Are You Sure You Need a Human?

A Form From the Future looks at what humans and machines do best.

Robot fist bumping human hand.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by AndreyPopov/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

This article is part of Forms From the Future, a series in which Rose Eveleth imagines the bureaucratic paperwork of tomorrow and what it says about our impending realities. Read more here.

At many large companies, before you can get a new computer or server or device, you have to fill out a form that tells the company not just why you need the item but who will pay for it and who is responsible for it.

But as the sorts of work that humans and machines do collapse down even further, that might change. Let’s say you’re a manager at a big box store or a fast-food franchise or even a hospital. You might also need to fill out paperwork justifying your request for an actual person to pull boxes from a shelf, check people out at a store, deliver medication, or make a hamburger. How long do you think you’ll need this human for, and who is responsible for her safety? Do you really need a human? Or could a machine do the same job for longer and for cheaper?

Trying to quantify the projected length of a person’s working life can be traced back to the early 1900s in the United States. Nineteenth-century life insurance companies relied on mortality tables provided by cities and churches to calculate their policies and payouts. In the early 1900s, AT&T became one of the first huge companies to adopt the idea of a “service life” for its machinery—keeping track of things like telephone poles and vehicles and gear and trying to predict when they might fail. Today, the concept of a “service life” for a piece of equipment is commonplace, but at the time it was relatively unusual. “These graphs allowed them to predict the lives of their machinery,” says Dan Bouk, a historian and the author of How Our Days Became Numbered. They meant that the company could replace things before they were run into the ground and failed. Then, in 1927, the opportunity arose to apply the same thinking to people.

The late 1920s saw the rise of pensions beyond the military in the United States. Which meant that huge companies like AT&T suddenly had an incentive to predict how much work they were getting out of their employees and how much they might be expected to pay them back once they retired. Just like with their telephone poles, vehicles, and gear, AT&T began collecting data on everything from employment tenure to wages. The company designed tables to better understand its workforce, “which they can use to predict what the service life of their various employees will be,” Bouk says. With this data, it was able to offer retirement to workers who might not have been thinking about it but who the company predicted would no longer provide enough work or efficiency to be worth employing.

Today, the conflation of service life and human life is less about pensions and more about mitigating other kinds of financial risks. Gone are the days when many workers spent their entire professional career at a single company. In a world where Amazon has patented (although doesn’t seem to have actually developed) a cage to protect humans from their robotic co-workers, companies looking to get more work for less money (and trouble) are turning to machines that won’t complain or get sick or unionize. Machines usually have a higher upfront cost, but they don’t require health care or safe working conditions. The new calculation goes like this: “How likely is this machine going to be more expensive to maintain in the future compared to how likely is this worker to negotiate for better wages,” Bouk says.

In a world where the value of humans has been boiled down to their ability to work, the future of asking for human additions to your office might look a lot like the way you apply for a laptop today. You’ll be asked to justify exactly why you need a human, and perhaps even use the company’s predetermined tables for what the service life of that human worker might be. How many shifts can your checkout human work before you have to provide them with health care? How many burgers can a human fry cook make before it’s statistically likely that they’ll injure themselves on some piece of kitchen equipment? How many times can your warehouse human lift a box? And perhaps your contracts will be determined by that algorithm the same way service life estimates were used to predict when a machine would become obsolete—at the end of your service life, you’re let go from the company, off to find a new job where you have to compete once again with the machines.

Form for requesting a human
Rose Eveleth

Read more in Forms From the Future:
• “The Future of Forms
• “What if Your Social Media Activity Affected Your Credit Score?
• “When You Die, Where Should We Upload Your Brain?

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.