What Will We Do When Robots Take Our Jobs?

Danielle Beurteaux

indexArtificial Intelligence is going to take over. Robots are now “staffing” a hotel in Japan. Even Stephen Hawking thinks A.I. could mean we are over. Done. Finished.

Now that we all know our jobs will be taken over by robots wielding A.I. capabilities, what are we going to do with our lives? Are we even going to have careers?

The fear of robots taking jobs actually appears in the very first instance of robots. That’s because the word was invented by Czech writer Karel Capek in his 1920 play R.U.R., full title Rossum’s Universal Robots. The story is about robots taking over the world. Not much has changed, huh?

This could be Industrial Revolution redux, argues Wired, but then again, robots will do the jobs we don’t want to do or can’t do well or at all, and a few decades from now they’ll do jobs we didn’t know we needed, or don’t need now. At least, at first.

Or maybe robots can do all the work…

It’s called the “post-work world,” and in some respects it doesn’t look pretty. This Atlantic article details what happened in Youngstown, Ohio, when the town’s major industry shut down: an increase in suicide, mental health issues, and abuse. The blow was psychological, not just economic.

So who’s got some good ideas about what to do once we’ve been automated right out of our cubicles?

One idea is to re-define the concept of unemployment. Earlier retirement? So much better. All that time to finally do all the things you actually want to do…if you can avoid the boredom factor.

There’s also been an uptick in employee-owned businesses, which, according to some researchers, are more productive and innovative and are places people want to work. Can you be replaced by a ‘bot if you own the company?

And some people don’t care. They’re going to quit unfulfilling and frustrating jobs anyway.

But maybe we simply don’t need jobs. A left-of-center experiment is going on right now in the college town of Utrecht in The Netherlands. It’s called basic income, and beginning next year, some of Utrecht’s population who are already on welfare will be divided into groups. One group will receive a set amount each month, enough to cover basic living expenses, without any restrictions—no minimum hours banked to look for a job, or minimum number of weekly job applications. Even if they do get a job, they’ll still get the money. The goal is to discover how people behave when they have a reliable source of support. Will they still look for a job?

In fact, several similar experiments took in North America a few decades ago. Dauphin, a small town in Manitoba, Canada, was the site of one basic income trial called Mincome. For five years back in the 1970s, everyone in town received a fixed amount. It wasn’t until recently that data on the project was analyzed—the program was changed and then discontinued altogether without resolution—and health data shows that there was a decrease in health care use, mental health improved, and more students finished high school.

To extend the argument, if we’re all guaranteed a basic income–because our robots are doing the work and making all our money–we will be at liberty to do what we want.

Bring your robot to work day

Maybe the future is about partnerships with your new best workplace friend—your own robot. There are already several versions of assistive robots on the market—perhaps a precursor of what’s to come—but what if we all had robots that acted as assistants to take to work with us? Or that could show up at the office when we can’t or don’t want to?

Despite the dramatic headlines, there are still things that robots simply can’t do, or can’t do as well as humans.

Want more insight on what the workplace of tomorrow will look like? See The Future of Work.

Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.