The American folktale of John Henry tells of a race between a man and a steam powered machine driving steel stakes into rock. John Henry beat the machine, but then died from the heroic effort. In the movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the HAL 9000 computer system, afraid of being turned off, decided to turn off the human crew instead. Dave was able to get back inside the ship and disable HAL. In 1997, an IBM chess playing computer defeated then world champion, Garry Kasparov in a six game match.
Since humankind learned to use basic tools and to domesticate animals, we have been replacing human efforts with those supplied by machines and animals. During the industrial revolution, machines took over most of the jobs previously being accomplished by animals. Our machines have become extensions of ourselves, but stronger, faster, and more durable.
Modern calculating systems are faster and more accurate than most humans. Expert systems and neural networks are pushing forward the ability of computers to sort data into meaning and reach conclusions. Advanced data mining and machine learning techniques are beginning to mimic human traits like intuition.
As we continue to build better machines, we inevitably make human performance in the same jobs obsolete. However, over the course of history, this has always resulted in new jobs performing new tasks, such as designing and maintaining the machines. Our current trends in technology are also threatening those jobs. With each upward step of replacing jobs, in addition to creating new technologies and new jobs, we have also increased our standard of living and wealth.
We are rapidly approaching a turning point in this process, where steady increases in wealth and living standards are making jobs less necessary. The evolutionary step of the future is likely to include fewer jobs along with more wealth and leisure time. People will still work, but over time it will become more optional instead of mandatory. All of the mandatory tasks needed to sustain our living will be performed by automated systems.