those checkouts to help out when something goes wrong. But then we’re not getting paid to be able to scan items so why should we be good at it? And even if we do become good at it, we’ll be the ones doing the scanning.

This is nothing new. The internet has given us the power to make choices for ourselves when it comes to all manner of goods and services. There’s a huge amount of information available with a mouse click or a tap on a smartphone or tablet screen and we can spend as much time as we want sifting through it all to find the product or service we want. Which is great, if you want to spend your spare time wading through pages and pages of links looking for a product or service.

Is that what spare time was invented for? Sitting in front of a screen and gathering the relevant information to make an informed choice, or rather a choice informed by the pages you’ve visited (which isn’t the same thing). Is that our “leisure”, what consumers do when they’re looking for something to consume?

Here’s the weird thing, our leisure is often someone else’s work. It’s the salesperson in a local electrical goods shop or a travel agent or a cashier in the bank. You could argue that many of those jobs don’t have much value anymore because things have changed so much over recent years as a consequence of automation, machines and the internet. And you’d be right. You can’t make many of those things come back.

So I’m not saying things can be changed back but I am saying there’s a human cost not just in terms of the people who used to work being deprived of that work, which is a high price in itself, but there’s an associated human cost in terms of the time we have to devote to something that another person did for us. While many of those jobs no longer exist because large parts of their role has been automated, in the process, some of their job has been moved elsewhere: to us. We’re doing some of their job. For free. Well, not exactly free because it’s costing us our time. Remember the old saying: “Time is money”? Well, it’s our time that’s saving their money.

With all the savings that automation and AI are expected to bring for corporations – and the jobs they are going to displace – might it be make more sense to adopt another old saying when our dealings with them require more work on our side of the transaction: “If you’ve got the money, I’ve got the time.”

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