OPINION

Robots, progress, and the human cost

Michael Fitzpatrick



Robots may soon be transforming our working lives in the same way that computers once did. But will progress come at a human cost?



Fulfilling the dreams of bosses everywhere, Wakamaru San is never late, does not gossip or complain of sickness, and somewhat unnervingly never stops smirking. That is because one-metre tall Wakamaru is an android, whose idea of a tea break is to find the nearest power socket and recharge itself when its battery runs low. This Mitsubishi-made winsome robot is part of the vanguard of so-called “second generation” robots, autonomous machines designed to help around the home and workplace — permanently.

In the first serious attempt to commercialise a robot that can work in the office, 10 little Wakamarus touting “strong receptionist skills” were recently taken on by an employment agency in Japan, where they are now for hire.

Other robots are muscling in on Japan’s increasingly mechanised construction industry, though those look far from the “humanoid” type robot, such as Wakamaru, that we have been led to expect by science fiction.

According to Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, the robot industry is “developing in much the same way that the computer business did 30 years ago.” Just as that industry has overcome many obstacles to become utterly central to our lives so, says Mr. Gates, robot-makers are meeting the challenges of building truly useful androids. South Korea, meanwhile, plans to have a robot for every home in only 12 years’ time. The robot revolution, it seems, has begun in earnest.

So where does that leave us less-than-dedicated, sickly humans? Will the coming revolution make work optional, giving us lives filled with leisure, even “creating Athens without the slaves,” as the former U.K. Conservative Cabinet Minister, Peter Walker, said in 1983?

Marshall Brain, technology consultant and founder of the popular science website HowStuffWorks.com, thinks so. He argues that the recent “jobless recovery” in the United States points to a future where automation prevails at the cost of our livelihoods.

“The jobless recovery is exactly what you would expect in a robotic nation. When automation and robots eliminate jobs, they are gone for good. The economy then has to invent new jobs. But it is much harder to do that now because robots can quickly fill the new jobs that get invented,” Mr. Brain writes in one of a series of widely discussed essays. “What will become of human society — especially the economy — when robots take all our jobs?”

Warnings

There are other leading technologists who claim, like Mr. Brain, that they are no Luddites, but rather whistleblowers on a science that will spiral out of control. One such is the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, Bill Joy, who warns: “Accustomed to living with routine scientific breakthroughs, we have yet to come to terms with the fact that the most compelling new technologies — robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology — pose a different kind of threat than the technologies that came before.”

The solution, he argues, might be to put the brakes on robot development and other worrisome technologies.

This was also a view shared, until very recently, by one of Britain’s leading robotic scientists, Dylan Evans, who was a senior lecturer in robotics at the University of the West of England but who resigned early this year in order to run a post-apocalyptic commune in Scotland dubbed the Utopia Experiment. This is a social trial borne out of Dr. Evans’ growing mistrust of science and technology. After six months of living without existing labour-saving devices such as the dishwasher, Dr. Evans is a changed man. But he does not, as one might expect, extol the virtues of the simple life. In fact, Dr. Evans now actually embraces a robot-filled future.

“I used to have fears for the coming of the robot revolution in the home, which is definitely coming soon,” Dr. Evans says. “Well, it’s already begun really, as more houses buy robot vacuum cleaners, lawnmowers, and robotic toys. It began a long time ago in the workplace, as robots already do much manufacturing, and they now do lots of other things there from packaging to warehousing. Anyway, I don’t have those fears any more. In fact, I think it will be a great thing.”

Geoff Pegman, managing director of R U Robots, agrees. He argues that doomsayers have been foretelling the collapse of civilisation and of human obsolescence in the face of the machine for too long now.

“Mass unemployment? They said the same about the computer,” Mr. Pegman argues, “how we would all have nothing but leisure time as computers would be doing our jobs for us. And this obviously is not the case. The fact is, robots will be able to do the repetitive boring jobs that we loathe first. The food industry, for example, has masses of people doing these very tedious and boring jobs. Robots could easily do that work.”

This need for robots is the key to their adoption in the workplace and perhaps why we have heard so little from unions when they do take jobs — they are, for the most part, jobs which we humans do not want. But Mr. Pegman does agree that there will be a certain amount of painful restructuring, which will inevitably lead to unemployment for some.

“In the next 20 to 30 years there will be structural problems and we will have to lay off people, while manual jobs will be very much on the receiving end,” Mr. Pegman says. “But look at the steel-making industry, which has had to go through huge technological changes. What we haven’t had there is mass unemployment, because increased production gives increased wealth, which in turn leads to more jobs.”

He does suggest one caveat, however. “There is the issue of how much you can upskill the working population.”

And, of course, the outcome depends on what sort of employment will be on offer to flesh and blood workers. Miners’ work was also dirty, dangerous and difficult, but there was arguably a certain dignity to the job that retraining to become call-centre fodder has never had. To the seemingly empathic Wakamaru San, dignity — or the lack of it — will never matter.