The Bots Are Coming! (For Your Job)
Suppose you just graduated from UNI with a degree in marketing. You’ve converted your summer internship into a permanent sales job. Congratulations.
A few years into your job, however, you start noticing prospectuses regarding robots. You might figure your sales job is safe. After all, most people like a human touch when considering buying. Listening to a metallic robotic voice extolling the virtues of a product remains off putting for many people.
A few months later, you overhear your boss making conversation with someone you assume is a new job candidate. The voice is soothing and genuinely warm. You figure there may be some competition from this new person. Imagine your shock to find the voice emanates not from a human but from an upgraded robot using advanced AI.
A few weeks later, your boss calls you into her office. “I’m afraid we are terminating you. Rosie the Robot (to use the name of a beloved character from The Jetsons cartoon) is outselling every sales representative on our staff. She is able to quickly assure potential buyers of our products’ quality and efficacy for their needs; she quickly comes up with effective closing lines. You have until the end of the day to clear out your office.”
Science fiction? A bad dream one night after a meal of spicy food? Unfortunately, some of the more enthusiast proponents of AI believe such displacement of humans by robots is nigh. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal identifies corporate executives who believe bots are about ready to take over even sales jobs. One executive, Oren Harnevo, Feel’s co-founder and chief executive said, “Then it’ll be stupid to continue having humans and paying for them¹. In other words, humans in the labor force may become akin with discarded Christmas toys and stale leftovers from restaurant meals past.
I’ve read that even lawyers and accountants may be vulnerable to replacement by bots. Much legal and accounting work is routine. In fact, lawyers have established barriers to entry to limit what human competitors, such as legal assistants, can do. Physicians, too, resist physician’s assistants and specialized nurses, whose training and skills could replace physicians for many routine conditions.
Some tech experts, are beginning to urge restraint, including Elon Musk. One researcher raised the disturbing question, “Should we automate away all the jobs, including the fulfilling ones? Should we develop nonhuman minds that might eventually outnumber, outsmart, and replace us?”
Although universal basic income is popular on one end of the American political spectrum, I suspect that support will grow as white-collar workers, including readers of these blog pieces, begin being shoved out of jobs by machines. Blue-collar workers have long lacked the political clout that white collar, college graduates possess. Many blue-collar jobs have already been taken over by robots. There is probably a tipping point with regard for support for universal basic incomes, but more widespread displacement of human workers by AI is likely to accelerate increases in support.
Of course, some observers are optimistic. They see AI as opening up new vistas for jobs that are not soul-sucking tedium, but, rather, fulfilling vocations. After all, industrialization did not immiserate workers; we are now in a service economy. Although some of the white-collar jobs are boring, most white-collar workers are in climate-controlled, clean buildings. Their jobs are among the safest known in history. Most of the readers of this blog piece are fortunate enough to be in white-collar occupations.
If voters opt for universal basic incomes, who will pay for it? Would it be better to someone ensure that everyone could, instead, become a capitalist and own shares in bots? These are questions that will perplex the younger generations. Those of us of a certain vintage will probably pass on, before we become completely obsolete. For those under thirty, the future is unclear.
AI and bots could be a wonderful blessing or a nightmare for humanity. Humanity has bumbled its way through many new technologies. I suspect we’ll adapt to AI and bots, perhaps not smoothly.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.
1) Callum Borchers, “‘Hey, I am a Human.’ In Sales, the People Are Battling the Chatbots,” April 13, 2023, www.wsj.com/articles/artifical-intelligence-sales-jobs-workers-127289f3,... April 13, 2023