In light of research that suggests robots will replace 50% of all human jobs in “the next decade of two” it is natural to ask whether they will, in the long run and in general, become our metal friends or (im)mortal foe.

[Particularly scary for writers is the prediction that robot algorithms will be writing 90% of all news stories by 2030.]

Jobot”: Friend, or Foe?

Robots or “jobots” (job robots) may become our mortal enemy—in both senses of “mortal”: 1.alive and susceptible to destruction; 2. deadly—to our jobs or even our continued existence. On the other hand or pincer, they may, on the whole, permeate our lives as benign Wizard of Oz-ish Tin Men, rather than as ruthless, relentless yet destructible job and/or people Terminators.

Then there is the possibility that they will be neither of these, instead becoming our immortal friends or indestructible immortal mortal enemies.

That’s an important alternative scenario, since, in the lattermost case it means we would have zero leverage with them, in terms of negotiations, countervailing force or pleas.

Of course, like all inventions, robots are deeply “Manichaean”—embodying the eternal duality of light and darkness, of “good” and “evil”, at least in terms of the uses to which they can be put, or, before long, in terms of the range of their own autonomous intentions and actions.

It is already clear that their dual capacity as job-killers and job-helpers is here to stay—heavily-armed, lethal Predator drones illustrating a hybrid of job- and people-eliminating robotics. The only question is which of these applications will prevail in the long run—friend or foe?

To a great extent, the answer to that question itself depends on other inventions and innovations yet to come, e.g., “cyborgization” of our bodies that forces an “alliance” and fusion of man and machine.

Yet, to a degree, it depends on only clear and simple thinking, and common sense.

So, what does basic logic plus some commonsense assumptions suggest about how our robot-dominated future will turn out? Here’s some of what we may expect, on various assumptions:

1. Complete and benign replacement of human labor: Ah, the robots usher in a golden age of leisure and freedom from toil for all of us humans. This happy outcome requires several assumptions.

The first is that at some point robots will not only become self-replicating or produced in sufficient quantities as indestructible, zero-maintenance, fully autonomous units so as to require no human interventions and manufacture of them, but also that they will be capable of doing everything humans can—at least as well as us and have access to the resources necessary to do so.

The second logical and commonsense assumption is that in their ecology we are neither competitors, prey, parasites, “amensals” (which means that we harm them, but do not benefit from that ourselves), nor have a mutually harmful relationship with them. Given the likelihood that robots will only get smarter, the odds are that if we fall into any one or more of those categories, they will figure it out and deal with us in those terms.

Since prototype robots that power themselves on flies they lure or food extracts fed them have existed for years, the possibility that we may end up as prey cannot be ruled out. Likewise, despite our anatomical and material differences, we may end up in competition that threatens them, rather than us—in contrast to the usual scenarios of robot-human competition, e.g., for access to electricity or control technologies, weapons or raw materials we both need or want.

We could also, from their perspective, be seen as parasites—benefiting from them at their expense. For example, if we retain sufficient control over sentient robots to force them to perform tasks or run our preferred software that benefits only us.

However, even the most optimistic forecasts will have to address this key question: Is it theoretically and technologically possible for 100% of human labor, creativity and imagination to soon or ever be replaced by jobots?

If we imagine that from a jobot’s future “perspective” or from a logical point of view we are more like their primitive ancestors than like their DNA, they should be able to eventually replace us, like displaced gorillas in the techno-mist, without having to undo their or our fundamental nature, as they would have to, if, like genetic engineers, they reverse roles and master their masters that created them and their blueprints.

Such “species” ancestor and “DNA” replacement questions aside, the only apparent obstacle to complete replacement of all human labor seems to be whatever limits that still exist on our understanding and mastery of the processes that define our human selves—e.g., the capacity for self-repair, creative thinking, conscience and self-replication.

However, even those obstacles may be overcome with “good-enough” or even better workarounds of the sort chess computers and other AI applications use.

2. Complete catastrophic replacement of some or all categories of human labor: This scenario is “catastrophic” only from the perspective of the affected humans left unable to economically support themselves or otherwise be supported. Clearly, countless job categories of human labor are and will be replaced by robots—without a doubt. Among the as yet unanswered questions are these:

Will that replacement be accompanied by the creation of compensatory new, essential jobs for the displaced workers or for other workers? The already well-worn and dubious mantra about robots’ “freeing up human talent for creative work” sounds rather naively rosy, not to mention elitist.

What about the janitor whose job has been given to or taken over by a robot? Exactly what “creative” or “mind-intensive” work will he switch to?

Of course, if his lost job is offset by his brilliant son’s getting a job designing such robots—and at a much higher rate of pay than his dad’s—pay that is sufficient for that son to support the entire family or to pay taxes adequate for supporting displaced workers as a class, everybody will be happy.

The indispensable prerequisite for this scenario to play out is that the son isn’t also replaced by a smarter, more creative robot.

If human jobs are lost on a scale that results in not only a net loss of jobs, but also steep declines in aggregate macro-economic income, the stage will be set for economic and other catastrophes.

3. A mix of friend and foe: In the short run,  the virtually certain outcome will be entrenchment of jobots in dual roles, as benefactor and malefactor.

As  technological, biological, cultural and other factors kick in and play out, that seems to be the most logical and foreseeable short-term outcome of the friend-foe dialectic: some jobots will serve us as helpers, while others will serve us as lunch—to other robots, or otherwise hunt us down, as armed drones already do.

A longer-term, perhaps permanent dialectical mix may take the form suggested above: cyborgization–viz., fusion of biological and robotic elements.

That would allow us to hang on to our jobs in some form or other…

…and to shift peaceful coexistence or the battle for job and physical survival to an engagement with the friend or foe within.

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in Workplace Technology]