If the Industrial Revolution introduced the assembly-line production concept in factories, the 1950s and 1960s saw companies like General Motors introduce robotics on shop floors. These developments, however, will pale in comparison to what is in store for the human workforce a few decades from now, given the acceleration in capabilities of software automation and artificial intelligence (AI) driven predictive algorithms.
The Rise Of The Robots—Technology And The Threat Of Mass Employment by Martin Ford is a well-researched attempt to show how accelerating technology may “disrupt our entire system to the point where a fundamental restructuring may be required if prosperity is to continue”.
While all jobs are at risk of automation, Ford emphasizes that it is the “routine” and “predictable” jobs that will be affected the most, a contention which he supports with numerous examples across the manufacturing, retail, agriculture and services sectors.
Engineers at a Silicon Valley start-up, Industrial Perception Inc., for instance, believe their robots will ultimately be able to move a box every second—a human worker needs around 6 seconds to complete the same task. Tesla’s new factory in Fremont, California, uses 160 highly flexible robots to assemble about 400 cars per week. Boston-based Rethink Robotics’ robot, Baxter, costs significantly less than a year’s wages for a typical US manufacturing worker.
Threats to the services sector are no different. Ford cites the example of Momentum Machines Inc.’s device, which is capable of producing about 360 hamburgers per hour, and of toasting the bun and then slicing and adding ingredients like tomatoes, onions and pickles after the order is placed.
Robots at Japan’s Kura Sushi 262 restaurant chain already make sushi while conveyor belts replace waiters—this has helped the company price its sushi plates at just about $1 (around Rs.65). Imagine if companies like McDonald’s, with about 1.8 million workers worldwide, were to employ a robot. Momentum Machines believes “(the robot) will pay for itself in less than a year”.
One way to address the issue is human-machine collaboration jobs. Ford argues that such jobs are likely to be relatively few and, often, short-lived.
So what happens to the economy if robots replace the human workforce eventually? It could be devastating, contends Ford, because a machine does not go out and consume, even though it does use energy, spare parts and requires maintenance. Moreover, weak demand for products and services could unleash a secondary wave of job losses, affecting even those occupations not directly susceptible to automation.
In sum, robots move boxes, make hamburgers and algorithms that create music, write movie scripts, reports and articles and even trade on the stock exchange. But what happens if companies finally succeed in building a genuinely intelligent machine that can conceive new ideas, demonstrate an awareness of its own existence and carry on coherent conversations—the Holy Grail of AI?
Some professions with low unemployment rates, especially healthcare-related fields like nursing, may remain in human hands for a longer time, says Ford. So will any job that combines dexterity, mobility, creativity and human interaction. In most areas, however, no amount of education or training would make a human being competitive with such machines.
This implies that the income from capital would be concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite group. But even this group cannot continuously purchase goods to keep the global economy growing, which may necessitate some form of basic income guarantee—not an easy task for any government.
In his book, The Age Of Em: Work, Love And Life When Robots Rule The Earth, released this year, Robin Hanson has similarly argued that the next big new era inducing change is likely to be the arrival of AI with “robots smart enough to substitute wholesale for human works”. Hanson forecasts that the first such robots will be whole brain emulations, or “ems”—“within roughly a century or so”. Hanson is more optimistic. He predicts that humans instead will live far from “em” cities, mostly enjoying comfortable retirement on em-economy investments.
The robot invasion may not necessarily pan out the way Ford or Hanson believe. We would rather concur with the likes of futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, who predicts that humans will inevitably merge with the machines of the future and will be augmented with brain implants (aka Matrix) that dramatically enhance intelligence.
At least, this thinking offers the hope of a more level-playing field for humans. Of course, one may argue that only those who have the money will be able to afford these implants. It’s indeed a subject for another day.