Certain human activities are being robotized out of significance. Grocery store clerks, factory welders, and office stenographers are basically gone. There is worry about what will happen to the truck drivers, librarians and letter carriers soon to follow. But in our public discussion about the artificially intelligent future, no one mentions what may be the biggest disruption of all: the replacement of teenagers with robots.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the annual cost of maintaining a teenager at just under $14,000. Traditionally, in exchange for these subsidies, teens have performed services, doing things adults like to have done but have no interest in doing themselves. For example, I may prioritize watching college football over cleaning the garage, but I still want a clean garage. Having a teen around makes it possible to do both.
It will soon be practical, for a fraction of the cost of raising a teenager, to build a home infrastructure that handles the menial tasks that have been our children’s raison d’etre while asking nothing in return. Automated vacuum cleaners have been around for years, but there are now robots to mow the lawn, rake leaves, and shovel snow. Siri and Alexa see to a household’s small, immediate needs — “turn up the air conditioning” — without whining or demanding an increased allowance. There are even robots that can fetch a beer from the refrigerator between innings. Soon-to-market are automatic waste disposal systems separate trash and recyclables and, at exactly the right time, haul them out to the curb for pick-up.
Despite our sentimental attachment, our children will soon be what accountants call “excessive headcount” better automated off the balance sheet.
What then? What of the millions of young people who will soon be obsolete and irrelevant? No one knows. We continue our march of progress with a shaky certainty that something will come up. Creative destruction has come through in the past. We don’t have buggy whip factories anymore, and no one misses them. The docks aren’t crowded with out-of-work whalers and bowling alley pin boys have found other ways to occupy their time.
So we will see soon enough with our teenagers. Surely as reality sets in, they will find something productive to do.