When Robots Replace Human Labor
by George Pitagorsky
Imagine a time when there are so few jobs that unemployment of 50% or more becomes the norm.
Imagine further a society in which people are provided a livable, comfortable income just for being. Alternatively, imagine a society in which people are left on their own to make ends meet with no source of income.
Are we in for a Utopian world where each is afforded enough to more than sustain himself or herself or a dystopia in which a huge underclass is left to subsist, starve or rebel?
Robots are a Reality
A NY Times article "Skilled Work, Without the Worker" reports of a factory in the Netherlands that produces electric razors with a tenth of the employees of an equivalent factory in China. The difference is the use of robots that can do tasks requiring significant manual dexterity and skill.
The article reports that Foxconn (Apple's iPhone Manufacturer with more than one million employees worldwide) chairman, Terry Gou, has publicly endorsed a growing use of robots and is quoted by the official Xinhua news agency as having said: "As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache."
Corporations and their often short sighted owners and executives are eager to automate away the cost and headache of managing large numbers of humans. Relying on the past experience of new industries springing up to stimulate job growth, they are confident that demand for their products will continue.
But what if tens of millions of people are no longer needed for work, replaced by self-adjusting robots and computer technology, that are manufactured by robots and that can perform tasks previously performed by highly skilled people.
Can we envision a time when people with the means can be open to providing those without incomes what they need to not only survive but to thrive in a world with significantly reduced need for economically oriented work. Would everyone become slothful welfare cheats, unmotivated, dulled out by lack of stimulation? Or would people find new ways to use their time, energy and minds to transcend.
What kind of cultural change would be required to make a future that we'd like to live in?
At least half the people in this country are so opposed to government involvement in the economy that it is almost inconceivable that we could ever evolve to a society that is committed to caring for its people, particularly those who can't take care of themselves.
Part of the change is cultivation of compassion. Compassion is the heartfelt knowing of one's own pain and the pain of others. It is founded upon a self-identity that softens or eliminates the sense that there is a great divide between self and others.
However, it is one thing to feel compassion and another to act on it. Active compassion doesn't just think thoughts of loving kindness or give money to charities. Active compassion commits to helping in a way that alleviates suffering, or even more importantly, avoids unnecessary suffering.
Ideal compassion is selfless. More than likely, selflessness is too high a goal to achieve in the next several decades, if ever. Self-interest is a motivator alongside compassion. The kind of cultural change we need to address the shift to a society in which work is not the predominant source of income includes a realization that a situation in which large numbers of unemployed people are left to fend for themselves is rather unpleasant.
Picture walls between the rich and poor, heightened security, rampant starvation, sickness, etc. If you have trouble picturing this just visit a less fortunate emerging country or somewhere in this country where walled enclaves and large slums are already a reality.
Motivation to support a giving based society includes the desire for a world that is supportive of happiness for the largest number of people possible, including oneself. Altruism while an important motivator might not be enough.
We know from the recent Sandy storm aftermath that people are willing and able to help others in need. We know also that insurance companies are poised to challenge the designation of Sandy as a storm rather than a hurricane so they can save some money at the expense of storm victims. We know that some politicians have come out against spending government money on things like FEMA and social welfare. We know that otherwise well meaning people cannot accept that their hard earned money will be spent on those who they consider to be lazy because they are not working for a living.
I am hoping that the next years will see a movement that addresses the creation of a widespread mindset of practical compassion and programs to cultivate a sense of self worth that is not anchored on one's ability to earn but instead on one's ability to give.
© 2012 Pitagorsky Consulting