Sunday, May 31, 2015

In praise of the robot revolution

When supermarkets started installing self-serve checkouts, I was initially antagonistic towards such a move. I saw it as an attack on the humble, honest worker - their jobs being replaced by big metal boxes that shout at you to 'REMOVE ITEM FROM BAGGING AREA' more times than necessary. I was also indignant at the idea of being made to scan and pack my own shopping, as if it infringed on my right as a grocery shopper (I don't go to a hairdresser, sit in the chair and cut my own hair myself do I?).

But then, the reality dawned on me: this is inevitable ... and a good thing it is too.

Why? Because, as a civilisation I believe we need to move on. We need to change the way we see work. We need to free humanity from the hum drum 9-5 wage-slave existence, because it sucks.

Working in a supermarket stacking shelves sucks. Sitting on a production line at a factory sucks.  Flipping burgers in McDonald's sucks. In some ways, it would be OK if everyone else had to do a crappy job and 'pitch in' by way of contributing to society, but that's not the case. Why should I relax in a comfy sofa, sipping my latte in a trendy coffee shop while minimum-wage youngsters slave away behind the counter? Doesn't seem entirely fair to me.

Up until the mid-20th century, most jobs were done by humans with big machines doing the heavy and dangerous work. Then, robots started to slowly creep in, helping in factories to assemble cars and other essential products of modern society. At the same time, computers began doing the heavy number crunching for us so we could solve complex problems and think about other stuff. The two have slowly been coming together, and now we are on the brink of the robotic revolution that has long been predicted.

Autonomous vehicles are the next big thing from car makers, and the dream of self-driving cars whizzing along our roads is fast becoming a reality. Big companies like Google are investing heavily in this technology and by 2030 these cars will be commonplace, much like the self-service supermarket tills. Elon Musk, the head of Tesla cars, is already giving his cars autonomous freedom of motorways and has even said that one day humans will be banned from driving cars on public roads because we make too many mistakes. Interestingly, a recent report from Google admitted that their driverless cars had been involved in 11 accidents over the course of its 6-year programme (1.7 million miles of testing), but that all of them were minor 'bumps', no-one was hurt and that they were all attributed to human error (i.e. someone else driving into their cars).

Robots are taking over from humans in all areas of life: farming, medicine, education - even warfare. They are often more efficient and less troublesome than humans (except when they break down, of course) so you can see why business is investing heavily in them. The one thing that is stopping them taking over everything entirely is the elusive thing they call artificial intelligence. Without that, some straightforward tasks like sweeping the streets are done better by humans. Still, I'm sure those intelligent bods tinkering away in their labs will work it out eventually. 

Once the AI thing has been figured out, there's no end of things our robotic friends will be able to do. This is great because it will mean an end to the tedious tasks that hold us back so much. Most of us will no longer be needed to do our jobs so will have to occupy our time with other things. It will, possibly, transform society dramatically and take us onto the next level of civilization. Life could be very different in 50-75 years time.

The danger, of course is that we become lazy. Rather than use our freed-up time to help others, further our knowledge or enrich our culture we just become slobs or party animals frittering away our free time on leisure. Just watch WALL-E for a glimpse of what that might look like.

Maybe that's why it's important to prepare our society for this inevitable change before it happens, educate the next generation about the impending roborevolution and make sure they're ready to adapt. Governments and businesses need to have a plan too. Without their co-operation things could go pear-shaped, even nasty.

Looking again at the positives, I'm excited about what we're capable of as a species and what freedoms might come from our robotic friends. I hope my children and grandchildren will grow up in a world where they aren't doomed to work in the 'dark satanic mills' of Tesco or Starbucks. Rather, they will be free to do far more worthy things like explore the solar system, improve medicine or create stunning works of art.

What do you think? Will robots change the world or will low-skilled, crummy jobs always be around?

1 comment:

  1. I'm not so optimistic. Will most people lose their livelihoods and die in poverty before these changes can be managed, while tycoons and robot-owners corner more and more of the worlds wealth and resources, harvested by their AI underlings? Unless we are *very* smart about managing the revolution fairly, I think many will be crushed under a robot-capitalist steamroller.