Many teenagers will be familiar with the “they did surgery on a grape” meme, which exploded on social media in November. The original grape surgery, conducted by the Da Vinci Surgical System at Edward Hospital in Naperville, in the US state of Illinois, happened in August 2010. The popularity of the robotic surgeon has since increased a lot.
There were more than 4,000 such units in operation as of September 2017, with one version of the system priced at just under US$2 million.
Despite its reputation as a meme, the robotic grape surgery holds darker implications for the rest of us – it offers a taste of the widespread automation to come in the near future.
According to some estimates, for example, self-driving trucks will hit the roads within five to seven years. At the moment, there are almost six million truckers worldwide, who are completely unprepared for the mass unemployment set to be brought about by the “robotic revolution”.
This is just one industry; there are hundreds of millions of jobs, which are not particularly complex, which can be done by machines.
The first robotic surgery on the mainland was conducted last year. The country is heavily investing in robot surgeons because of a shortage of qualified humans.
Many people are asking how we can maximise the benefits inherent in automation, such as a universal basic income, mass retraining, and redirection of educational resources and cultures. However, these solutions won’t matter if governments don’t have their fingers on the pulse, proactively intervening to mitigate the potential economic destruction caused by automation.
Soon after automation becomes widespread, we will have to wrestle with deeper philosophical questions. In a world where we’re too often defined by what we do for a living, the alleviation of the need to work for a living has the potential to wreak havoc on the sanity and self-image of millions of people.
Our culture today is vastly underprepared to deal with a world where we live for the sake of life, as opposed to as a means to an end.
Automation has the potential to bring about unprecedented freedom and abundance, the likes of which we have never previously had. However, it comes at the potential cost of economic and psychological destruction, which can only be tackled through careful planning by governments – and individuals – worldwide.