The Human Touch

I saw a segment on the news this morning about how most cars and trucks will be able to drive themselves in the near future. I’m not a fan of this idea, because my cynical little mind immediately starts to wonder what’s going to happen when those vehicles malfunction, but I’m sure I’ll manage to adapt when the time comes.  Unfortunately, the news segment didn’t just focus on cars and trucks.  I don’t remember the exact facts and figures, but the essence of the story was that most jobs that are now done by humans are going to be performed by machines (mostly robots) in the near future.  And that scared the heck out of me.

I can see the advantage of having robots do jobs that are mindlessly repetitive and hard on the human body, and I understand that machinery and technology allows goods to be produced much more quickly and cheaply than would ever be possible by depending solely on humans.  I get that there is a positive side to all these coming advances, I really do.  But I still have a hard time seeing a world where most of the work is done by robots as a good thing.

The most obvious problem is going to be the loss of jobs for millions of people.  When cars and trucks can drive themselves, who needs truck drivers or taxi drivers?  We already saw what happened when machines took over much of the work on assembly lines, and factories had massive layoffs.  And according to the news story, the job losses aren’t going to be limited to blue-collar workers.  Apparently, computers will be able to predict the rise and fall of the stock market more efficiently than a broker, and diagnose a disease more accurately than a doctor.  They are already creating stores that allow us to “check out” automatically through a phone app, thus removing the need for actual cashiers.  The list went on and on, but you get the picture.

Some experts believe that enough new jobs will be created to replace the ones that are lost, and I hope that’s true. (Although the job mentioned most was designing robots, and how soon will it be before robots are designing new robots?)  Still, what bothers me most about this prediction isn’t the loss of jobs, it’s the loss of human contact that our increasing dependence on technology creates.

It seems to me that the more we rely on machines, the less we feel the need to actually interact with other people.  And that’s not a good thing, because dealing effectively with other people is an essential part of being a happy and whole person.  Interacting with others reminds us that we aren’t the center of the universe, that our needs aren’t the only ones that matter, and that our opinions aren’t the only ones that count.  Other people are the ones that reassure us when we are anxious, comfort us in our grief, share in our joy and in general provide the connections that make life worth living.

I honestly have no idea what the future will bring, other than the fact that we will see technological advances we can’t even dream of today.  But my hope is that this “brave new world” of ours will still value real people and real relationships, and allow us to lead lives that aren’t mostly isolated from each other.  Because I don’t want to live in a world without the “human touch.”

43 thoughts on “The Human Touch

  1. Thank you, Ann, for this thought-provoking post on the good and evil aspects of total automation of our world in the near future! I would like to add yet another gruesome scenario, where wars will no longer be fought on the battlefield, but from the safe and remote distance of an armchair soldier firing a lethal rocket or flying a drone over enemy territory. Coming back to your post, I see also a great danger not just in the masses of the unemployed, but also in the effects of too much leisure and idleness for our society.

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    • I agree! One of the points that someone made in the news segment was that jobs are not just for making money, they are also for giving people a purpose and identity. So what happens when that is lost? It is scary.
      And I agree about wars…people will be able to kill each other from a safe place, at a safe distance away. And that makes is far too easy, and far too impersonal. I think we will need to be vigilant to guard against our humanity being taken away.
      Thanks, as always, for you insightful comments, Peter!

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    • I like the convenience and the fact that technology saves lives. But I do believe we have to draw the line when it begins to isolate us from one another, and I think we are already seeing that happening. People need each other, no matter what the cost!

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  2. such good thoughts Ann! Our world is changing and things are being down better by computers, but there really is nothing like the human touch or human emotions. Hard to imagine what the future will hold. For now, we must just cherish the moments and influence and feelings we have. ❤

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    • Thanks for yet another reminder why I like you so much, Jodi! Because you are right, we have no idea what the future holds, and the best response is to stay positive and cherish the moments of good that we do have. And underneath my cynicism, I do believe that humanity will not only survive this latest challenge, but that we will move forward even stronger than ever!

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  3. I recently read that the jobs and skillsets that will be in the most demand in the near future are ones that require creative thinking. Good news for bloggers, right? Robots can’t do out job!

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  4. Progress can be a two-edged sword, for sure. But consider how people of 50 years ago would have thought of all the automation we have today, then consider today – has the sky fallen? I guess it comes down to being willing to adapt to changes rather than just fearing them.

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    • For me, I think it’s a combination of the two. I think that some of the automation we have now actually has caused a lot of problems with job loss, the decay of rural communities, etc., and that some of the division we are seeing in our country comes from our increasing tendency to live in our own little bubble, which is aided in no small part by technology.
      I don’t believe fear of progress is the answer, of course, but I do think that we need to be willing to recognize and try to solve the challenges that it can cause, because I think that is the way we will ultimately move forward. Thanks for the comment!

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  5. I saw the same show. My concern is that there will be nothing left of us as we send all our letters by email and some never print their photos. But there is hope. Have you read The Revenge of Analog, by David Sax? The youngsters are finding the “old ways” intriguing. Recently, I visited a small book museum (not very exciting) and we were the oldest people on the tour. The others were young and hip with half shaved heads and creatively colored hair. All may not be lost!

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    • Oh, that is good to know! I think with advancing technology, the key is to be discerning as to what actually helps us and what only seems to help us. Just because something is new doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. It’s good to hear that young people are figuring that out!

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  6. It really is strange, isn’t it. We seem to be moving slowly, sometimes not so slowly, toward that isolation from human touch that you mention. It has happened slowly. Technology moved quickly there for a while. Now it seems to have slowed a bit but in short order there will be another burst. And during this time out devices have isolated us, to a certain extent, from the people around us. We don’t communicate in the personal ways we did before. We don’t even socialize in the same ways. Our lives have become more connected but also more distant.
    I wonder what the future might bring. Sometimes I wish I could live long enough to see what it’ll be like and sometimes I feel like I don’t want to know.
    A lots of food for thought post, Ann. As always..:)

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    • Thanks, George! It is anyone’s guess how things will play out, and I don’t mean to sound like a cynic or an alarmist. But I am concerned how by how much the way we interact with each other has already changed (for the worst in my opinion) and knowing we are only starting down this path sort of threw me for a loop. I don’t like watching joggers with their earbuds on crossing intersections without even looking up to see if a car is coming because they are so wrapped up in whatever they are listening to that they aren’t aware of their surroundings. Ditto with a table full of young people at a restaurant, all ignoring each other as they stare intently at their phones. I get that robots can do our jobs and take us where we want to go and answer our questions instantly, but that doesn’t mean that I want to spend my days interacting with them rather than real, live people. Like you, part of me wants to see what the future will be like, and part of me….doesn’t!

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  7. I think there are already jobs that are done by robots. And what about Artificial Intelligence?? There are some really disturbing movies about this…if you really want to get scared, try watching some of those! 🙂

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    • Oh, yeah, lots of jobs are already done by robots (hence the steady loss of blue collar jobs and in some ways, the middle class). And I find the idea of asking Siri and that other AI to tell me everything I want to know just plain creepy. It seems to me that as robots get smarter, humans get dumber. Why bother to read to read a map when you can just use GPS? Or write when you can just talk to your computer? Or research anything when you can just ask Siri? I honestly do find this all disturbing!

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  8. The “leisure society”, “paperless office” etc seem to have been predicted since I was at school but never quite seem to happen! However, I do think it’s closer now and it is, as you say, automation taking jobs and not immigrants or similar scapegoats. These jobs aren’t coming back and I don’t think that some of the really awful ones should anyway. It’s something we need to think creatively about. Ideas such as Basic Universal Income for example, and educating people better so that they have the inner resources to live a different kind of life / do a different kind of job / use additional leisure constructively. That is if we don’t get blown to smithereens first…..

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    • Oh, yes, I remember the promise of the “paperless society!” When the office I worked in “went paperless” all that meant was that we had to scan in each and every piece of paper that was mailed to us into the computer. So we still had the paper, but we also had more work!
      The new segment I watched did mention the idea of a basic universal income, which is certainly an alternative. But since our jobs often are just as much an identity and give us a sense of purpose as they do an income, I think that will take a major attitude adjustment. I agree that we are going to have to get creative to find ways to effectively adapt to the changes that are coming!

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      • Yes, I think that’s where education comes in – these days it seems to me be too much aimed at producing workers for the market place rather than people with well-rounded interests. Also, my job gave me an identity but I’m not sure I’d have felt the same about fixing handles onto paint cans for years! (A job I actually did one summer as a student.) Though I agree, there’s still the satisfaction of being able to earn your own keep.

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        • I do share your concerns about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence taking over, Ann. But I am very happy that Anabel brought up the Basic Income idea. I feel automatization is a huge opportunity for humanity in as it would (or better could, as I’m not sure we’re quite ready yet) allow us to live the lives we truly want to life for the first time ever. Because let’s be honest, for how many percent of the workforce is their job truly a purpose and passion of their heart? 15 percent? Probably less. There are some experiments with the Basic Income going one, some by governments, in Finland I think, some by private initiatives in Germany for example. And it turns out that when people do not have to worry about how to cover their basic expenses they find the courage and liberty within themselves to start doing what they always truly wanted to do. And that might very well include focusing way more on human connection, neighborhood help, support for the elderly, offering services that robots can’t, all kinds of purposeful contributions to society, arts, you name it. I’m sure I wouldn’t just lay around in a hammock. Would you? 🙂

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  9. I couldn’t agree more with you Ann, this is something I’ve thought of a lot myself. There is a that technology has done forbid without a doubt. But we still need that human contact, you only need to see that at supermarket checkouts. Given a choice between do it yourself checkouts or a smiling face, I’ll always go to a person. For some elderly people, it’s their only chance to connect. A thought provoking post Ann.

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    • I hadn’t even thought about the elderly aspect! But you’re right, with so many of our senior citizens living alone, often it is the shopping expedition, the doctor’s appointment, etc., that keeps them in touch with other people. Take those contacts away, and the elderly are going to be even more isolated.

      I love some aspects of technology, but hate others. I don’t like the stores closing, because I prefer to actually try on my clothes before I buy them, and I can’t even imagine ordering vegetables and fruit online. And part of the reason my favorite restaurant is my favorite is the staff who works there!

      I do think we will figure all this out, but it’s going to take some creativity and officially recognizing our basic need for human contact, I think. Thanks, Miriam!

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      • Too true Ann. Fundamentally we can’t take away too much of the human interaction, it’s what makes us human after all … a fine balance needed indeed. Yes, we’ll work it out. Take care xo

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  10. I’m all in on the human touch. But a flip side is that I’d rather have a doctor using a computer to have a robot precisely remove an organ or perform an otherwise highly complicated and delicate surgery. I think as long as the robots have good customer service skills, a sense of humor, compassion, good hygene, are prompt and courteous, and possess an overwhelming love of dogs I’m ok with them. 😉

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  11. I saw a news piece the other night–national news, I believe–about people walking and texting at the same time, and as a result, more people are being hit by cars. And, there’s the possibility of being hit by someone who is driving while texting. This may be a little further than your theme, but is it not amazing how many of us are on our phones in public? At dinner? While driving? In the store? I can’t recall the last time I sat down for a meal without someone’s phone on the table. I’ve been guilty of this as well. Are we that addicted to information that we have to have it right now? I’d much rather take a very long walk on the beach with a friend than text that person. Your post is very thought-provoking; thanks for sharing. 🙂

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    • Thank you! Your comments about excessive phone use are right on point. It does seem to me that all too often, we are using our technology to “tune out” from the natural world and from our actual environment. And if technology is going to keep growing at the rate they are predicting, it seems to me that it is only going to get worse. We will have even less opportunities to interact with other people in real life, and it seems to me that it’s only a matter of time before effective social skills become rather rare. I think the trick is to figure out a way that keeps technology as a tool used by humans, rather than as a way of life that actually controls humans.
      Thanks for the comment!

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  12. Hi Ann, I hope you’re well! Your post reminds me of Isaak Asimov’s The Foundation, which I read many, many years ago in school. I don’t remember much about it, except being shocked at the end after finding out that everyone was actually fully functioning robots! Technology does seem to take the humanity out of life more and more each year. I guess it’s a mixed blessing.

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    • I haven’t read that one yet, but I might just have to. (Although here in the states we don’t like our robots to look like humans, in Japan they are working on ones that look exactly like people!) I love the advances we have made in medicine, communication, etc., but sometimes the way machines and robots are taking over the things humans have always done makes me wonder. I mean, how long will it be before robots figure out that humans are not only inefficient, but unnecessary. (I do paranoid rather well sometimes, don’t I?)
      Hope all is well with you, Kim, and so glad you’re back!

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