What have the robots ever done for us?

By Simon Shah, Chief Marketing Officer, Redwood Software

The fear that robots will change the way in which humans live and work is one that has endured since the notion of a mechanical robot first came into existence.

The common fear – that robots will negatively impact employment – isn’t one that can be accurately measured in the short term but advances in technology undoubtedly make it one that will ultimately need to be answered.

The term robot comes from the Czech word robota, which was used to refer to the drudgery of forced labor under the feudal systems of Europe in the 19th Century. Tracing the origins of the word back further takes you through Proto-Slavic (‘hard work’) to its roots in Proto-Indo-European (‘h₃erbʰ’), where it meant ‘to change or evolve status’.

With it now applied to mechanical and computerized automation, that definition could hardly be more appropriate for the impact it’s going to continue to have throughout the 21st Century.

A significant shift

On a societal level, robotics will continue to displace employment as it exists today – carrying out automatable tasks, changing the nature of the work that humans will do instead. On the positive side, there’s the potential for automation to eliminate repetitive, manual tasks and let people focus on high-value skilled work.

Where those manual jobs are displaced, technologists argue that the persistent waves of new developments will drive new opportunities. Essentially, that technology can provide a self-fulfilling cycle of human opportunity through innovation. That’s mostly been the case throughout history.

Definitive figures that show the overall long-term effect of robots on employment and salary don’t exist yet. There simply hasn’t been significant enough deployment for a long enough time to get an overall view.

However, beyond the impact on manual roles there are secondary and tertiary effects of robotization on employment. A decline in tax on income will need a corresponding increase elsewhere. Earlier this year, Microsoft founder Bill Gates proposed that robots could be subject to a ‘robot tax’ to make up for the shortfall.

“Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level,” Gates said in an interview with Quartz, before going on to suggest that this money could be used to “let us do a better job of reaching out to the elderly, having smaller class sizes, helping kids with special needs”. These are all tasks particularly well suited to people over machines.

That’s the theme of the effect technologists such as Gates see for robots on employment – that the types of jobs that will be in demand will change, shifting towards higher-skilled tasks, but not eliminating jobs wholesale.

AI of the future

Robotics and automation often currently rely on rules-based intelligence that requires programming but recent developments in computing ability have meant leaps forward in the abilities of artificial intelligence, taking AI from a notional aim to a computer that beats Go grand masters at their own game.

To illustrate just how fast these advances are now taking place, consider that the AlphaGo AI that beat 18-times Go world champion Lee Sedol last year, this month lost 100 - 0 against an updated version (AlphaGo Zero) that was programmed only with the basics of the game, and worked out the rest by playing games against itself. By contrast, the original AlphaGo was trained on huge datasets taken from games played between experts, to teach it optimum strategies, before playing its own training games.

Putting that real-world learning ability to work isn’t a hypothetical situation of the far-flung future either. WalMart is already using machine learning for tasks like inventory organization, pricing items and identifying problems, which has led to a huge increase in the number of items it offers through its online platforms, up from 700,000 items to 60 million plus in a little over six years.

It’s these gains offered by technology, automation and AI that technophiles point to as counterbalances that will help offset the changing nature of work in other areas.

There will, of course, be hundreds and thousands of other societal and occupational changes that derive from a robot workforce, both for better and worse, but one thing is for certain: navigating the challenges ahead in a considered way is a critical task if robotization is to achieve its true potential of freeing humans from drudgery.

Westworld might feel like a long way off but it’s probably best to start planning for a few of those societal effects now.



Categories:   Automation   Robotics   RoboFinance  
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