The robot revolution is here and there’s a 50 percent chance things could go seriously wrong
It’s scary and exhilarating at the same time when life starts to imitate your favorite science fiction movie.
Remember the butler robot in Woody Allen’s Sleeper? Or the domestic servant turned assassin in I, Robot?
Well now there’s a restaurant in Kunshan, China that uses robots to cook and wait on tables. The robots know how to stir-fry, make dumplings and wait on customers.
Meanwhile, the Aloft Hotel in Cupertino, CA is using “butler robots” to replace bellhops. Whenever you call the front desk for more towels or shampoo, human staff members load these items onto the robot, and the robot navigates its way up to your room—without bumping into people or breaking things!
So is this cause for celebration? Are we headed towards a robot utopia or, like in the movies, could the robots get so good that they take over from mere humans?
Don’t quit your side job
The answer has two parts:
First of all, we’re not quite there yet, There are numerous technological hurdles before we have robots like in the movies –the kind that interact with us and are versatile enough to perform a variety of domestic tasks. At the restaurant in Kunshan, each robot can only do one thing: cook, or serve customers, but not both. Similarly, the butler robots can navigate a hotel without bumping into things, but they don’t have arms, and they can’t manipulate objects.
One reason for this, according to New York University neuroscience professor Gary Marcus is that the motors and actuators needed to move robots aren’t improving as fast as Moore’s law. They’re still big, heavy and slow. In addition, says Marcus, artificial intelligence hasn’t made sufficient strides to allow robots to perform as well as humans outside laboratory conditions.
Still, robots are making rapid progress. Even before they get to be as smart and versatile as humans, they can still take our jobs.
On August 6, the Pew Research Center released a study called “AI, Robotics and the Future of Jobs,” They canvassed close to 2,000 experts in the field, asking them, essentially, how close are we are to the robot revolution?
Most of the respondents agreed that as soon as 2025, our daily lives will have been transformed beyond recognition.
Pizzas will no longer be delivered by teenagers, says Stowe Boyd, lead researcher for GigaOM Research.
“Food will be raised by robotic vehicles, even in small plot urban farms that will become the norm, since so many people will have lost their jobs to ‘bots. Your X-rays will be reviewed by a battery of Watson-grade AIs, and humans will only be pulled in when the machines disagree.”
“The penetration of AI and robotics will be close to 100% in many areas,” says Marc Prensky, director of the Global Future Education Foundation and Institute. “It will be similar to the penetration of cell phones today: over two-thirds of the world now have and use them daily.”
But when it comes to waiters and butlers, experts concur, there will likely be a two-tiered system. At the low-end, banks, retail and customer service for the masses will be completely automated. But at the other end, being served by actual humans will be a status symbol.
“When you go to even a medium-quality restaurant in 2025, you will still be waited on by a human,” Fred Hapgood, a science and technology writer told the Pew survey.
So perhaps robot waiters are not the wave of the future. But that didn’t make the Pew survey less alarming.
About half the experts (52 percent) canvassed by Pew were techno-optimists. They believed that a lot of workers will lose their jobs in the coming decade, but that new kinds of jobs will be created, and society will ultimately adapt and be better off.
The other half (48 percent) painted a bleaker picture: one of mass unemployment, rising inequality and even social unrest.
“Robots and AI will increasingly replace routine kinds of work—even the complex routines performed by artisans, factory workers, lawyers, and accountants,” claims Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
“There will be a labor market in the service sector for non-routine tasks that can be performed interchangeably by just about anyone… the jobs that are left will be lower paying and less secure than those that exist now. The middle is moving to the bottom.”
Although this isn’t quite the dystopian robot future depicted in many science fiction films, where robots become violent and turn on their masters, it’s scary nonetheless. Let’s hope 48 percent of experts are wrong and their vision doesn’t come to pass. In the meantime, it’s probably a good idea to brush up on your creative and high-level cognitive skills that a robot can’t do… Yet?