The Robots are Coming?

By Carmelo Davila, Working Lives Project Director, and Jessica Becker

How will technological advancement and automation impact jobs in the U.S. and abroad?

“Will a robot take my job?” and other concerns about how technology is affecting the workplace are part of ongoing speculation about what the future of work will be for each of us. This is a complicated issue. It is not enough to hear from computer scientists, engineers, economists, or policy makers. As humans living through changes and preparing for more, we can look to the humanities to draw from historical, philosophical, and ethical sources to develop our own understanding of these changes.

The Working Lives Project is the WHC’s multi-year effort to spark thoughtful discussion about issues facing working people in our state now and into the future. A humanities approach is inclusive, reflective, and takes into consideration how Wisconsinites individually and collectively are ‘making a living and making a life’ through their work.

Up until fairly recently, the idea that robots, self-driving cars, and artificial intelligence could one day take control of society away from humans was the stuff of science fiction movies and novels (a clear visual of Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner may quickly come to mind).  However, tremendous advances in the tech industry are inspiring more than a few headlines and changing popular perception on the topic.

Some predictions paint a bleak dystopian picture of a possible automated future defined by global mass unemployment. Others suggest innovation may lead to a new age of economic progress and prosperity, where robots and computer algorithms will eventually free people from having to do unsafe, unhealthy, or tedious work tasks.

Predicting the future and fate of humankind is tricky business. While computer scientists may use human terms like ‘deep learning’ to describe the ways computers are advancing, the ability to speculate and imagine still requires a human brain. It also requires a willingness to consider different possible outcomes.

If you feel you could benefit from some understanding of how historical processes have shaped human actions, motivations, cultural behavior, and social relations at different points of time and place to help you make sense of technological advancement and workplace changes, we recommend two historians.

On the one hand: A leading voice among those raising concerns about the potentially negative consequences of artificial intelligence and automation applications in the workplace is the Israeli historian and best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari. In his book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harari argues that our current global race to develop and enhance smart computer algorithms and automated robots can lead to the creation of a global “useless class” composed of millions, if not billions, of dislocated workers. He identifies this scenario as one of the biggest threats of the 21st century.

On the other side of the spectrum is the American-Israeli economic historian Joel Mokyr. Mokyr argues that the fear and forecasting of technology replacing human labor is nothing new. Professor Mokyr has spent most of his career studying how societies and working people have coped with ongoing technological innovation (and disruption) since the Industrial Revolution. In a 2015 publication titled The History of Technological Anxiety and the Future of Economic Growth: Is This Time Different?, he argues that worries about machines replacing workers is “not new to the modern era.” Building out from this lens of history,  Mokyr suggests that current advances in AI and robot automation will enable improved human welfare.

For most people today, work is a defining feature of life. One’s occupation is often an essential part of one’s identity.  This is why we believe a humanities approach is particularly relevant to public discussions about the potential social implications of technological changes in the workplace. The Working Lives Project invites all Wisconsinites to look into the past, consider the future, and talk about issues facing working people in our state, and around the globe.

We want you to be part of this conversation. We have started curating some of the news articles, talks, podcasts and book reviews on our Working Lives Project homepage. In the coming months, we will have public events around the state that offer communities the opportunity to bring ideas and concerns together for discussion. We look forward to this journey with you…wherever it takes us!

Find out more about the Working Lives Project!

Making a living and making a life

We believe that our problems have solutions. And we believe that we can find the knowledge we need – and trust – to solve them. Our series of Beyond the Headlines events are organized with partner organizations in Madison, Wausau, Milwaukee, Superior and Eau Claire to confront some of the state’s most pressing challenges. By bringing key players together face-to-face for conversations, we are all learning how to move forward to build stronger communities.

Learn more about the Beyond the Headlines events in Wausau starting May 9th!


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