The Need for Humanistic Conversations in a Society Overtaken by Corporate Robotics
by Shelby John Trevor
When civilization strides forward by means of robotics, automation, and AI, we risk dystopian outcomes as too many humans could be left behind. What responsibilities do corporations—generously increasing their bottom line as a result of automated labor—have to the human community that built their enterprises and the economic infrastructure preceding robotic takeover?
I believe measuring the value of a human being should be philosophical. Asking the question of life’s purpose, do we not discover subjective and pluralistic interpretations? I believe that these questions (and other considerations) must be a part of the conversation to critically examine and understand the far-reaching social and economic impact of robotic labor and the burgeoning presence of AI.
Humans face, and will continue to face, immense social change as AI and automated technologies fill more positions in society. While there could be obvious benefits to robots doing our chores, there are serious risks that should be considered. One such risk identifies prejudice in the form of classism. A human who is replaced by a robot will likely be someone in a blue-collar position.
According to Jing Bing Zhang, interviewed by Dan Shewan and featured in The Guardian article, Robots will destroy our jobs—and we’re not ready for it, “Automation and robotics will definitely impact lower-skilled people…” Dan Shewan writes, “…for every job created by robotic automation, several more will be eliminated entirely.”
Kevin Kelly, authors Robots Can—and Must—Take Our Jobs and voices enthusiasm for what robotics could do for civilization. However, what I find missing from the case he presents is a convincing definition of what is valuable; what are robotics and modern comforts delivering to us that we can objectively define in terms of quality? Kelly writes, “…no one living in ancient Rome wished they could watch cartoons while riding to Athens in climate-controlled comfort.”
While he is referencing the notion of technological advances being made in ways we cannot predict, I must explore the underlying premise that he puts forward. Is Kelly’s illustration supposed to be the benchmark that demonstrates and defines the value of what we have achieved as a technological species? At what point does a person look up from that cartoon while speeding along their comfortable train ride and think about those human beings that were left behind?
The distracted, fast-paced, and over-stimulated beneficiaries of the robotic cultural revolution are constantly being led away from those devoted to music, literature, philosophy, or the arts, in this example. If we let corporations have complete control over the throttle, will other perspectives about what is valuable be allowed to coexist in parts of the world that can’t “keep up?"
According to a study by Dr. Zhang, and reported in Shewan’s article: “By 2020, average salaries in the robotics sector will increase by at least 60% – yet more than one-third of the available jobs in robotics will remain vacant due to shortages of skilled workers.” This issue could be politicized, or the finger could be pointed at educational institutions for slacking in their responsibility to provide training opportunities. But I feel Shewan skirts around the true beast behind this issue; let’s not rule out the runaway technocratic corporate bottom line, which has no other agenda but to increase itself by whatever means necessary.
Kelly states in his article: “This is not a race against the machines. If we race against them, we lose. This is a race with the machines. You'll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots.” It’s hard to determine whether an article making these claims is purporting an economic, logistical hypothesis or whether it is issuing a threat as an agent of the corporate media conglomerate Condé Nast. When you consider the wealth, power and social engineering mechanisms at the disposal of the media multinationals, along with the bottom line beneficiaries that support them, I find the difference to be perhaps a matter of semantics or maybe just a variation on perspectives.
I felt that both articles failed to identify their definition of progress for what it truly was throughout both versions of the narrative: A corporate definition of progress with a poorly contrived veil alleging social and technological progress. At the top of Maslow’s psychological framework, the Hierarchy of Needs pyramid, he places the highest human achievement as self-actualization (McLeod). How did the discussion in both articles fail to provide perspectives which purport a wider lens, such as Maslow’s humanistic approach?
In a global community, who holds the responsibility or oversight to provide the conditions necessary for all humans to have their basic needs met or to have a chance to participate in the cultural evolution of their environment? Corporate doctrine will decry any responsibility while simultaneously streamlining, commodifying, and dictating which cultural avenues are available, leaving many humans with no practical options. Where is the line of questions from writers like Kelly and Shewan asking not just who benefits from automation and who gets left behind but also who gets to decide what our collective future will look like?
I wished to read more references to psychological and philosophical lines of inquiry in both articles. Still, the narrative, in both cases, was designed to avoid humanistic perspectives and direct the attention of readers toward political distraction or economic vapidities, which only offers a narrow lens through which to view the definition of progress.
Kelly, K. Why Robots Can—and Must—Take Our Jobs. wired.com. Published December 24th, 2012. Accessed October 3rd, 2021
Shewan, D.. Robots will destroy our jobs—and we’re not ready for it. Theguardian.com/technology. Published January 11th, 2017. Accessed October 3rd, 2021.
McLeod, S. A.. Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html. Edited March 20, 2020.
Shelby John Trevor is a performing artist, teacher, composer, music director, and healer seeking unity through art, sound, community, learning, mind, body, and spirit.