There is no doubt robots will play a bigger part in every industry as we go through a technological revolution that’s likely to be as disruptive as the Industrial Revolution.
Most of us are already aware robots are used on production lines - the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer, Hon Hai Industry, is replacing half a million workers with robots – but technology improvements are increasing the versatility of the automated workforce.
Some technologists can’t wait. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick recently said his goal is to replace all his drivers with autonomous cars. “When there's no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle,” he said.
Jobs in deliveries, fast food, even deep sea mining could become automated:
- Amazon US is testing a delivery service using unmanned drones, with implications on parcel and postal delivery;
- Momentum Machines build robot cooks, these can already create salads, sandwiches, hamburgers and more.
- The EU-funded Blue Mining project is exploring use of robots in deep-sea mining.
- Festo has created swarms of robotic insects as part of a research project exploring how small robots can be used in complex manufacturing processes.
- Virginia Tech researchers are developing the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR), part of a Navy program to create autonomous shipboard firefighting robots.
Military use of robots already extends from unmanned aerial surveillance to underwater; from robot facilities guards to bomb disposal and more. Dubai customs uses robots that can detect narcotics, explosives and radiation at border controls.
Thomas Dietterich, president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence says: “We’re now talking about doing some pretty difficult and exciting things with AI, such as automobiles that drive themselves, or robots that can effect rescues or operate weapons.”
There are wider implications as the use of robots in various industries becomes increasingly ubiquitous. A recent Oxford University study predicts that over a third of UK jobs and 47 percent of all US jobs are likely to disappear as automation replaces humans.
That’s broadly in line with Boston Consulting’s estimate that by 2025 the number of 'automatable' tasks – tasks you can get a robot to do - will rise to 25 per cent of all the things we do today.
Will new jobs replace them? A Pew Research survey reveals deep divide among technologists who all believe robotics and artificial intelligence will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025, but there’s a 50/50 split between them on whether these technologies will create jobs to replace those taken away. There is no guarantee those jobs that do emerge will turn up in the same areas where they get taken away.
The threat will be exacerbated when robots combine with artificial intelligence to create thinking machines. Imaging a robot, connected with ubiquitous high-speed broadband, to a machines as smart as IBM’s Watson.
Even the IT establishment is beginning to recognize that not all new and shiny things are good for us.
Tesla founder Elon Musk recently donated $10 million to the Institute, an organization dedicated to figuring out how to ensure AI is good for humanity. “The potential benefits are huge,” says the Institute, “but it is important to research how to reap its benefits while avoiding potential pitfalls.”
Benefits include automation of repetitive tasks, increased safety and security, production efficiencies and more. Pitfalls will include mass unemployment, robot security and computer system failure.
There is also the risk that as humans are replaced by machines new jobs may not emerge within some economies, creating an economic spiral that ironically damages demand for the products and services the robots provide, says the US National Bureau of Economic Research, who warn: “Under the right conditions, more supply produces, over time, less demand as the smart machines undermine their customer base.”
There seems little doubt the consequences of this new disruption will impact everyone.
Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.