Robots can take our jobs, but they will never render obsolete our love

Robots can take our jobs, but they will never render obsolete our love

Yes, a machine could technically breastfeed a child. But only a mother can provide that vital human expression of a love that overcomes exhaustion

By Giles Fraser Thursday 2 February 2017 10.42 EST Last modified on Thursday 2 February 2017 13.16 EST

These days, when I wake in the night, my wife is invariably up, sitting in a chair at the side of the bed, breastfeeding our son. I make tea and say how lovely they look. And then, I usually drift back to sleep or reach for my book to stay awake in an act of silent solidarity. There is not much more that I can do.

My bedside reading is about robots. And it’s probably not a great idea to have it at the side of the bed because it has been nightmare-inducing. I have luddite sympathies and an instinctive distrust of technological innovation, so I don’t get some geeky thrill at the idea of robots taking over the world, taking our jobs and forcing human beings into obsolescence.

The Luddites were a secret society of English textile workers whose livelihoods were removed by the introduction of power looms. For many, the industrial revolution meant unemployment, destitution and starvation. So, beginning in Nottinghamshire in 1811, they broke into factories and smashed up machines. By 1812, the government moved in to protect the source of their newfound wealth – wealth for the 1%, of course – and passed the Frame-Breaking Act, making machine-smashing punishable by death. And Luddite activists were executed.

But if you think the Luddites were on, as they say, “the wrong side of history”, just wait to see what robotics and artificial intelligence technologies will do to the employment prospects of the human race. Donald Trump tells the US working class that China and Mexico are stealing their jobs. But they’re not: it’s robots. Ford’s much-heralded decision to scrap a new plant in Mexico and instead invest $700m in Michigan will create only 700 new jobs. You don’t need many people to build cars these days.

And nor will you need people to drive cars or fly aeroplanes, for that matter, or deliver packages, design houses and fight wars. Software exists to write news reports and, apparently, there are “life-like” robots to have sex with. Into the future, robots will operate on your body and arrest you if you break the law. Sometimes it feels as if the future is now. Last week, I even bought my coffee from a robot – they call it Nespresso Cube. I put in my card, pressed a few buttons and the robotised order-picking system delivered my coffee. Not a barista in sight. There’s lots of stuff we don’t need people for. We are rapidly becoming obsolete.

The old wisdom was that this revolution would only affect the working-class muscle jobs and that you future-proof your usefulness by getting into jobs of the mind; jobs that require intelligence and education. But the whole point of artificial intelligence is that it’s automating cognitive tasks to such an extent that computers can now do a great deal of the head stuff better than humans. My bedside book is The Second Machine Age, by two MIT scholars, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. They recount what the Dutch grandmaster Jan Hein Donner said when asked how he’d prepare to beat a chess computer: “I would bring a hammer.” Far from the wrong side of history, the Luddites could be the future.

What jobs will be left? What jobs could metal and software never do? These were my night worries, churning round in my head. And then it struck me that the answer was quite possibly before me. Could you ever imagine a robot breastfeeding a child? Oh, I’m sure some idiot could come up with a humanoid with an artificial breast that lactated formula milk. But that is only one part of what’s going on at the side of the bed. As well as feeding, the mother is communicating a plethora of unconscious messages about being loved and feeling safe. And in getting up in the middle of the night, sleep-deprived and exhausted, she is putting herself out for our son in a way that a robot never could.

Yes, a robot could be there for the child, obviously – but not be there exhausted. And thus it couldn’t exhibit the love that overcomes exhaustion. In other words, what the second machine age could well do is bring to the fore the moral, spiritual and emotional aspects of being human. When the robots have taken all the hands and head jobs, we will be reminded again of the centrality of the heart.


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