Imagine your boss comes to your office and tells you that a junior colleague is better than you, and will replace you, leaving you jobless. Now imagine a similar scenario, except the boss says you're being let go because a robot will take over your job.
In a survey of over 2,000 people in Europe and North America, respondents were much more upset imagining themselves in the first scenario, being replaced by another human. The robotic takeover was easier to accept because it didn't batter people's self-image quite so brutally.
This won't remain theoretical. Technology will almost inevitably cause a roller coaster of job disruption, and keeping displaced people from despairing is crucial. Already, as this new century rolls along, doctors are seeing a spike in what they're calling deaths of despair - suicides and complications of alcohol and drug abuse. People need to feel useful, to feel they matter. A job is often a big part of that.
One of the authors of the study, Christoph Fuchs of the Technical University of Munich, said that attitudes flipped when people were asked about robots taking jobs of other people - or taking over jobs in some abstract sense. Then respondents preferred that jobs go to other humans. It was only when their own job was at stake that they'd feel less terrible about being replaced by a robot. "It's quite fundamental to humans," he said. "We tend to compare ourselves to other people."
He likened getting replaced by a human to people getting cheated on in a romantic relationship, or left for another partner, which is usually a pretty stressful, self-esteem-damaging experience. Perhaps there, too, being cuckolded by a robot would not be quite so bad.
In the novel "Machines Like Me," by Ian McEwan, a new humanoid robot comes in male forms and female forms - Adams and Eves. The protagonist wanted an Eve to come live with him and his girlfriend, but they are sold out (not too surprisingly) and he ends up with an Adam, who is not only smarter than he is, but also better looking, more physically fit, and superior by pretty much any metric imaginable. The story doesn't end happily, but the three coexist much longer than would be plausible if the couple had considered Adam a human being.
Automation can go smoothly when people don't feel replaced at all, but rather liberated. It's easy to imagine a law firm where equal partners offload more of the onerous tasks to robots, and consequently get to spend more time doing things where their skills really matter. A group of doctors could take advantage of automated image analysis and diagnostics to spend more time with patients talking about their treatment options and the possible side effects of each.
In an ideal world, the advance of robots could free humans from the tasks needed for survival and give more people the chance to participate in fun, not-so-profitable things, such as putting on plays and sending probes to other planets. But we don't live in an ideal world, and we humans are not well-adapted for sudden changes. We are competitive and fragile by nature. No wonder we're trying to invent something better.
This column was written by Faye Flam, an Opinion Columnist for Bloomberg.