Clearly, the answer depends on how well we manage their introduction and use.
But let’s start by reminding ourselves that robots are already found in every conceivable area of life – from what is domestic (mowing grass, cleaning swimming pools), through sports and entertainment (car racing, playing music, producing artistic material), to the care sector (medical operations, looking after the elderly) … all the way to the military (drones, robot soldiers, autonomous weapons).
Moreover, the exciting possibilities of a robot-driven future are equally clear: since the 1980s, Japan has had “dark factories” (fully automated, no humans on site) for electronic products. Since 2001, the Japanese company FANUC has been operating a dark factory where robots build other robots, now at a rate of about 300,000 each year. For most agricultural activities, we now have digitally-controlled farm implements. GPS, aerial survey maps and digital data guide tractor routes. So we can produce most things needed by humanity, whether industrial or agricultural, with minimal human intervention.
As super-abundance becomes possible, poverty could be entirely abolished, leaving us to tackle the remaining challenges around climate change and employment [ii].
The first still seems insuperable, though we do at least give some thought to it.
The second depends, in the short term, on whether humanity can counterbalance and outpace the introduction of robots by becoming ever more creative and productive. For that, humans need to have not merely computer skills but advanced digital literacy which will enable critical and creative human-computer interaction. But which government is doing anything substantial about providing that?
In the ultimate analysis, however, whether or not humanity flourishes as a result of robotics is a question of who will own the robots, and of whether these owners will focus on the flourishing of all of humanity, or only on self-indulgence.
That is a large question. Here are smaller questions we can focus on to enable robots to be an unprecedented blessing to humanity rather than a disaster[ii]:
- Could we pace the introduction of robots to prevent their creating so much unemployment at one time as to trigger social unrest?[iii]
- Could a Robotics Research Charge go to an independently-run global fund for formulating a new economics of super-abundance?
- Could a Robot Introduction Charge finance the retraining of each person whose job is lost?
- Could intellectual property in robotics be put in the public realm to encourage even stronger product competition, as well as to encourage social uses of robots?
The elites of our time promise utopia as a result of the latest advances of our time. Why is it then that we have the reality of much greater violence, from the USA to China?
Such questions are articulated far more powerfully by artists than by bloggers. Have you seen the TV series, Continuum, which starts in the year 2077 where everything is technologically controlled by corporations? A subversive group, Liber-8, are thrown back in time to 2012, and the series plays out alternative futures depending on whether certain technologies are developed or not. Interestingly, there is a “no robots” scenario which has freedom but no peace, while the “with robots” scenario has peace but no freedom.
So can we have freedom, peace and human flourishing? That is the challenge I am raising by the questions above.
About the author:
Prabhu Guptara is a keynote speaker, independent Board Member, and strategy consultant who was, for 15 years, responsible for running Think Tanks for one of the largest banks in the world
[i] If agricultural production is robotised, what are we to offer the currently 5 billion out of the world’s 7 billion who are dependent on agricultural labour? Most jobs (doctors, nurses, teachers, street cleaners, gardeners, police) can be done more cheaply and efficiently by robots. Even robot-maintenance is now robotized. Given quantum computers, it is unclear whether we will need humans as therapists, family support workers, counselors, advisors, or mentors. In the past 30 years, two-thirds of all manufacturing jobs have disappeared in the UK; since 2001, half of all PA/ secretarial jobs, and 65% of librarians’ jobs, have disappeared. The impact of such massive job-losses has been meliorated by the UK’s national unemployment insurance system – whose future in uncertain, given a Deloitte report prediction that 10 million jobs will be taken by robots in the next few years. That’s one job in every three (the UK’s labour force is only 32.7 million, while the total population is 64 million – each job supports roughly two British citizens). So 33% of the current workforce will be made newly-dependent on a National Insurance System that is barely keeping up even with the currently-dependent, and these 33% more will have to be supported on a tax base reduced by income from 33% of current wage-earners! The USA will be even worse hit than the UK, because it has no national unemployment insurance, and because (according to research at Oxford University) one out of every two jobs there will be robotised. So how is half of the USA going to survive?
[ii] Originally raised in 2006 at: http://www.theglobalist.com/will-japanese-robots-rule-world-2020
[iii] Only the totalitarian government of China could organise, as it is now doing in Guangdong, a project to “replace humans with robots”. The excuse is that China (China!) doesn’t have enough skilled people – though it has 2.3 million people in its prisons who are put to unproductive labour. We live in a strange world where it is a Communist government (which is supposed to prioritise people over capital) that leads the first attempt in the world to uncompromisingly prioritise capital over people. “Cheap” Chinese labour has become more expensive each year, and now costs US$6000 a year – which is more than it costs to buy a replacement robot. Sophisticated robots will cost only US$20,000 by 2020 – a sixth of what it costs to have an average employee in an advanced country like Switzerland, and only half of what it costs to employ an illiterate temporary farm-hand.