When Robots Replace Workers

62% of American jobs may be at risk from robots. That was the take-away from President Obama’s February Economic Report to Congress. And once again, it is the most vulnerable among us (those making $20 or less an hour) that are most at risk of job displacement.

Harvard Business Review paints our fast-moving, technological future just as ominously:

“As many as 40 million citizens in the U.S. will have no economic value. The dislocations will be profound.”

Wonder what those 40 million people will do all day without jobs?

HBR does a good job contrasting what technology meant to us in the past versus what it means to us in the future. In the past, technology eliminated jobs at the same rate that it was creating new ones. But not so this time:

“The “Second Economy” (the term used by economist Brian Arthur to describe the portion of the economy where computers transact business only with other computers) is upon us. It is, quite simply, the virtual economy, and one of its main byproducts is the replacement of workers with intelligent machines powered by sophisticated code.”

So President Obama is spot-on when he advocates a more aggressive educational agenda and better preparing the next generation for the demands of this dystopian sounding workplace.

But it makes me wonder. Do we have to march forward embracing the inevitability of a full-on, machine age future? Has no one watched Terminator or 2001: A Space Odyssey lately? I truly think computers, smart phones, robots, and artificial intelligence have a whole host of unintended consequences we should be wary about.

Take Microsoft’s recent foray into the uncanny valley. Its A.I. powered bot, Tay, learned how to be racist and offensive after only 24 hours of exposure to Twitter. Programmed to learn by interacting with humans, it lacked the economically useless thing we humans alone possess, conscience.

Conscience speaks to something else about humans and work. To be human, we need work. That is where intangible things like self-esteem and self-reliance come from. Take those away and the costs are high. People literally get sick and die when they don’t have meaningful employment (Unprecedented numbers of middle-aged Americans are dying from suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, a side effect many economists believe is related to unemployment, wage stagnation, and income inequality).

HBR puts it in starker terms:

“Ultimately, we need a new, individualized, cultural, approach to the meaning of work and the purpose of life. Otherwise, people will  find a solution – human beings always do – but it may not be the one for which we began this technological revolution.”