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Go ahead, take a long lunch: Robots can't take our jobs

July 13, 2012|By Alexandra Le Tellier
  • A robot delivers a dish to customers in a robot-themed restaurant in China.
A robot delivers a dish to customers in a robot-themed restaurant in China. (David Zhang / EPA )

A recent blitz of commentaries has advised us against chronic busyness and instead suggested we focus our attention on attaining a work-life balance and creating the flexible workplace of the future. Yes, it's hammock season, but these writers aren't advocating laziness.

In a business piece for Time magazine, Peter Bacevice writes that "slow work" makes us more productive. "[M]any organizations face constant pressure to adapt to rapidly evolving market pressures, societal changes, and political pressures, and these pressures are increasingly passed to a gradually reduced workforce. To make matters worse, we face a flurry of information hitting from multiple angles [which] competes for our rapidly diminishing attention spans," Bacevice says, warning that "[t]oday's quick wins are undermining tomorrow's performance."

Bacevice's argument makes a certain amount of sense, at least when it comes to "money work."

Beyond "slow work," psychologist Christian Jarrett argues that we should ditch our goals, but in the name of staying motivated.

Wait, what? On the site 99% (it's for creatives and entrepreneurs and has no relation to the Occupy movement) Jarrett writes: "Focusing on goals fires up your intentions to engage in the activities that will help you achieve those goals. But there's a major downside. Stay focused on your goals and you spoil your experience of the activities you'll need to pursue. In turn, that makes it far more likely that you'll drop out early and fail to achieve the very goals that you're so focused on."

So, we need to slow down, and we need to abandon our goals, all in the name of producing meaningful work. Tim Kreider goes one step further, arguing in the New York Times for taking time off. "Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice,” he writes. “It is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets."

It all sounds so bohemian. But shouldn't we be speeding up our efforts in an era when robots are lining up to take our jobs? Robots don't need to take their time, much less worry about a work-life balance. They don't even need lunch breaks.

Then again, there are some areas where we still have an edge over artificial intelligence. (Sorry, Vicki.) "Computers still aren't very good at creative tasks, such as generating ideas or finding ways to apply lessons from one experience in a totally different context," wrote the editorial board in November.

Programmer Selmer Bringsjord of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute agrees. In an episode of "Studio 360" that assured listeners that intelligence and creativity are not the same thing, Bringsjord said about Brutus, a computer that writes fiction: "The machine is just doing what you've programmed it to do." He goes on: "If a machine is creative, the designer of the system -- knowing the algorithms involved, data structure -- is completely mystified by how the output came out. In my opinion, if that's not the case, then we're just cloning our own intelligence."


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