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I am half way through watching an episode of the Twilight Zone The Brain Center at Whipple’s. In it, a CEO gets a machine that could do the job of hundreds of thousands of men and fires them all to lower the costs of the company. The canned men. extremely angry at being laid off and sad that they are now “obsolete”, attack the plant and gets shot by the owner. Although I haven’t quite finished watching the episodes, it seems like the plot is headed towards “the CEO will become obsolete too” type of ending.
This is actually not too far from reality. Machines are increasingly replacing repetitive tasks, making the value of manual labor relatively obsolete. So yes, if your skills involve doing easy repetitive things over and over again, you ARE becoming obsolete. That’s not the bad news the episode makes it out to be though. Freed from having to do mundane tasks, we are allowed the time to indulge in our imaginations. From them will spring new ideas and concepts, worth far more than the value of a manual job. Additionally, new technology also brings new jobs requiring new skills, so it’s really not all that bad at all. Old skills will become useless, but there will always be a demand for new skills. People just have to learn and grow.
Also, there is the human factor that machines will never replace. For example, it’s probably pretty easy to make a coffee machine that makes fresh coffee with loads of different options. Yet, you see plenty of Starbucks around that has a staff and a guy making the coffee to your specifications by hand. Sure, part of it is that coffee machine aren’t quite at a level yet where they can understand voice commands without error, but the bigger part is that people want to see a friendly face who understands their special needs.
A coffee machine is not going to smile at you, ask you how your day was, and share in your excitement when you tell them about your adventures. It’s not going to sympathize with your frustrations when you go there at 1am for an all-nighter. You see, when we buy stuff, we buy more than just the product; we also buy the service! A friendly smile and listening ear is worth like $1.50 of that $3.50 coffee, plus like $1 for the place to sit and chat with other people, with only $1.00 being the cost of the coffee itself.
As long as machines don’t have emotions, they can never fully understand our needs, which is why human service will always have value even when machines can do the “technical” parts of the job better.
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