Amidst cute animal videos and other light entertainment that comprises the bulk of YouTube views, every so often a documentary will hit YouTube that captures people's imaginations. The latest of these is a short technology documentary 'Humans Need Not Apply' by the compelling and anonymous C.G.P. Grey. At the time of writing it had over two million views, putting it firmly in the “viral video” category, which is rare for a documentary.
“Humans Need Not Apply” (HNNA) examines the role that technology will play in our future and, in particular, how advancements in robotics will make human labour obsolete across a range of industries. Whilst it attempts to provide a balanced argument, HNNA tends to focus quite narrowly on the key negative aspects of this scenario: a lot of people will be forced out of work.
Below are some of the main conclusions reached in the documentary and why they might not be quite as straightforward as portrayed:
- All types of professions from low-skilled workers to professionals will be negatively effected by automation
Whilst it's certainly hard to argue that machines will replace low-skilled jobs (as they have done tens of years ago in the manufacturing sector, for instance), to predict that human workers in most industries are going to be replaced by machine counterparts seems unrealistic.The positive aspects of robots replacing human labour are not really touched upon either, such as the fact that automation may provide part of the solution to the challenges of an aging population. There's also a good chance that further automation will provide the extra leisure time that so many people are currently lacking due to long work hours.
- Machines will be able to replicate any creative tasks
Although machines can now indeed compose complex pieces of music and paint incredible pictures, this really isn’t something that’s likely to affect people who make their living in the creative arts. In fairness, it’s even pointed out in the documentary that the amount of people who are actually making a living in this industry is so small that robotics are unlikely to have any negative impact in terms of human work in this area.
- There won't be enough new, technology-related jobs to mitigate the lossesThis is something that’s impossible to predict, but something that HNNA asserts very strongly. Indeed it would be very easy to finish watching the video and have the impression that the only people with secure jobs in the future will be those programming the machines doing all the work.Of course it’s very possible that there will be many new jobs created as a result of new technology being introduced. Additionally, many of the industries where machines are predicted to take over, are thriving in the current economy, which means there’s no great impetus for machines to replace human labour in the near future.
"Humans Need Not Apply" certainly raises some excellent points and it's always a positive for people to be educated on how technology is likely to affect our lives in the future. However, the focus on how technology will displace humans as workers is only painting a small part of the picture.
C.G.P. Grey uses the horse as an example of an animal without a purpose, thanks to mechanical analogues. But, what is not factored in is the human animal's proclivity to adapt and evolve. We will not suffer the same fate as our trusty sidekick. While horses were not able to branch out and find new forms of gainful employment, humans most certainly are. What’s more, we are also masters of our economic and financial infrastructures. Therefore, it is not far fetched to imagine a future of shorter work weeks, guaranteed minimum incomes (for some), and a blossoming of new and unique work types. I for one am a work optimist, convinced that our creativity, passion, and adaptability will ensure stable economies, fulfilled work weeks, and valuable outputs for a long time to come.