The idea of “free” labor is not a new one in this world, unfortunately. It has a dark and long history that you can read about in the Old Testament, in the history of the ancient world, to indentured servants, serfs, slavery in Europe and the Americas and modern day slavery. These actions and efforts are a stain on our collective conscious and continue to be a weight on the human spirit.
Though we have mostly moved beyond the idea of owning another human being, or forced labor (though prison labor continues to be a problem), the notion of “free” labor is still a powerful motivation for companies, and even individual people. This is not just an issue of technology making life easier, such as building better machines for farming, or to build cars, but rather we’re discussing here creating programs that will replace people, not in dangerous situations, or even in physical exertion, but in thinking, strategy and support.
Perhaps we’ve all seen HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the computer in Star Trek, and the beloved R2-D2 and C-3PO. Each one of these characters were advanced artificial intelligence, created to answer questions and obey commands. The most famous AI, I’d argue is Data from Star Trek, The Next Generation, who was an artificial intelligence who was eventually recognized as a sentient life.
In 2016 perhaps we are seeing the turn of a corner, from what could be to what is. Watson, has been around for a few years, popularized by his victory of Ken Jennings in Jeopardy, but it was only this year that the terms AI, chatbot and virtual assistant have become common place. There was a time when developers kept their programs hidden behind closed doors, teaching them like a professor might teach a private student. While this is a great way to learn facts, it’s a terrible way to learn to interact. Just like immersive learning allows us to pick up languages quickly, companies have decided that in order for artificial intelligence to become intelligent, they must be released and allowed to interact with people, both to learn and to slowly get people used to speaking with and working with a computer program.
There are already AI “stock brokers,” “lawyers,” “insurance brokers,” and even “doctors,” and many other professions that were once the purview of college graduates. The blue collar workers have been seeing “dumb” robots take their jobs, which are based on building and fixing things. Now white collar workers are faced with their threat, namely “smart” AI based on suggesting, planning and interacting.
When a company can build or buy an AI and not worry about payroll, sick leave, taxes, not to mention office politics or human resources, then it becomes a clear choice. There will still be a place for human owners at the top, at least for now, but the vast middle management jobs, that make up the middle class, will be slowly but inevitably disappearing.
This is what today’s Millennials are facing and what GenZ will face even more after them. Will there be other jobs popping up to replace these jobs? Maybe. But I don’t think we know yet what those jobs could be. Companies can finally have their “free” labor, by simply avoiding hiring people in the first place. And individual people can use Siri, Alexa, Cortana and others to handle our daily tasks and needs, finally allowing us to have that assistant we always wanted, for “free.”
We’re fooling ourselves if we think that this “free” labor does not have a huge cost. A cost we can only start to see, and can’t yet fathom. A cost that will change the way we live, work and play. A cost that may demand we give up our way of life, and hope that the future is more Utopian and less dystopian than science fiction would have us believe.