WHERE HAVE ALL THE HUMANS GONE?
ARM YOURSELF! THE ROBOTS ARE COMING…
a world of total automation, with robots taking care of our chores and leaving us free to live a life of leisure, may have seemed like a sci-fi utopia. except, now it’s actually happening, for many the dream is turning into a jobless nightmare. T3 asks: where have all the people gone?
Sci-fi dreamers of the 1950s, from Isaac Asimov to Arthur C. Clarke, envisioned a future in which smart machines would perform menial tasks for their smug human overlords. Automated flying cars would deliver 21st-century men and women to their pristine destinations where robot chefs would prepare meals, then sweep up the detritus. We would be made redundant in the best possible sense. But in life, as in fiction, the reality is less attractive, and the robots are seizing control.
In fact, according to humanity’s brightest minds, the next two decades will see the rise of the robots alter society fundamentally. The revolution is underway.
Robots have been coming over here and taking our jobs for decades, most obviously on factory lines, where car, food and gadget-making humanoids have been replaced by machines systematically; machines that don’t require toilet breaks or the freedom to form a union. It’s not just the blue-collar jobs that are being affected, either. A recent paper, Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, claims that computers will be able to replace humans across an astounding 47 per cent of all current US jobs within the next 20 years.
As retail giant Amazon waits patiently for new regulation to come into effect that will allow it to send a primed global fleet of delivery drones into the skies – replacing the human drivers that the company currently employs – robots are already replacing surgeons and solicitors the world over. The cost of robotics has fallen around 10 per cent every year for the past few decades, making a new automated future increasingly affordable. Could our entire species be made redundant in the next century?
Dr Michael A. Osborne, associate professor in machine learning at the University of Oxford and co-author of last year’s study, claims that “an enormous swathe of employment is at risk of computerization during the next decade”. It’s due to what he describes as “a fortuitous confluence of a range of different technologies: mobile robotics, the rise of big data, information, technology and the cost of components”.
While Osborne is keen to make clear he’s not predicting 47 per cent of the workforce will definitely lose their jobs – there’s a host of regulatory and public concerns that will dictate whether those jobs can be replaced or not – he is certain that the necessary tech will exist.
“There could well be widespread unemployment as a result,” Osborne warns.
The signs are clear. Apps such as Uber have already automated the task of booking a ride home, angering taxi drivers in all the world’s major cities and prompting strikes in London, while Google, Audi and BMW are all primed to release driverless cars that, within the next two decades, could put drivers out of a job completely. Apple’s Siri and Google Now rely on natural user interfaces to recognise the spoken word, interpret its meanings and act on it accordingly; it’s one very small leap to a future of call centres run entirely by robotic Siri-alikes.
Even the more skilled of jobs aren’t safe from this new robotic workforce. Oncologists at Memorial Sloan- Kettering Cancer Center now use IBM’s supercomputer Watson to provide chronic care and cancer treatment diagnostics. The software draws from 600,000 medical reports, 1.5 million patient records and clinical trials, plus two million pages of medical journals, to compare each patient’s individual symptoms, genetics and history, returning a diagnosis and a personalised treatment plan. Osborne predicts that it will soon be possible to place inexpensive sensors on streetlights to capture sound and images, reducing the number of police, too.
Ian Pearson, a futurist and author of the book Total Sustainability, agrees with Osborne’s predictions, but believes that this kind of change, while accompanied by clear and disruptive loss, is not necessarily a negative one. For Pearson, automation is simply the next step in our natural evolution of labour, a process set in motion way back during the industrial revolution.
“Automation is just more of the same,” he says. “The more machines that can help out with human labour, the greater the amount of wealth generated, allowing us to better look after people and the planet. If we handle it well, automation could make the world a far better place.”
How exactly could automation make the world a better place if half of us are left jobless? For one thing, Pearson believes that the cost of living could be vastly reduced, so there would be less need for us to work. He gives the
This automated shop in provides all life’s essentials, except jobs