The Robots Are Here

Another adaptation of my speech! This speech was originally presented in Marine Parade Toastmasters Club on Friday, 5 May 2017. I have done some edits for readability and expanded some sections.

Jobs: the futile effort for financial independence, social acceptance and personal happiness.

Jobs have become a hot button issue in almost every political popularity contest; from the local Singapore election to the loud American election. Much of the issue surrounds offshoring, which is the practice of basing some of a company’s processes or services overseas to take advantage of lower costs.

Former presidential candidate extraordinaire Donald Trump, notably, promised 25 million jobs for the American people, saying, “We will bring back our jobs.” The narrative that was framed during the campaign trail and the one that has seemed to stick is that these jobs have gone overseas or are still being done locally but by cheaper foreign labour.

That is not the entire story. Although the United States has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000, their manufacturing outputs are actually at record levels. What happened? It seems that something else is lurking beneath the surface.


Throughout time, humanity has endeavoured to discover ways to avoid work. For a very long time there was slavery. However, people eventually agreed that owning other people, and getting them to work for free, had not been a good idea after all. Subsequently, it did not take us long to figure out that free people are not, in fact, free.

If only there was a way to skip the “employing people” part altogether.

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, one boffin by the name of Edmund Cartwright patented the power loom in 1785. It used water as power instead of human power; significantly increasing production output while putting a lot of skilled handweavers out of jobs in the process. Its descendants are responsible in bringing us the everyday clothes we wear at very low costs.

Not all the time though…

Cut to the present, where we have industrial robots performing repeatable tasks with high precision, often in conditions that are too hazardous for us mere mortals. They have the steadiest hands, they do not go on holidays and tea breaks, and they need no sick leave. The extensive use of robots in manufacturing has even birthed dark factories: buildings that do not need any indoor lighting because there is not one soul inside.

This is where those manufacturing jobs have gone to. At some point, even offshoring becomes too expensive when you have willing robots to do the jobs. The work may be coming back, but not the jobs.


Some of us in the service industry might breathe a sigh of relief now. After all, people would always need property agents, right? Well, not really. A report by McKinsey Global Institute, a global think tank, suggests that the job of a property agent has more potential to be automated than a machine technician. What has happened here?

Machine learning happened. Previously, robots are programmed to either follow a linear path or a complex decision tree with distinct and finite outcomes. Now, robots no longer have to be explicitly programmed. They can learn just by observation and feedback. Programmers of the future may work just like dog trainers. The advancement of technologies such as image and speech recognition, combined with natural language processing, has also helped robots to become more pervasive.

What about jobs that require extremely complex decision making, like a judge? Computer scientists at University College London has developed a software that is able to weigh up legal evidence and moral questions of right and wrong. They ran the software against 584 cases from the European court of human rights and concurred with actual human judges 74% of the time. Needless to say that the software will only get better.


The advancement in robotics will affect our working life everywhere: from manufacturing to services. Where do we, puny humans, go from here?

Rage against the machine

Whatever you do, do not become a luddite. The luddite movement is said to be named after Ned Ludd, who in 1779 smashed a couple of knitting machines. He spawned a group that went around destroying machinery, that they saw as threats to their jobs, as a form of protest. Obviously history has proven that this movement was futile. The term is still relevant today and is used to describe those resistant to technology.

Instead of becoming a luddite, let’s strive to improve ourselves in order to stay relevant and competitive in this new world. Those who are technologically inclined can learn to automate things and be masters of the machines. For everyone, challenge yourself to increase your interpersonal skills and always find opportunities for lifelong learning. After all, education is also partly run by robots these days and is therefore cheap!

The advent of advanced robotics, for its inevitability, should be taken as a wake up call for us to be more human, a species who always find a way to not work.


Addendum

About a week after I had written this piece, Wired published a video encapsulating most of my points here. It is certainly worth a watch.


Check out my website for early access to writings