Could a robot do my job?

I’d like to think not.

What prompted me to ask this question is the Philosophy Cafe discussion at the Manchester Art Gallery which posed the query, “When machines do all human work, what will humans do?”

Typical to philosophers, we attacked the question first before we addressed it. So instead of jumping straight into the thought experiment, we asked whether this would ever be a possibility.

The techno industry’s input

There’s quite the debate about this in the technology industry as exampled by this study here.

The angle that appeals to me is that there are certain types of jobs that only humans are fit or “programmed” to do.

These jobs involve high levels of or consistently applied amounts of creativity, creative problem solving, empathy, sympathy, emotion and innovation.

A robot cannot do these things, or if they can, humans are naturally better equipped to do them. For example, one job that would fall under the range of skills and attributes above would be a nursing home worker. Their job is to keep the resident comfortable and make them feel safe and calm, to try to give them the best quality of life in the final days.

A robot would make sure that they were clean, fed and warm but they could not give them the human connection that we essentially need to feel safe and content. Our pal Aristotle seemed to be channeling the 21st century when he said

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human.”

Computers may be, according to Aristotle, more than human, but they still couldn’t make me feel safe and warm on my death bed.

Another illustration: There was an experiment a while ago, where some scientists took a baby monkey (I think it was a monkey), and put it in a cage. On one side of the cage was a robotic hand, cold and metallic, holding food. On the other was a fluffy hand, soft and warm and empty. Only when the monkey was completely famished did it leave the fluffy comfort of the empty hand to grab food and then quickly return.

Frey and Osbourne

So perhaps in jobs where empathy, sympathy and human interaction is needed in order to be fully effective, robots are not a competitor. The study by Frey and Osborne (2013) lists such jobs as nurses, early school teachers, social workers, therapists etc.


Why is this?

They analyse 9 aspects of work and apply to them a probability ratio of effective computerisation in three wide headings: perception and manipulation, creative intelligence and social intelligence. Within these fields there have been leaps and bounds in robotics but humans are naturally equipped to be better at certain attributes, namely assisting and caring for others, persuasion, negotiation and originality.

So, what about my job?

The 2013 study lists curators as high on the list of human-specific occupations, with a 0.0068 chance of being replaced by bots. I’m taking liberties here, but let’s supplement archivist for curator in this experiment.

The four attributes most resilient to computerisation are contained within my role whether its’ conducting oral histories, line management, advocacy and outreach, dealing with donors and Trusts and funders as well as presentation of the archives in new ways to new people and cultural and social interpretation.  It also involves, by its very nature, working with objects and collections that are wholly unique and original, repellent of formulaic methods of management.

Also contained within my role are the attributes most likely to be computerised such as manual dexterity and working in cramped spaces.

Will some of my work be taken over by a robot? Will my future role be a job share between me and an archivebot? Possibly.

Aside: the Cafe’s topic was prompted by the gallery’s instillation of The Imitation Game where artists working with computers, machinery and the human relationship with them and AI, install some work in the gallery.

One such work is Agent Ruby, a piece of software that acts as a virtual conversationalist. It learns, from the internet, appropriate ways to respond to conversation typed into its chat boxes so as to appear as human as possible. It has had thousands of conversations and is quite a sophisticated model of the Turing Test.

I had a go and told it that I had recently lost one of my jobs.

Agent Ruby asked me where I had last seen it.

Brilliant. I gave literal answers and it quickly started to ask me questions to change the topic, realising that it could not follow the conversation.

Lessons learned by Agent Ruby: it cannot empathise, it cannot sympathise, it cannot understand irony and sarcasm and, most importantly, the internet is not the tree of all knowledge when wanting to learn how to act like a human.

Back to the archivebot job share:

Frey and Osborne posit that, if this was realised, we would evolve as a social species even further and vastly develop the skills that cannot be computerised such as social interaction and care and empathy and creativity.

This certainly seems to be largely true as, looking around, in the huge wave of social media and conglomerates it is the artisans, independent shops, handmade everythings and social movements that are booming.

And more than this, I think: going back to the question posed by the Philosophy Cafe, what would humans do when robots do all our jobs?, there are some jobs and some workers that do what they do because they love to do it. I am certainly one of them. If a robot could do my job, I would still want to do it.

Teachers, nurses, artists, clergy etc, all these occupations are really vocations. I’m reminded of Alex from A Clockwork Orange (one of my favs) when he says

What I do, I do because I like to do.

I know I’m taking this quote out of context for my own less sociopathic purposes but the sentiment can be appropriated for the topic at hand. Some people work for the love of their work – they want to do what they do and would still want to do it, and would likely find a way to do it, even if robots were able to do it for them.

What do you think? I would love to chat about this.



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