Brian Willis

On Humanity

Seth Godin, writing at his blog:

If the boss can write it down, she can find someone cheaper than you to do the work. Probably a robot. The best jobs are jobs where we don’t await instructions, where using good judgment and taking initiative are far more important than obedience.

…but what happens when judgement and initiative become something we can automate too?

I’ve been mulling this over since C.G.P. Grey published his video Humans Need Not Apply. I’m glossing over some of the finer points, but his central argument is that the future of work looks pretty grim, with software and robotics taking over jobs that we’ve traditionally thought only people were capable of.

He’s absolutely right by the way. I’m a Software Developer, which means I unemploy people for a living. If a pice of work can be automated it eventually will be, and when that happens yet another person ends up out of work. There’s no limit to this either—people aren’t as special as they think they are. Right now, almost all of us have a job that can either in whole or in part be replaced by a machine. This is going to be a problem when we get to the point that jobs are being automated away at a faster pace than new jobs are being created.

So what does a person do to maximise the chance that they’ll stay employable?

A person’s biggest asset in the face of automation is their humanity. It’s the one thing robotics can’t compete on. Any line of work that’s humanised remains valuable work when done by a person.

Consider a stay in hospital. I can see patients accepting a robot surgeon. Fewer mistakes, fewer side effects, faster surgeries, all positive things. But what happens in the recovery ward? It’s one thing to be operated on by a machine when you’re unconscious and unaware of the experience, but can we really expect people to accept care from robot nurses? Nursing is a line of work where humanity counts, and between the uncanny valley, and our general desire for authenticity, I don’t see patients reacting well to being taken care of by Alice from The Jetsons.

We can see inklings of this effect in other industries too. High end watches are truly terrible at timekeeping, with even the best models on the market drifting seconds each day. By comparison, a quartz watch will drift around a second a day, and smart watches sync regularly with time servers, effectively eliminating drift. So why would someone buy a mechanical watch? Because its value comes from being hand made by a person, following traditions that are in some cases centuries old. The value in a Portugieser comes from the fact that it didn’t roll off an assembly line, slapped together mechanically.

It’s not just humanity that gives us an edge over automation—it’s authenticity. It’s easy to write off hispter culture as some sort of quirky longing for a world that never really existed, but at its core hipsterdom rose from a lack of authenticity in the world. It was a whole social movement that said the plastic and formica and corporate sterility of the world was getting too much, and that we needed reclaim some of what we’d lost in our pursuit of efficiency. People care deeply about the substance of the things they buy, and how those things make them feel. Authenticity is why barista made coffee can be sold for more than coffee out of a machine, why parents consider their children’s artwork priceless, and why Emily Howell doesn’t have many fans.

I know these are transient and superficial reasons to value one kind of work over another, and after writing this I’m having difficulty reconciling my desire to remain employable with the fact that no one describes the software I make as artisanal or hand crafted. I’m not trying to say that we’ll solve the problem of automation and find work for billions of people by creating goods that are meaningfully worse. Instead, I’m suggesting that the economy oftentimes values things in counterintuitive ways, and I think because of that there’s hope for us.