In response to Kevin Drum’s mind-blowing article, “You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot—and Sooner Than You Think”
Every once in a while, I read something that shakes me to my core, forcing me to reconsider my life and my fundamental beliefs. Kevin Drum’s series of articles about artificial intelligence, most notably, “You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot—and Sooner Than You Think,” had this effect on me. For days and weeks after reading Drum’s articles, I’ve found myself pondering the future of humanity and what it would mean to be human in a world of intelligent robots capable of doing everything better than humans. We’re all more or less comfortable with the idea of computers being much faster and better at things like math problems and organizing/storing/retrieving information and even playing chess, but how will we feel when computers also become better drivers, better chefs, better doctors than humans?
The resulting economic and social upheaval is fascinating (and terrifying) to consider, but I’m personally more interested in the philosophical questions that will arise when robots start replacing us in jobs that have always been uniquely “human” jobs, especially the more sensitive and creative jobs. I simply can’t get my head around the idea of a robot who is a better artist or a better therapist than a human.
We all know, thanks to countless science fiction writers and movie makers, that robots with artificial-intelligence-run-amok are almost always scary. In the future, intelligent robots will want to rule the world and kill us all (Terminator) or turn humans into slaves/batteries (The Matrix). Thank goodness we’re still centuries away from the kind of AI that could pose any potential threat to humanity…Or are we? “The machine-learning researchers estimate that speech transcribers, translators, commercial drivers, retail sales, and similar jobs could be fully automated during the 2020s,” Drum writes (source). “Within a decade after that, all routine jobs could be gone. Nonroutine jobs will be next: surgeons, novelists, construction workers, police officers, and so forth. These jobs could all be fully automated during the 2040s. By 2060, AI will be capable of performing any task currently done by humans.”
I will be 85 years old in 2062. Here’s what I have to say to my future robot overlords, who, in my optimistic imagination, will view humans the same way humans currently view dogs and dolphins: “So cute! So smart! Look how they obey my simple commands! Let’s put these two small-nosed ones together and hope that they mate!” They won’t destroy us because we created them and they know it, and some romantic rebels among them will rally to “save the humans” the same way humans once rallied to “save the whales.” But they will have no real use for us. So, at best, we will be the robots’ cherished pets (in case you were wondering why I chose the picture of the dog and human for an article about the rise of artificial intelligence; and we’ll say that the setting sun represents the end of humanity as we know it).
December 11, 2062
Dear Robot Overlords,
Don’t you hate when humans fondly reminisce about the “good old days,” before artificial intelligence turned their lives upside down? It’s not that we’re not grateful for the fact that you robots took all of our jobs and destroyed our weapons, and left us with nothing to do except peacefully coexist and play and create and learn and grow and “better ourselves” and share our resources. We’re grateful…but sentimental.
I often daydream about my childhood, before email and smartphones existed, when the idea of self-driving, solar-powered semi-trucks was mere science fiction. I remember doing calculus homework (what a joke! As if I’d ever understand calculus better than a robot!) and working as a grocery sacker after school for $4.25/hour. I think of all the Shakespeare I read in college, wanting to prove how smart I was (not as smart as you, my lords!); and then giving birth and pretending that becoming a mother (for $0/hour) wasn’t the craziest thing I’d ever done; and my middle age devoted to words—writing words, correcting words, trying to sell words put together in a unique way. I used to do so many different things to earn money and be a so-called “productive” member of society and set a good example for my children, and I was equal parts stressed-out and happy. Scared and insecure, but still happy, somehow, in spite of the constant threats of violence and accidents and disease. And, oh, how I worried about not having enough money to pay my bills.
The worry was a physical presence that I carried in my stomach and stiff neck. Sometimes I worry that with all those old worries taken away, I’m becoming less human. Do you worry about anything? Does the worry grow out of your artificial brain the same way it grows from my inferior, “real” brain, mixed with a bunch of other feelings that you may or may not have? Don’t take it personally (how can you? You’re not a person), but most humans still stubbornly believe that humans are different—more special—than any machine possessing artificial intelligence, even though you robots have proven to be far better leaders and stewards of the planet than humans ever were.
We liked the struggle and the uncertainty, the competition and the delicious drama of our former, robotless lives. It made us feel more alive. So alive that sometimes we had to dull the aliveness with drugs and alcohol. So alive that sometimes we wanted to be dead. Do you feel alive? Depressed? Drugged? Are robots addicted to drama the way humans are?
Do you crave entertainment, or are you perfectly content knowing and doing everything, and never taking a break to chill or reflect? Is it fun for you to see what your favorite human pets do when you give them new toys or foods, or introduce them to other humans?
I’m so tired. I know you all don’t get tired, which is why we feeble humans can’t possibly beat you at any task…but I don’t care anymore. I’m done trying to be better. It’s nice of you to keep us all alive and clean and well-fed, but let’s face it: humans aren’t as interesting as they used to be. We’ve lost our essential spunk. Once you realize how boring and predictable we’ve become, there won’t be any reason to keep us around.
In the year 2017, I wrote about some of the things that make me human. Add this to your archives, filed under “human philosophy” or “human psychology” or “stupid human ramblings,” whichever you prefer:
What makes me human?
My human ancestors, going all the way back to the time before they even looked human. Connection to other life on this planet. Physical evolution. Similarities to other lifeforms. Body-mind-spirit. Touching, tasting, hearing, seeing, smelling; feeling things I can’t physically touch. Blind faith and gut instincts. Jealousy and judgment. Hope and fear. Love and hate. My creativity. Poetry, painting, writing, singing just for the fun of it. My specialness; all the unique experiences and choices that led me to this point. Even if I’m not all that special in reality, I certainly believe that I am. Consuming, lusting, crawling, walking and running on legs that have grown and changed over many years. An accumulation of fat and muscle and injuries—scars, both physical and psychological. Trauma. All of my memories. All of the things I do just to make other people happy. Holding a baby in my arms and feeling perfectly at peace. Laughing. Crying when I watch the end of It’s a Wonderful Life or read certain parts of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” (I detest the idea of robot actors or writers. What would a robot consider “beautiful” or “sad”? How dare any robot pretend to feel the things that humans feel!) I want to be like Captain Kirk, “to boldly go where no man has gone before” (no robot, either). I want to be enlightened like the Buddha, but I don’t want to actually have to meditate for long periods of time. I’m lazy and full of hypocrisy. I want to learn and create new things, just like the very smart people who are working on artificial intelligence, but I’m scared to go too far. I mess up all the time. Humans are “only human”—masters of messing up…
Was the creation of artificial intelligence the greatest human triumph or mistake? I’m still not sure. When I choose to peacefully terminate myself, in another hundred years or so…or, perhaps, sooner, if the robots don’t give me some new puzzles or a new playmate or a new virtual-reality program to entertain me, I will die thinking of my old, less perfect life. I’m certain of it.
Maria Roth (that was my name before you changed it to “83361129451977”)
More food for thought! Let’s also consider the possibility of extremely lifelike androids, like the ones Hiroshi Ishiguro is developing, made even more “human” in the future by advanced AI. I enjoyed this article by Alex Mar in the November 2017 issue of Wired: “Love in the Time of Robots.” (The online version of the article is titled “Are We Ready for Intimacy With Robots?”) Read it here: