We all will be upgraded

Are humans truly irreplaceable? Ollie Burton wonders if sci-fi is be not merely fiction, but an inevitable future

23rd November 2015

As progress is made in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence and we march towards our inevitable conquest at the hands of our mechanical overlords, the same question echoes in the minds of many around the world, and it’s a biggie. ‘How truly irreplaceable am I?’

It is well-known by large-scale employers that a machine is in many ways preferable to a human worker for many simple, repetitive tasks. And what’s more, a robotic arm will never get sick, never require parental leave and never ask questions or attempt to seduce your daughter, merely requiring the odd spritz of WD40 every now and again or the occasional nut tightening. (Dirty pun? I didn’t hesitate for a second.)

On a more serious note, we’re talking more than just factory line assembly and spray painting here, jobs that require judgment and complex reasoning are becoming susceptible to this change as the line between the adaptive consciousness of man and machine continues to blur, so much so that the Boston Consulting Group released a statement predicting that up to 25% of jobs are capable of being performed by machines in as little as ten years.

“A robotic arm will never get sick, never require parental leave and never ask questions or attempt to seduce your daughter”

Very soon we expect to see driverless taxis chauffeuring busy patrons around the city of London, with the government preemptively updating the Highway Code to make way for the autonomous cars.

On the other side of the world, Chinese robotics experts are piecing together the very workers that may end up replacing them. A factory operated entirely by machines is being constructed in Dongguan, the ‘factory city’. The owners aim to reduce their current human workforce by up to 90% - a frightening prospect for those whose livelihoods depend on their role at the company.

Even occupations that require a huge amount of lightning-fast reactions and judgment are experiencing robotic integration. The beginning of this year saw the first ever surgery performed via robot in England; The Da Vinci XI is fitted with multiple arms holding a wide array of medical tools, and offers surgeons the possibility of carrying out invasive operations through tiny keyhole incisions rather than a large and painful incision. The robot acts as an extension of the performing surgeon’s arms and hands but eliminates  human tremors and twitches, replacing them with incredibly smooth and precise movements only possible through servos and strict digital control.

While The Royal Marsden Hospital has aimed to carry out these types of surgery once or twice a day, they have stated that up to 80% of surgeries will still have to be performed by humans as keyhole surgery is not appropriate.

Calculators are available on the web that purport to predict how likely your occupation is to become automated in the near future, based on  job requirements and the level of abstract thought needed. While some of these are almost certainly based on some rather questionable mathematics, there are a few key points which are undoubtedly fair. Essentially, any job that demands a high level of contact and personal interaction with other human beings, as well as any degree of negotiation deems your position less at risk of replacement.

“Even occupations that require a huge amount of lightning-fast reactions and judgement are experiencing robotic integration”

Conversely, any highly repetitive or simplistic role will place you in the group much more likely to be phased out and a shiny metal automaton sat in YOUR work chair come Monday morning, drinking motor oil from YOUR mug and probably successfully hitting on your attractive co-worker. Who is, as it happens, now also a robot.

So is there anything you can do to prevent your inevitable obsolescence? Unless you’re lucky enough to be forced to interact with other people every day (highly debatable) or fancy a radical change in career path, not really.

Soon there’ll be a computer scrolling through Buzzfeed articles and stalking its ex-lovers on Facebook instead of dealing with Barbara and her obnoxious emails requesting that you stop eating her sandwiches, all without any outside input.

The term ‘faceless drone’ just took on a whole new meaning.

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