The question of whether we can automate away a certain number of jobs has long since been answered. Professions such as switchboard operator, lift operator, toll bridge money collector and more have long since been automated almost entirely out of existence. Over the coming decades, it’s likely that huge numbers of other jobs will also be replaced thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and robotics.
But should we automate away some of these jobs? In some cases, the answer is a resounding “yes.” While, as we’ll discuss, we don’t want to see anybody out of a job, there are certainly scenarios in which it could even be the morally right thing to do. Here are some examples:
Calling for the elimination of drivers as a job category is, in essence, calling for the firing of millions of people in the U.S. There are currently upward of 200,000 people employed as taxi drivers and other chauffeurs in North America. Astonishingly, there are 3.5 million people employed as truck drivers in the country.
It’s no secret that autonomous cars have made enormous strides in recent years. At the start of this century, a self-driving car seemed like something that would never happen due to the complexity of the task. Now we know that you might be safer in a car, or walking the streets, with machines driving vehicles.
That’s a massive incentive for replacing human drivers. While we can assume that your typical professional driver is superior behind the wheel than the average citizen, this could still have a major impact. In 2017, 36,750 people were killed in car-related accidents in the U.S. alone. Those numbers will likely never be brought down to zero, but how many lives would it be necessary to save to make the moral argument that society is better off removing human drivers from the road? That doesn’t seem too difficult a calculation.
Add to that the reduction on traffic in our cities from hitting a certain tipping point with autonomous vehicles, and you’ve got a compelling case for replacing drivers with robots.
Bomb-disposal, logging, and other dangerous jobs
Grouping “dangerous jobs” together is a pretty broad banner. Arguably, as I have above, you could include driving cars among them. But this refers more explicitly to the jobs in which the risk of injury or even death is a daily concern.
Logging, for instance, is the profession with the highest fatality rate. Bomb disposal, meanwhile, requires humans to get up close and personal with explosives with the potential to maim them — or worse. There are plenty more. In these jobs, pay is typically higher as a way to monetarily offset the risk that workers are taking. But is that enough? The use of extremely hazardous chemicals or substances like asbestos have been banned in cases where the risk of ill-health is considered too great.
That’s despite the fact that plenty of people would probably gamble with their health by working with, or even living in a house with, asbestos if the price was right. With robots capable of adequately performing in some of the world’s most dangerous jobs, there’s no logical reason to risk the safety of humans where machines would do. That goes for jobs ranging from cutting down trees to delving into human waste in the sewer.
Factory or warehouse work
Working in a factory or warehouse can be monotonous, dull and, on occasion, back-breakingly hard. Whether it’s packing boxes in a fulfillment center or carrying out the physical manufacturing of items on a production line, this job often treats humans like machines: requiring plenty of repetition, minimizing conversation and toilet breaks, and sometimes even using machines to reveal exactly how the job should be performed.
While humans are certainly capable of carrying out these jobs, they don’t exactly emphasize the unique skill set that humans have. Eliminating these jobs would also help crack down on abuses such as the employment of underaged workers on production lines in parts of the world like China.
Lawyers and solicitors
Being a lawyer might sound like a prestigious job, but there are plenty of aspects of the legal profession which could — and should — be automated for the betterment of everyone. Some of this is related to the inherent boredom of certain legal tasks, such as the discovery process for court cases. Some of this relates to the prevalence of roles which divert smart people into jobs which are unrewarding and, in a societal sense, unproductive. (“I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit,” writes David Graeber in the surprisingly sensible Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.)
But the biggest part of this is that having highly trained humans carry out the overwhelming amount of legal work makes it unaffordable for the majority of people. No-one should argue that a top level lawyer does a whole lot more than knowing which rule to call up at the right time. If that was the case, there would be no question that machines could do it better than humans.
However, there are plenty of non-bespoke, off-the-rack tasks in which bringing a human lawyer on board simply adds unnecessary cost to the client. Contract work and small claims can be carried out by bots, as startups like LegalZoom and DoNotPay have proven. By automating this work, not only can legal firms be streamlined and top lawyers left to concentrate on the really important tasks, but the people who need it can get the legal help they require.
That’s good news for everything from small-scale “know your rights” stuff like getting cheaper airline tickets or fighting parking tickets to making more important human rights cases more affordable to firms, since much of the work can be carried out by bots. Now that’s an example of why it’s moral for machines to take certain jobs.
Anyone who has delivered pizza or other goods knows that being a delivery person isn’t always the best job by a longer shot. A target for mugging, plenty of antisocial hours, and with decreasing benefits courtesy of the gig economy, this is a line of work with increasingly few things to recommend it. It’s also not ideal from a customer-facing perspective.
Stolen deliveries are a growing problem, especially in cases when you’re not necessarily at the delivery address when a package is dropped off. Replacing these jobs is something robots are more than capable of. Drone deliveries make it possible to deliver life-saving medical supplies in places with poor road infrastructure. Companies like Starship Technologies, pioneer of delivery robots, meanwhile allow customers to state exactly where they want a package delivered.
It’s true that, compared to some other jobs on this list, delivery worker isn’t the worst job around. But when both the job and the customer experience have major flaws which could be smoothed by machines, why not hand the job over? Everyone will thank you for it.
The big proviso
Give most people the choice between unemployment and a bad job, and most people will go with the option that lets them feed themselves and their families. As noted, that’s the reason a lot of people will do dangerous jobs. It’s also the same reason people will do dirty or monotonous work. The argument that humanity is doing the right thing by taking away certain types of job only works so long as new jobs are created for those same people that are more interesting, safer and better paid.
Fortunately, there’s reason to believe that this is going to be the case. A report from the World Economic Forum suggests that, while robots will destroy about 75 million jobs by 2025, approximately 133 million human jobs will be created during that same period of time. If that’s the case, there’s no problem suggesting that certain jobs be handed over to machines for the good of all involved.