Robot and Frank

ImageOver the past few days, I’ve been giving a bit of thought to the trends in technology and how our lives 10 years from now will most likely look significantly different from what they are today. Driverless cars, automated fast-food restaurants, possible servant robots could all be within the realm of possibility; or put another way, coming to a store near you.

The Pentagon’s futuristic research division, DARPA, just conducted a contest amongst robotic companies where they presented their best humanoid robots to compete against each other in a semi-real-world disaster relief scenario. Apparently, most of the robots stood in front of a closed door for about 10 minutes staring at the door handle trying to figure out what to do with it. That certainly doesn’t give me a lot of confidence if I were dependent upon them for help.

However, the rate at which these companies improve their products is astronomical. About 10 years ago or so, DARPA conducted a similar test for driverless vehicles to navigate open terrain in the desert. Like the disaster relief robotic test, the initial driverless vehicle tests had similar results. Nevertheless, about three years after this first test, new and improved driverless vehicles were weaving through real world scenarios complete with human traffic. Nowadays, almost every major car company is working to bring to market some aspect of automated vehicles.

On the one hand, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by how exciting things are becoming in the field of robotics. I would love to be able to tell my car to drive me from DC up to visit my family in Ohio whilst I just fall asleep or perhaps watch a movie or read a book. Pretty much anything other than focusing on the road for six hours would be great. Not only that, but I could tell my car to drop me off at the movies whilst it either drives off to find parking or it drives back home only to return when I call for it.

ImageBut on the other hand, what sort of economy does a country have where at least 50% of current jobs become automated? Thanks to the current guy in the White House, there is a little bit of talk going on around DC about raising the minimum wage to around $10-15 an hour. But minimum wage jobs are already one of the most at-risk jobs in which to automate since the tasks are often repetitive. Instead of paying $15/hour for a person to sweep the floor, a company can buy a Roomba vacuum, for example, for a couple hundred dollars. Now, this post isn’t supposed to be about whether or not to raise the minimum wage but I raise the point simply because it’s pertinent to current events and because it has the potential to accelerate the shift towards automation.

So what exactly would happen if your job became automated? Think of all the mindless tasks your job requires you to do and if there are a lot of them, then it sounds like a great area for a robot to take over. Even jobs one wouldn’t traditionally think could be automated are becoming automated. Computers are starting to write simple journalistic pieces for newspapers and magazines usually centred around business and sports items. For example, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult for a computer to write about what the Dow Jones did in the stock market today. In a sense, they are like Mad-Libs, just piece together a simple sentence of “The down climbed/dropped _____ points today…” etc.

When researching other articles for this post, I came upon two interesting possibilities for what the repercussions for this future robotic-oriented economy might look like. The first is that the wealth the robots/companies generate might be heavily taxed and then redistributed to millions of people who are no longer in the work force. Effectively this seems like it could become an increasingly socialistic and perhaps eventual communist-type state. Another possibility is that society undergoes a shift in values towards the arts/literature/theatre/philosophy/etc. That is to say, society focuses more on that which cannot be automated and only on that which human creativity can provide. Perhaps it’s the philosopher in me that I’m privy towards the latter possibility but these two scenarios are by no means exhaustive.

Some raise the issue that mankind will simply change jobs and focus on others careers which are created by a roboticly enhanced economy. However, it would seem that the rate at which robots are/will potentially replace multiple professions in a short amount of time makes this different from previous Industrial Revolution advances. Truckers and cab drivers out of work, medical surgeries conducted by precision robotics, even airline pilots turning over control of airplanes to name a few. Do surgeons switch to engineers in order to fix broken down robots? Do truckers and cab drivers become computer programmers? It is certainly within the realm of possibilities but then again so too would a shift towards a creativity based society. One journalist made the point that it wasn’t so long ago that it was nearly unthinkable that universal literacy was possible; now, it seems virtually impossible that people might care enough about creativity to make it a cornerstone of an advanced economy. Let’s just give it a few years and we can see who is right. Then again, by that point it might be a little late to plan ahead for it.

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