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In an era of mass unemployment will we become robots pets?

Industry associations and analysts are a special kind of nuisance. They write research papers with titles like: “A World Without Work;” “Anticipating a Luddite Revival;” “Our Work Here is Done;” “Who Owns the Robots Owns the World;” “Robots not Immigrants Could Take Half of Jobs;” and “AI and Robots Threaten to Unleash Mass Unemployment.” These alarmist titles cause news editors to rely on the research papers like fortune-tellers rely on tealeaves.

Despite the good intentions of the authors and their predictions the research evidence is limited and primarily correlational in nature, few studies have demonstrated a causal relationship between the impacts of robots on jobs.

In the minds of many analysts and researchers, humanity is nearing a robot apocalypse where Robots will have taken over most jobs within 30 years leaving humanity facing its ‘biggest challenge ever.’

Then there are the researchers that believe we will all take on a super human intelligence and be implanted with artificial intelligence and robotic limbs like cyborgs, or Max, Matt Damon’s character in the film Elysium. As Yuval Harari sees it, in the one big area I disagree with him in his otherwise very thorough book[1], ‘ordinary’ humans will be unable to compete with robots or enhanced people:

I think it is likely in the next 200 years or so homo sapiens will upgrade themselves into some idea of a divine being, either through biological manipulation or genetic engineering [or] the creation of cyborgs…It will be the greatest evolution in biology since the appearance of life. But we will be as different from today’s humans as chimps are now from us.

If we are to believe the research then unless we upgrade our brains with an implanted A.I. and bodies with some form of exoskeleton, a combination of Edward Scissorhands and a Turing machine, then those that fail to transform are destined to become the “indeterminate blob” described by Robert Nozick.[2] Or as Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, speculates our robot masters might keep a small number of humans around for pets.[3]

Of course, whilst it will be some time before we are robot pets millions of dollars is being put into development of new kinds of drones with the strength and agility of a Pterodactylus that can deliver books to us within 30 minutes and robots that can empty trash bins because we’ve already solved cancer, climate change and homelessness, right?

The facts are, robots, those mechanized metal arms that now assemble and paint most of our cars, still have a long way to go to reach a tipping-point in manufacturing let alone come anywhere near our grandparents as elder care givers. Incidentally, I’ve never understood why we would need robots to take care of our elders when everyone else is going to be unemployed – surely if we have mass unemployment, we can take better care of our elders than a lump of metal with a potty mouth?

There will of course be more and more robots and it will come with some pain as they displace people from jobs. Technological change, like fashion, is always disruptive, and in the long sweep of human history, that disruption has been one of the fundamental sources of economic growth. Who would have thought that the economy could be predicted on sales of men’s underwear or that wearing a non-functional scarf indoors or beanie hat at World Bank meetings would become the norm?

Is this time different?

Business has always been — if you want to increase your bottom line, you’ll move to increase production by cutting out the human element.

My thesis is that current job displacement by machines is inevitable, and whilst this will lead to a significantly large number of people losing their jobs and yes this could be a long-term scenario, we are a long way from the day when the majority of human beings will have no work.

With increasingly ‘intelligent,’ easier to program and more dexterous machines replacing humans both in the manufacturing and the service sectors there will STILL be new jobs for humans to do – we just don’t know what they are yet — and this is one of the reasons we will need robots for elder care.

I’m hopeful – – the best is yet to come.

 

[1] Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. New York: Harper, 2015. [Google Scholar]

[2] Robert Nozick. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974, pp. 42–45. [Google Scholar]

[3] Benjamin Snyder. “Apple’s co-founder: We’re all going to be robots’ pets one day.” Fortune, 25 June 2015. Available online: http://fortune.com/2015/06/25/apple-wozniak-robots-pets/ (accessed on 30 March 2016).