The question of whether robots will take away our jobs is more complicated than you might think.
Panelists gathered from various fields on Wednesday to discuss the effects of technological advances on jobs. They had different takes on whether robots will take away jobs, but they also exposed how complicated factors like immigrant labor, socioeconomic status and gender shape the way people answer the question.
For Prof. Guy Hoffman, mechanical and aerospace engineering, the notion that robots would take away all of our jobs is a delusion.
“We have political and social power to design the future. It’s not a storm that we have to watch come towards us,” Hoffman said. He added that he was confident we have the power to prevent technological unemployment.
Even with artificial intelligence and machine learning, as robots begin to do more than what we exactly tell them to do, humans are in charge, said Prof. Adam Seth Litwin, labor relations, law and history.
Hoffman talked about how the discussion about people losing jobs from robots is inherently a product of gender bias among panelists. He said this was typically because the jobs that will soon be taken away by robots are male-dominated.
Machines have eliminated many household jobs, traditionally held by women, which are unpaid and have no benefits, Hoffman said.
“In a way, you could ask, did the dishwasher take my job? Did the washing machine take my job? And it’s really interesting to look at how these things are very gendered. When you take a man’s manufacturing job it’s a disaster, but when it’s in the home, it’s just technology getting better,” he said.
“There’s an issue of diversity, even within the panel, which is pretty homogenous,” said Prof. Sasa Zivkovic, architecture, pointing to the all-white panel with one female panelist out of five.
Along with Zivkovic, Prof. Kirstin Petersen, electrical and computer engineering, appeared more optimistic about the fate of humanity.
“Maybe we’re not supposed to work eight to 10 hours a day. Maybe we all need to accept that it should be six or four hours a day,” she said. “Maybe we’ll move towards a world where robots do more.
“The robot will take our jobs and that will be liberating,” Zivkovic said.
He said that guaranteeing universal basic income could be a remedy for the jobs that would be lost from the proliferation of robots.
In response, Prof. Ross Knepper, computer science, spoke about the negative effects.
“A lot of us define ourselves by what we do for our work,” he said. “It’s an integral part of who you are and it’s hard to pull yourself away from that.”
Litwin was critical of the idea of universal basic income, saying that it would not guarantee enough money for individuals to sustain themselves. He added that we cannot ignore the psychological reasons why we work.
“I think a lot of us would work for nothing,” he said “We love our jobs.”
Kline connected the question about robots and human labor to a broader reality that technology is a double-edged sword, with both benefits and unintended adverse consequences.
“Something that was understood a couple years ago as liberating and connecting people is suddenly a network that uses alternate facts and other types of realities that people indulge in,” Kline said. “There are always two sides to the promises of technology.”