What Happens to Humans When Machines Do All the Work?

Our automated systems are becoming smarter than we are. #DataForGOOD

As soon as 20 years from now, 45 percent of American jobs may be performed by computers, as many as 10 million self-driving cars will be on the roads, and robots—computerized machines—will infiltrate almost every arena of our daily lives, from healthcare to energy production. The desire to make systems easier, faster, and more efficient is a human imperative that drives technological advancement, sometimes for the better, but have we crossed over the line into dangerous dependence?

Human society owes a great deal of its advancement to technologies that automate our lives. Since the computer revolution of the 1960s, machines have efficiently taken on tasks saving human sweat and time. In the ’70s, workers at distant terminals, such as reservation clerks, became “increasingly connected to computers, and data entry clerks benefited from video display terminals, gradually replacing punch card data entry,” according to “Technology Shocks and Urban Evolutions,” a paper by Thor Berger and Carl Benedikt Frey, professors at the Oxford Martin School. By the time the Internet came along in the ’90s, it displaced “middle-skill” routine jobs and increased the demand for workers who could perform “cognitive” tasks.

While it’s good to know that dentists, physicians, and fine artists are not so easily replaced, within the next 20 years, Frey and a second co-author, Michael Osborne, determined there is a 97.6 percent chance of bookkeepers seeing themselves replaced, 88.8 percent of technical writers, and even housekeepers stand a 68 percent chance of losing their jobs to machines that can outperform. NPR compiled a handy, interactive graph to determine if your job will be farmed out to robots.

As robotic service providers become the norm and our reliance on handheld devices for more of our lifestyle habits increases, we must consider if we’re pushing a dangerous boundary with our dependence. Especially now that cataclysmic climate change is breaking weather records and taxing power infrastructure. Imagine the frustration you feel when your Internet goes down, or loads too slowly. A study that looked into the adverse consequences of computer technology on healthcare professionals—called “Overdependence on Technology” by Emily M. Campbell, M.S. et al—points out that system unavailability, no matter the cause, can “create chaos and frustrate busy end-users,” which may interrupt workflow, such as lab results, appointments, and worse, causing serious chaos and patient harm.

Of course, many new technologies bring positive results. Google’s newest project, the self-driving car, tempts the human desire for freedom, while offering tremendous possibilities for transport of those too frail, ailing, or young to transport themselves. Such cars also promise greater safety. But are we ready to give over control of our safety to an automated driver that may be unable to respond to human cues of alarm?

Inventions like Tesla’s new solar-powered Power Wall could change our dependence on oil, and allow individuals to produce clean energy. But, warns Edward Sturm, a robotics guest lecturer at Columbia University, “We are advancing way faster than we can give ourselves time to prepare [for].” His research on a forthcoming book about the risks of technology reliance gives him cause for concern. “The technological connectedness we have is incredible. But if one link in the chain were to fail, it could mess up the entire thing.”

Steve Tobak, a long-time consultant in the high-tech industry and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow, takes a more positive view of automating technology in our lives. “Taking things out of human hands is the best thing that technology has ever done.” He feels the future of automation lies in “The Internet of Things,”—a kind of “mirror world of intelligence that maps out everything that matters and helps to make it more efficient” by automating systems in much the same way as the Internet links people by email and website. He points to Smart Highways, where digital displays show you which highway routes are the best to take to avoid traffic; personal GPS systems in our cars; and smart meters installed by utility companies like Pacific Gas & Electric (PG &E). “It’s great that PG & E tells us how to make our usage more efficient, but wouldn’t you rather that all the things in your home that use energy were smarter and looped into each other, so they could determine when it was best to shut off?”

Tobak is encouraged by digital automation, and does not take an apocalyptic view. “It’s a lot faster for a system to alert itself than for a failure to be noticed by a human being,” he says. “The failure you should be worried about is having too many humans in the loop. If you design the system to be smart, humans have to do a lot less. It’s not like there is some computer overlord plotting evil.”

Somewhere between fear of dependence and a belief that we should become more automated is computer scientist Kentaro Toyama, author of Geek Heresy. He is not so convinced of the transformative effects of technology on society. “The only way that technology is transformative is when it amplifies underlying human forces. It’s like an engine in your car, and society is the driver. Whether you get to the right place or are headed in the right direction is something that technology doesn’t address directly. It’s more important that we get the human element correct.”

Toyama believes the best use of technology is applying it where “human forces are already positive” such as government programs that have a positive impact.

Since it’s most likely inevitable that technological innovation, leaning on the side of greater automation, will only continue, Toyama strives for a future in which “we focus just as much, if not more, on nurturing people.”

Illustration by Brian Hurst. Thumbnail image by Flickr user Peyri Herrera (cc).

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