Are robots and artificial intelligence (AI) going to replace humans in the workforce? Is it possible for humans to be replaced by machines?

Not likely, according to Dr. Jay Richards. Advancing technology has always caused disruption for human beings and it will continue to do so at an ever faster pace, but it will not replace us, he told an audience on March 22 and 23 as a featured speaker for the Big Sky Worldview Forum in Billings.

What seems to be forgotten by those who worry about people being pushed out of the way by AI, is that we humans made those machines, said  Richards, who is a Research Professor in Business and Economics at Catholic University of America in Washington DC.

“They are now making machines that do things and make things that look kind of like us, but …   we are forgetting that … whatever those machines do is because of the human ingenuity behind it that makes those things possible.”

Robots are coming, and without doubt, many jobs are going to be automated around the world – anywhere from 50 to 70 percent is the prediction, depending on how advanced the country already is.

“Whatever technology we develop— yes, they are going to create disruption and cause us to have to adjust, and sometimes majorly so —  but they are not going to replace us, because we are the ones who make those machines,” said  Richards, author of several best-selling books including Money, Greed, and God and the latest The Human Advantage.

Alarmists who are concerned about the advancement of AI technology, “attribute human qualities to the machine and then they think that diminishes us somehow.”

“No one thought this when they were making wheel barrows or tractors… no one thought ‘this displaces us from significance in the universe, because Caterpillar has a new backhoe.’”

Every time we create a new technology, it improves our environment and requires less labor to produce. “We do it because it improves the value of our labor.”  Richards pointed out that at the founding of this country 95 percent of the population lived and worked on farms producing food. By 1900 that number had dropped to 50 percent. And, today, only about two percent of the population works on farms.

That was a major disruption of society, but not the end of work.

The concern is that if someone is able to find a way to do that work more efficiently, fewer people have to do it. That will leave a lot of people, permanently, with nothing to do. “That is absolutely not what happens, economically.”

“We get more productive at producing food; that lowers the cost of food for absolutely everyone so people spend less of their income on food, and that frees up resources for doing other things; and we always find other things to do.”

The concern about AI is not new. A group of scientists became alarmed about the “cyber revolution” in 1964, and convinced President Lyndon Johnson to launch the War of Poverty, which they claimed would be necessary to feed all those left unemployed.

“But people who claim robots are going to overtake the world say, this time it is going to be different.” They say that rather than just helping with our labor, now the machines will replace us. “The machines are turning into workers.”

“Don’t buy it,” exclaimed  Richards, “Economic and philosophical confusion, and a steady diet in science fiction” is leading to this path that “imagines robots are going to wake up and take over everything”

Many of the alarmists have an ulterior motive, said  Richards. “The reason they are claiming this is they hope to persuade the population that the government ought to literally be paying everyone a universal income.” Many of these visionaries already have detailed plans for a universal basic income, he said.

Richards points out that as advanced as they have become in devising and using robots, “We don’t have a robot arm that can tell the difference between a roll of toilet paper, a bag of popcorn or a bottle of wine, and “yet every three year old can do that.” “We will eventually get there … but don’t over estimate robotics.”

Advancing technology does drive economies through different stages, from hunter gatherers to agrarian era to the industrial age and now the information age. And, “there is a cost to this dilemma” as human beings adjust. AI “is not the end of work but the accelerating pace of change and disruption,” explained Richards.

The information economy has been and will continue to be very disruptive, and it will grow exponentially – “it is digital and hyper-connective and ever more informational.”

Richards points out that when people ask the question “are machines going to replace us?” there is an assumption built into the entire debate, for which no one makes the argument, and that assumption is that man is a machine.

“We are more than machines,” he asserts, going on to explain the differences in how materialists view the species as compared to how spiritualists view the species. Given what a single celled embryo can do, “we should be utterly staggered by that capacity” and know that it is “completely beyond the capacity of what we can make.”

Human beings have agency, purpose and freewill, said  Richards, but there are others who argue that our minds are “just computers made of meat.” Their contention is that we are less than computers, in that we were not even designed.

“Just because it seems conscious doesn’t mean it is,” he said, to which a common response is “well then who is to say we are conscious?”

Whatever is happening inside machines, it is not about intelligent beings transferring meaning to one another. The machines are simply following rules.” Just because a computer can get faster and faster at processing algorithms doesn’t mean it eventually becomes conscious.

But humans beings have a comparative advantage, according to Richards, “We have the capacity that makes us fundamentally different from machines. We have the ability to develop virtue.”

There are certain key virtues that can lead to success in an information economy — virtues that “can be cultivated that will optimize you for work in a world where you have a lot of smart machines.”

Those virtues are:

Courage – defined as a willingness to act even in the face of possible failure. “Lots of people have exercised courage but it’s usually because of necessity…” but this is the kind of courage that must be pursued when its necessity is not obvious, when “it is possible to keep failing.”

Anti-fragility — a tendency to improve under stress. This could be likened to the kind of improvement that happens for muscles with resistance training. It’s when it takes failures to “learn something positive and get better.” A lot of failures might lead to “talent stacking”, a combination of experiences that make you unique.”

Altruism – not the self-sacrificing kind, but what might be called commercial altruism, when “acting for the benefit of others, requires you be able to anticipate and meet the needs of others.” When “in acting for the benefit of others you also benefit yourself.” This strategy offers more opportunity today than ever before in history. Just think of all the many things an 18-year-old can do to earn an income compared to what was available to them a 100 years ago. There are hundreds of things you can offer as a valuable service to others that were not options in an agrarian society.

Collaboration – the virtue of humility in which you are able to work with others and able to learn from others. 

Creative freedom – not freedom of indifference but freedom for excellence. The freedom to apply a discipline that leads you to being able to create value and really do what you want to do.