Recently, during a visit to one of my daughters, I happened to see something that started me thinking (always dangerous). A waste removal vehicle (I don’t think garbage truck is any longer acceptable in polite company.) pulled up alongside two large plastic trash containers, which my son in law had placed at the end of his driveway. There was no one standing on the little step on the back of the truck prepared to jump down and empty the cans, as is the case with my trash guy. As I was thinking, how terribly inefficient for the driver to get out of the truck to dump the garbage can, a giant set of tongs miraculously reached out from the side of the truck, snatched the cans, and dumped them in the top of the truck.

This display of high tech stuff in action prompted me to wonder what might have happened to the guy who lost his job to that robot. Granted, this job, involving hanging to the back of a truck; being vulnerable to being killed by someone looking at his cell phone; and being exposed to all kinds of weather, not to mention the physical labor involved and not knowing if the can to be picked up is full of feathers or bricks, would not appeal to most people. If that is not enough, imagine what it would be like to spend every day enveloped in eau de garbage.

Nevertheless, whenever I happen to be in my yard as my guy picks up my trash, he waves, smiles, and asks me how I am doing. He is very efficient and alights from that little step on the back of the truck before it is completely stopped with the grace of a ballet dancer. I think he must be very good at his job, and from just watching him, one might even conclude that he liked what he was doing. Like it or not, I could attest to his having worked at this job for the many years I have resided here, and I wonder what he would do if his boss purchased one of those new trucks with the monstrous steel arms.

This made me wonder if technology would eventually replace work. That may seem far fetched, yet look around and you will see that all over the place, machines replace people. With driverless cars on the way, could driverless trucks or trains be far behind? It is said that there is little for an airline pilot to do on his flight these days, and it is common for the controls to be untouched by human hands from takeoff to landing. As a matter of fact, I find it difficult to imagine many jobs in the transportation industry that could not be automated.

Perhaps manufacturing is where automation has had the most effect on employment. Robots have replaced many people on the assembly lines of automobile factories. Many highly skilled positions have been eliminated by computer operated machinery, which can produce more for less, often with more precision. In my day, machinists were among the most highly skilled and respected of all the tradesmen. They could produce objects with tolerances within thousandths of an inch. Those same products can now be produced with the push of a button. Daughter/editor Maggie is the marketing manager for a company that manufactures such machines. Three-dimensional printing has gone from a concept to a way to produce objects without human interference.

Retail businesses have also felt the effect of technology. Online shopping grows exponentially, apparently contributing to the demise of not only Mom-and-Pop stores but some of the big box chains. Walmart, always ahead of the curve, has expanded its online capability. Even groceries can be bought online. Amazon builds distribution centers all over the country, which are said to be fully automated and capable of storing, processing, and sending purchases without any hands-on involvement. Its research into the possible use of drones to deliver its products has been well publicized—look out postal service, UPS, and FedEx.

Not even agriculture has escaped from that phenomenon we call progress. Family farms are rapidly disappearing because they find they can no longer compete with the very large, highly mechanized corporate farms where, with the aid of technology, one man can plant and harvest hundreds of acres of crops. It is not hard to imagine that, as this driverless thing progresses, he might also become expendable. Likewise, livestock farms require automation beyond the reach of the little guy. It is true that some crops are still harvested by people, but I wager when the cost of employing migrant workers goes up, there will be machines invented to pick those fruits and vegetables. I have been told that a tomato with thick skin has already been developed via genetic engineering so that it can be picked by a machine, but I can’t vouch for the veracity of that bit of info.

At first glance, it might appear that those in what we refer to as the “professions” might be immune from the effects of this burgeoning technology, yet, if we look harder, we can see many potential threats to their job security, also. It is now possible to invade legal barriers with the help of all kinds of forms and instructions from the internet. There seems to be some agreement that there are already too many lawyers; consequently, more digital competition could make things worse.  Many lawyers escape into politics, and I am of the opinion that if robots were to take over those positions there would likely be an improvement in government.  Computers are good with numbers, and there are already multiple accounting programs. It seems only a matter of time until accountants would join the ranks of blacksmiths and other virtually extinct professions.

As with other professions, medicine has not escaped the avalanche of technological know how. Physicians have become much more reliant on machines to make diagnoses, and physical examinations tend to often be cursory. Robotic surgery is already used, and there are programs in which computers take the place of psychiatrists. Could we someday walk into a scanner that makes the diagnosis and dispenses a pill, then be cured, as was the case in “Star Wars?”

You may be thinking that we will always need human intelligence to design, build, and program those robots; however, the artificial intelligence of computers seems to be evolving as less artificial with many of the attributes of human intelligence. For example, an IBM computer has managed to defeat some of the world’s best chess players, and Siri can tell me how to get to Podunk before I can get the map from my glove compartment. If the super geeks who build these things are correct, it will not be long until robotic machines will be able to act independently. With those capabilities, one can imagine that robotic machines would not only do the job by themselves, but also be able build more robots. If that all seems ridiculous, consider how our great-great-grandparents would have scoffed at the idea that someday soon it would be possible to talk with someone thousands of miles away.

Archaeologists seem to agree that the development of tools was a major factor in man’s ability to become the dominant creature on the planet. Tools are essentially labor saving devices. Could it be that we are heading toward the development of labor eliminating devices and eventually to a state in which there is no work to be done at all? If that were the case, and we all were unemployed like my fictional guy from the trash truck, what would life be like? Barb and I are both retired, yet we are sometimes heard to say that we can’t do this or that because we “have work to do,” when we are actually referring to routine household chores. We already have vacuums that clean floors automatically, and futurists predict that soon there will be robots available to do all routine household jobs.

The implications of a jobless society are almost unimaginable. What about the effects on the economy where the basic needs and luxuries of the populous have always been based on productivity? Would we still need money? If so, how would it be distributed? How about governance? If artificial minds could make better decisions, would we turn everything over to them? The more I think about it, the weirder it sounds. The brave new world concept seems tame in comparison.

As you might expect, an old retired psychiatrist like me is more interested in what effect a world without work would have on individuals and their relationships than in economics or politics. To that end, I have much more to say about the topic, but daughter/editor Maggie (I am considering firing her, by the way.) insists that people can only tolerate my words of wisdom in small doses; consequently, I plan to elaborate on the subject in a follow-up blog.

2 thoughts on “WORK? WHAT’S THAT?

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