Machines replacing humans: This has been the nightmare fantasy explored in science fiction for decades. From the Terminator franchise to the Matrix movies, humans have foreseen potential futures where computers and machines not only replace humans, but dominate them.

Prior to the advent of modern artificial intelligence, the idea that computers could take over the world seemed dramatic but somewhat implausible. Now, leading technology leaders talk about the “singularity,” a point at which artificial intelligence will become a super intelligence far surpassing human capacity.

The technological singularity might also be a time at which human beings begin to merge with machines, which, for some technology visionaries, might be a way to cheat death.

Unfortunately, such fantasies of technological immortality may be of small comfort to today’s workers who are being replaced by automation.

Today’s Practical Concerns Over Automation

While the singularity might not be that far away (some predict it could happen as soon as 2045), technology automation already poses serious threats to today’s workers. The question is, how much automation should we be pursuing? Just because we can automate something, should we?

Step into any modern grocery store and you might find a row of checkout kiosks that have replaced the shopping clerks. While people have protested to raise the minimum wage at fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s, a growing number of burger joints are replacing human workers with order kiosks.

In 2013, the chain restaurant Applebee’s made waves when it announced it was going to place 100,000 tablets at tabletops so customers could checkout and pay without waiting for a waiter.

White collar workers might wrongly assume that they are immune to the march of technology, but already artificial intelligence is handling tasks like picking stocks or analyzing business strategies based on predictive models and algorithms.

The Luddites: Not as Dumb as People Think They Were

The term “Luddite” has come to mean a person who is against all technology, and it is often used in a derogatory manner. “Are you a Luddite?” someone might sneer to a person who chooses to remain off of Facebook.

The Luddites, however, were skilled craftsmen who worked in the textile industry in England in the early 19th century. They were concerned that machines and automation were being used to replace them with lower-skilled, cheaper workers. The Luddites protested by smashing machinery, and they were eventually stopped through harsh military measures.

While the derogatory meaning of the term “Luddite” implies someone who is almost religiously against all technology and advancement, the original Luddites weren’t necessary against progress. However, they did not want their craft to be taken over by machines just to save money while quality was reduced. They took pride in their work and felt that their expertise was something of value.

The Luddites were some of the first in a wave of workers who have been replaced with machines. People who made horses and carriages were replaced by car assembly lines. Assembly line workers have been further replaced by robots. More and more jobs are being lost to automation every day.

How Technology Tends to Eat Itself

Many proponents of technology point out that tech advancements often lead to new and different jobs. Yet, quite often those new jobs end up being replaced as well through automation.

Consider the technological advancement of the modern ride sharing programs, which are made possible through mobile phone apps, GPS technology, and eCommerce.

Many people have been able to earn a living as drivers for companies such as Uber and Lyft. The technology has provided a career option with flexibility, autonomy, and (no pun intended) mobility.

Unfortunately, the day is coming when new cars will all be self-driving – without needing a human to monitor the road. When that happens, everyone who works for Uber and Lyft will be out of a job. Truck drivers will no longer exist, as computers will be driving the trucks.

Some might say that the answer is to simply be the person who programs the machines, but even that job is not secure. The day is coming when computers will be able to program themselves, and when that happens, even programmers will be out of jobs.

How Will People Survive in an Automated World?

The big question for those interested in automation ethics is, how will people survive when they become obsolete? Assuming that the artificial intelligence that evolves out of a “singularity” is benign, some envision a veritable paradise. How? Some of the proposals include giving everyone a universal income to live off of, which would mean that people would not have to work to survive.

Would that mean an explosion of art and creativity in society? Or decadence? Would all people become truly obsolete?

Human obsolescence is built on the idea that eventually machines will able to do better than people.  Certainly, some machine automation has a tremendous benefit to society. We can get more goods faster because of automation. But a work of art, an inspirational piece of music, or an intricate wood carving…would the artificial intelligences of the world be able to make beautiful things?

Would you be surprised to learn that AIs are already making paintings? So far, they have yet to replace Van Gogh…but someday, they might.

Artificial Intelligence and Automation: A Double-Edged Sword

Ultimately, AI will change the world. It just remains to be seen whether it will ultimately be better or not. Will we live in a new utopia? Or will computers become too intelligent and choose to completely replace the human race? Only time will tell.

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