The (terrifying?) rise of the robots

I’ve always had an interest in technology, more from the perspective of what it can do for us and what it will mean for us rather than how it works. Back in 1994 I started to get interested in the potential of the Internet and maintained a Compuserve account for a couple of years. The problem was that few other people had even heard of email, never mind actually having an email address. I also started undertaking a bit of personal research and still treasure the October 1994 edition of the ‘Internet’ magazine, the first ever edition and also possibly the first UK magazine devoted to World Wide Web matters. I worked in the cable industry at the time just as it was about to evolve into the cable telecommunications industry. It seemed right to investigate the potential of a technology that could well help change the industry. The potential was always there but few would have predicted just how much of an impact it would eventually have.

So to today, or yesterday, February 23rd 2016. Boston Dynamics, a DARPA funded, Google owned company heavily engaged in developing robot technology released a video on Youtube which depicts how fast the technology is changing.

You really have to see this:

These ‘Atlas’ robots are still slightly awkward in their movements but it is pretty obvious that the wrinkles are slowly but surely being ironed out. Now the military applications are pretty obvious but it also looks like they are also working on commercial applications. Those heavy lifting jobs requiring limited dexterity look like they are now on countdown to being eliminated. I am no expert in the detail but it looks to me like a lot less than ten years before these ‘lifting robots’ are available as ‘off the shelf’ items. Perhaps not as domestic cleaners just yet but even here, once accepted in a commercial environment, we will soon start to see them enter the home.

I continue to read about how fast robots are developing and what they are likely to be doing. It is always good space filling material for news programmes, the middle pages of newspapers and specialist interest groups in the Blogosphere. What there is much less of, is an impact analysis of what happens when it does gain critical mass. How are we going to pay for these robots if the people who might actually buy them have had their jobs displaced by them?

Over time new technologies tend to become an accepted part of our social and economic infrastructure. Despite what could be a fundamentally different change about to be unleashed I am sure that eventually we will be interacting with robots on a daily basis and no doubt consider it an entirely normal and acceptable part of our lives. Though the transition could be painful, more so in that the widespread introduction of robots could take place not over decades but over years.

A general introduction of robots in Western nations will force developing nations to either cut labour costs or adopt the same technology. If we look at the costs of operating in Asia today, China is no longer the low cost manufacturer it once was; look to Vietnam for the lowest labour costs. But even Vietnam will be challenged in competing with a labour force that doesn’t demand higher pay, has low maintenance costs and can work 24/7. We often see the threat of robots as a developed economy issue but in a globalised economic environment it may be that the real impacts will be seen in those nations relying on low labour costs for export muscle.

As nationals of developed nations our concern will be for our own situation. If I’m a shelf stacker and become displaced by a robot what exactly will my future be? Do I retrain, if so to become what? If I can’t find any paid work in my chosen fields, then what? It is quite likely that these are the questions that politicians will be challenged with. How will they react? Will there be robot income tax? Will corporation taxes have to rise to pay for the costs of displaced humans unable to find paid labour? How will pensions be paid for?

Income is obviously high on the list of concerns for any society but it is not the only concern. What exactly are people to do with their time? Is this perhaps the destiny of huge swathes of society? Should we be promoting the education and entertainment sectors far more than today? Perhaps not necessarily as preparation for productive labour but to keep people who would otherwise be employed, occupied. If we adopt this course of action how exactly do we incentivise the people we want to keep on working, the scientists, engineers and medical staff and others who help maintain the fabric of society?

What are the responsibilities of companies and other organisations who plan to introduce robot technologies that displace hundreds of thousands of people? In the past it has been acceptable to simply ‘restructure’ with a redundancy payment and perhaps a bit of outplacement support. This may be far less acceptable in a future where there are simply no human jobs left. A restructuring in this instance really would be the end of the employment road for many people. How should companies adapt their release policies to cater for this new situation? Should expectations be set at the onset of employment? In other words no ‘evergreen’ employment contracts. Should employees be advised far further in advance of their impending release than in the past so that they can prepare? In other words should we be changing our whole attitude to employer – employee relations in a world where ‘robots are our greatest asset’?

When you do start to think about the implications of this technology the questions start to pile-up by the dozen. The worrying part is that there are not many people even thinking about these challenges and even fewer committing pen to paper and suggesting answers. In 1994 the Internet was a single magazine a few thousand basic web pages and a few million email accounts. By 2004 it had taken hold across the developed world and by 2014 virtually all major software applications had been web-enabled and Web had caught the imagination of some of the least developed nations. It’s now everywhere.

Judging by the Boston Dynamics video and some recent statistics I have seen in the growing acceptance of robots I don’t think we will have to wait until 2036 before we see robots everywhere. My guess is that the world of transformation programmes in the 2020s will look somewhat different than those of the last few years. Those skills in project and programme management, Lean Six Sigma, ITIL and other performance improvement initiatives could well become software algorithm re-writes capabilities rather useful certifications for humans. Restructures may well become human organisation elimination rather than a new Visio organogram.

At the moment the government response is to promote software development skills in youngsters going through school. This may work for now but will not be much help when software writing software really takes hold. As libraries of pre-written code are generated and artificial intelligence (AI) start to create algorithms capable of following basic functional requirements the landscape will change again. It’s not HAL that I fear in the world of AI but the more subversive threat of computers removing our ‘thinking’ roles. How then to we prepare our children for work, or non-work as the case may be?

My view is that we need some far bigger thinking than has taken place so far. Robots ad AI will not go away. We need to think through the implications of these technologies before they permeate through our whole social and economic infrastructure. The Internet has created more jobs than it destroyed and perhaps there is an argument that robots and AI will do likewise. However, until we truly analyse and gain a better understanding of their impact we will remain reactive and subject to unpleasant consequences.

After the 2008 banking crisis I often saw comments to the effect that ‘nobody could have seen it coming’. It was totally untrue of course. Similarly, the potential impacts of robot technology and AI are (sporadically) starting to be talked about. Look closely and you can see these robots on the horizon marching towards us.

We have some time to prepare for their arrival but not a lot.

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