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Oh droid! Will we all lose our jobs to robots?

for Brooklyn Paper
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We don’t kill off our retirees just because they’re not working anymore, so don’t worry about our future robot overlords killing off us humans when we’re no longer working, either — which we won’t be, since robots will be doing everything faster and better than us, just as machines have been taking jobs from us since the invention of the saw mill.

And in that future, robot-ruled time, we might have the choice to actually become one of the superbots by donating our brain after we die, then coming back (sort of) as the brain of a computer just like us, down to our likes, dislikes, sense of humor — and maybe even our looks.

That, my friends, was just part of the trippy argument going on at a monthly event called the Soho Forum, where free, open-to-the-public debates examine issues of interest to free-will–loving libertarians. I’m not quite sure how robots and libertarians find common cause, but in any event the question to answer was: “Will robots eventually dominate the world and eliminate humans’ abilities to earn wages.”

One professor — Robin Hanson, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University — briskly insisted that in the future, we will see the ascendancy of “Ems” — remarkably human robots that emulate us, because they’re modeled on our own brains. Or at least they’re modeled on the people who would make the very best worker-robots, claimed the author of “The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth.”

But that’s not who will choose, said the “Robots will not take over” debater, Bryan Caplan, also an author and econ professor at George Mason, because when we get around to creating worker robots from human brain scans, we will scan only the most docile, efficient workers, to create docile, non-human-killing Ems.

And this is where it started getting weird(er): Hanson believes that company chiefs will still want to hire the most-brilliant workers, which means they’ll end up cloning (or replicating, or whatever the word is) jerks.

“We expect the highest productivity workers will be chosen,” said Hanson.

In other words, the Ems will be clones of the cutthroat people most of us hate. And, being cutthroats, eventually they’ll cut ours throats.

“Although it may well be that the first five generations of robots will keep humans around because they feel some vestigial warmth toward our species,” Hanson said.

How comforting.

Caplan was having none of it. Why on earth would we clone the cutthroats who want to kill us, he asked.

Well, over the eons we’ve had quite a lot of experience breeding new beings to do our bidding: Our pets and farm animals. We’ll do the same with humans — cloning the absolutely sweetest ones who also have a fierce work ethic.

“We’ve got 7 billion people to choose from,” he pointed out. “A normal employer has five.”

The moderator, Gene Epstein, economics editor at Barron’s magazine, tried to make peace.

“You’ll tweak it,” he nodded to both.

Caplan was not convinced that the day of the Ems will ever come, because who would volunteer to become one?

“First thing, you’re actually dead. They have to slice your brain in pieces. Very few people would want their biological death in order to have a computer simulation,” he said.

“Today we can’t conceive of it,” agreed Hanson. But when humans in the future see that the Ems talk and look and act like “real” people — except they never die — then the prospect might become attractive.

Hanson made it sound as normal as wearing glasses, another biological enhancement people eons ago could not have conceived.

And that was Hanson’s big point: Of course this stuff sounds bizarre to us. But think back 1,000 years to the subsistence farmers. If you’d told them that someday we’d be able to talk to someone an ocean, there’s no way they would have understood much less believed you.

And now we have Skype and Facetime.

Would the Ems own property? Would they eventually fight? Or would the earth become a paradise with Ems doing all our work? Those issues were not resolved.

In fact, nothing really was.

A before-and-after poll of the audience found that the exact same number had changed their minds from negative to positive, and vice versa.

It was the least strange moment of a very strange night.

Read Lenore Skenazy's column every Sunday morning on BrooklynPaper.com.
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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