Be Careful What You Wish For

There was a fascinating post on Slashdot today describing the latest robotics work — agricultural robots. These things are designed to handle pots in nurseries that had been previously done by migrant workers. The alpha testers were commenting that people could then be used in harvesting and packing — jobs that require judgement. I suspect there is also a sigh of relief at having less to do with La Migra or not having to work so hard on their Spanish. But it is hard to not admire the folks who have the courage, determination and stamina to perform the hard, uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous tasks that keeps our society going. But such tasks really should be an afront to human dignity and are really better left to machines (in my view). But then what happens to all the redundant people, those displaced by advanced robotics or even outsourcing?

Somehow I suspect they will not quietly or obligingly go away. And not everyone has the opportunity, ability or inclination to become an advanced knowledge worker. So as the total population grows (and there really are too many people) there will be this growing population of the displaced. So how does one keep this growing underclass from generating social unrest or worse? Government handouts and reality TV? Turn them into Soylent Green? It is clear that if governments and employers do not come up with a productive and socially beneficial way of redirecting these people they will remind us of their presence. But so far our dear leaders seem glibly impotent about this issue. But the numbers keep growing.

I am suspicious that the much maligned ‘Occupy’ movement is just the start. My dark pessimism is thinking Russian revolution but there are probably other destructive forms of social unrest. But as I wait for my self-drive car to take me home, I hope it will not be across a countryside being ravaged by gangs of the unemployed and dispossessed. But so far there is nothing on the political landscape to suggest that this will not happen. I hope I am wrong.