Rise of the machines: Technology may soon replace workers - but is it a good thing?

In the first of a three-part series, Derek Bates explores the human need to be challenged even when it feels like an unwelcome intrustion, and why the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence pose big questions about the shape of the future

MANKIND survives on challenge. If we don’t have challenge and we don’t have change, we become listless and apathetic. 

The fashion industry thrives because we are easily bored with what we have. This is an industry entirely stimulated by PR, encouraging us to thirst after the new and the latest trends. 

Many people still have the once stylish shell suits in their wardrobes but would never wear them in public since they would be the subject of ridicule, which is one thing we cannot accept.

Why is there a desire to build houses bigger than we need? To drive opulent cars? To own yachts which spend most of their time waiting in marinas for the occasional use? We do it because we need to be stimulated.

Why is there a desire to build houses bigger than we need? To drive opulent cars? To own yachts which spend most of their time waiting in marinas for the occasional use? We do it because we need to be stimulated. All of these objects give passing satisfaction but soon the mind looks for another challenge.

When we meet someone new, we are making judgements about them from the moment of first contact. Their faces, their clothes, the way they speak, where they live, what they drive and their manners all act on our recognition of them.

Almost the first question we ask after the initial pleasantries are over is: "What do you do?"

This is the first step towards establishing a bond which places us in categories and acts as a cypher for unspoken questions: Are you interesting? Are you worth knowing? Or, if the questioner has something to sell, will you buy what I am selling?

Our role in life is what gives us status; the person who replies "I’m a brain surgeon", "I’m a barrister" or, more glamorously, "I’m a pop star" or "I’m a top football player", immediately stimulates interest. 

Although it is common to complain about the demands on our time and the pressure of work, being unemployed can be far worse.

The answer "I’m out or work" will be of interest to those who have a social conscience but not to the mass of what is called by politicians who want to ingratiate themselves, "the hard working British public".

Although it is common to complain about the demands on our time and the pressure of work, being unemployed can be far worse.

The out-of-work often suffer feelings of disillusionment, emptiness and hopelessness coupled with mental and physical illness and family breakup. The stress of unemployment can lead to declines in the wellbeing of spouses (Rook, Dooley, and Catalano, 1991), changes in family relationships and in outcomes for children as unemployed fathers became more irritable, tense, and explosive. 

Parents become more punitive and arbitrary in their parenting and their children react with temper tantrums, irritability, and negativism in boys, and moodiness, hypersensitivity, feelings of inadequacy and lowered aspirations in adolescent girls (Elder, 1974; Elder, Caspi, and Nguyen, 1986). 

Similarly, it is an oft heard cry from people at work that, if they win the lottery, everything will get better for them. But the facts are that a life of leisure does not bring fulfilment.

Studies have shown that 70 per cent of lottery winners wind up bankrupt, five years after winning. As Don McNay says in 'Life Lessons from the Lottery': "People commit suicide. People run though their money. Easy comes, easy goes. They go through divorce or die."

Similarly, it is an oft heard cry from people at work that, if they win the lottery, everything will get better for them. But the facts are that a life of leisure does not bring fulfilment.

Employees who are near to retirement say they can’t wait for the time when they can lie in each morning and avoid the rush of commuting and the pressure of working. Yet, retirement can be a time not of delight but of despondency. 

A study by Shell Oil found that employees who retire at 55 are 89 per cent more likely to die in the 10 years after retirement than those who retire at 65.

This is not to say that there are not people who are content being unemployed or retirees who find their leisure intoxicating - but many of those miss the time when they were actively working. 

The obvious common feature which characterises unemployment is the simple word 'boredom'. Britton and Shipley of University College, London found that those who reported being very bored were two and a half times more likely to die of a heart problem than those who were stimulated. 

Professor Christopher Cannon of Harvard said if people's boredom was ultimately linked to depression, it wouldn't be surprising if they were more susceptible to heart attacks; depression has long been recognised as a risk factor for heart disease.

In spite of the awareness that our minds need to be occupied, there is a pressure on us all to make our lives easier and a burgeoning market for labour-saving devices which parallels the development and availability of these innovations.

In spite of the awareness that our minds need to be occupied, there is a pressure on us all to make our lives easier and a burgeoning market for labour-saving devices which parallels the development and availability of these innovations.

This is exemplified by the large number of television programmes devoted to cooking. Audiences obviously enjoy watching them but the growing sales of ready prepared and take away meals shows how minimally they improve culinary skills in the kitchen.

The dichotomy that is our need for challenge and the desire to avoid work presents us with a major dilemma and is one of the challenges of the future which will be discussed in the next article.

Derek Bates is author of ‘Shadows in the Wall’ (ISBN 978-0-9560040-1-7)

Picture courtesy of Amber Case

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