There is a hefty chagrin lurking deep in the human psyche, one often projected in narratives of science fiction, that machines of our own creation will one day supersede and perhaps even destroy us.
Cybernetic revolt tends to go hand in hand with some sort of menacing dystopia—Ridley Scott’s replicants struck to heart of Descartes in Blade Runner; the ‘maschinenmensch’ of Metropolis accompanied a bleak forecast of capitalism to come; those who grew up through the early nineties will no doubt have the harrowing vision of fiery Skynet-induced Armageddon seared into their skulls via a well worn Terminator 2 VHS tape.
Fifteen years into the fresh millennium, the robot uprising remains the stuff of fiction… but only just. Lately, artificial intelligence has edged a little close for comfort; it’s giving Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking the heebies. The bots are gaining ground, and there’s no sign of letting up.
Suddenly, we’re sharing our domestic lives with automaton butlers, receiving deals from uncomfortably convincing robot telemarketers; robotic journalists are writing articles for Associated Press and Huff Post; taxi-sharing company Uber wants to install robotic drivers, while Google’s self-driving car is already on the freeways.
Perhaps more ominously, American Forces General Robert Cone has said that robots could replace a quarter of US army combat soldiers by 2030. Its cinder block-hurling pack mules are already enough to make Arnie fans shudder.
But it’s in the workplace that we’re seeing the immediate impact. Introducing Baxter: the 6’3”, 300-pound industrial robot built to assist human factory supervisors on production lines. Unlike its clunky predecessors, Baxter is not pre-programmed—it can be taught new tasks, as far as its hydraulic arms will let it. Costing the same to manufacture as a yearly human salary, unlikely to demand overtime or a pay raise, Baxter is giving factory workers everywhere cause for concern. The world’s largest contract manufacturer Foxconn (whose 1 million Chinese workers assemble our IPads and IPhones) has already begun to embed similar machines in their workforce at a rate of 30,000 per year.
” cinder block-hurling pack mules are already enough to make Arnie fans shudder”
Since World War II, the GDP of developed nations rose consistently from booming productivity. Wages and job growth accompanied the trend; but in recent years, this relationship has dropped off, something MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee call the ‘Great Decoupling’. Automation is now predicted to replace 47% of American jobs in the next decade; 35% in the UK. As technologies reach greater sophistication, efficiency and cost-effectiveness, more and more companies are likely to justify hiring machines over humans to get the job done.
Low-skill factory and service industry work is just the beginning. Consider the effect of automated Google cars on bus, train and truck drivers; of advanced navigational systems on commercial pilots; IBM’s ‘Watson’ will impact not only Jeopardy contestants but perhaps the entire medical profession as well.
But before we mob the streets gurgling “they took our jobs”, not everyone is prophesising a new depression—on the contrary, many are heralding another industrial revolution. Wired’s Kevin Kelly says the robot takeover will be epic—and we need to let them. We shouldn’t worry too much about jobs; technology has always shifted the status quo and brought new industries and roles with it. The jobs will come, even if we can’t see what they are yet.
Others don’t equate the new revolution with the last. How Stuff Works founder, Marshall Brain thinks it unlikely that machines will create swathes of new jobs for people—only jobs for robots. CPG Grey likens humans to horses on the cusp of the 1900s—just as new mechanical muscle in the form of the automobile edged horses from the economy, advanced mechanical minds today may do the same to humans.
Horses didn’t have the luxury of foresight; we do. Grey suggests we use it wisely and prepare for the great transition to come.
“Horses didn’t have the luxury of foresight; we do”
How might we go about this? Sewing robot costumes can only do so much. As Tim de Chant points out, we’re likely in for a wholesale rethink of our economic, political, and social systems. Education will need an overhaul to adapt to a post-automaton world. Economists and thinkers from all ends of the spectrum are calling for a basic minimum income to support displaced workers, keep purchasing power in the economy and help reshape what it means to ‘make a living’ in a rapidly transforming era. Keynes’s 15-hour week might eventuate after all.
Work issues aside, how long have we got until our chrome brethren start to match our own levels of intelligence? Google’s director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil offers one of the bolder opinions. His book The Singularity is Near argues that computer technology is evolving beyond exponentially; in 2045, artificial intelligence will reach a point of ‘singularity’—an era where machine intelligence outstrips all human intelligence combined in an explosion of man-machine convergence that will subsequently radiate earth-out and saturate the whole cosmos. Others think it’ll be hundreds of years before we reach anything close.
And what to expect when it does? Cosmic Kurzweil explosions, or spooky Kubrick space existentia? The second coming of Dick Nixon’s cryogenically frozen head stuck to a merciless droid torso perhaps? Or will the robots, to coin modern prophets, Flight of the Concords, realise our darkest fears and use poisonous gases to poison our asses?
Ultimately, we’re at the cusp of something big—where it goes from here, the jury is well and truly out…or otherwise being stealthily supplanted by a horde of superior decision-making robots.