In a recent episode of AMC-TV’s television series “Mad Men”, the advertising firm of Sterling Cooper and Partners has decided to transform a part of the creative department’s offices into a computer room.
Because the series is set in the 1960s, the computer in question is a monolithic structure that takes up an enormous amount of space. Its purpose is to aid in the creative process of developing effective advertising campaigns.
Image Source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad_Men
When company executive’s express how the new technology will give the firm an advantage over its competitors, one of the copywriters decries, “They’re trying to erase us!”
Even before the computer boom of the 1960s, workers and management alike have kept a suspicious eye on machines, automation and other technological advancements that have made work processes easier, but often at the expense of human workers.
Warehouses and factories that once employed hundreds of workers can now operate with just a handful of custodial employees. Steel mills that once were lifeblood of entire cities can now be managed remotely by a lone engineer sitting at a computerized control panel.
But can these types of industrial robots and highly complicated computer software programs ever truly replace the human worker?
Replacing Humans Could Be Possible
The answer is “yes and no”.
Improvements in technology will almost always result in a reduction of manual laborers. But new technologies often cause innovative, new industries to spring up that require a new generation of workers. And these workers often have more skills and can demand higher pay.
For example, in the 1970s – not long after the scenario described in Mad Men – the auto industry underwent a massive transformation. Assembly line workers were replaced by the hundreds with industrial robots. Displaced workers complained that their livelihood was being taken from them and that the efficiencies and higher profits enjoyed by giant corporations like General Motors and Ford came at the cost of human suffering and misery.
But guess what happened? The world didn’t end for those auto workers. Most of them found other jobs either within the auto industry itself or receive training and learned new skills so that they could take better paying high tech jobs in other emerging industries such as Information Technology.
Robotic Replacements for Humans?
People are resilient and highly adaptive. So the grocery store checkout clerks who are being replaced by “do it yourself” checkout kiosks may have to pass through a period of adjustment, but ultimately they will either find new low-paying jobs or seek out the education or technical training they need to get hired doing something else.
Improving technology has always been a part of business and industry. Entire generations of workers were displaced during the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 19th Century. And the same thing is happening again right now as we find ourselves living in the midst of the Technological Revolution.
But that doesn’t mean life for humans is any worse. In fact, quite the contrary is true. Like our counterparts in the late 1800s whose jobs as streetcar operators and farm hands were taken away from them by machines and automation, many people today find themselves forced to find new ways to support themselves because new software or mobile apps have made their jobs obsolete.
In many cases, people who are underemployed or are struggling to support themselves with low-paying jobs need exactly this type of kick in the pants in order to improve themselves through education, or make themselves more marketable by learning new skills.
Complaining about technology is like shouting at the wind to stop blowing. It’s not going to change anything because, like the blowing wind, technology is a force of nature that can’t be stopped by human hands. It’s simply something that people need to make adjustments.
Short of something as catastrophic as a global nuclear war or a worldwide Ebola epidemic, advancements and improvements in technology will never stop or even slow down. Instead, they will just become faster, better and more efficient.
Robotic workers and software that can handle the mundane tasks such as checking out groceries or screwing a headlight into the front fender of an SUV make our lives easier, not harder. They give us the freedom to make our lives better, to expand our knowledge, and to enrich our experience.
The advertising copywriter in Mad Men may have feared the future, but ultimately his real-life counterparts embraced this sort of technological breakthrough and found ways to make it work for them, rather than against them.
And that’s why human beings can never truly be replaced by robots or computers. It’s because – unlike machines – we have the ability, the will and the need to make the kind of adaptations that allow us not only to survive, but to strive regardless of what happens in the world around us.