Are robots a real threat? There has been a lot of talk about automation recently. Last week Mcdonalds were threatening to replace their serving staff in the US who have been agitating for living wage of $15/hour with robots since they would be cheaper.
There are a number of areas of concern about robots. The first is could robots with artificial intelligence (AI) take over? This is still the realm of SF but serious scientists like Stephen Hawking are raising concerns. Asimov proposed the first law for robots was never to harm a human being, but was he thinking about their potential military use? At the moment AI is insufficiently advanced to pass the Turing test but we do need to think about this. We are also reaching the point when conventional chips reach the physical limits of how many transistors can be squeezed on a chip (see Moore’s law). There are solutions to this problem, at least one company is trying to develop a quantum computer, but it needs cooling to near absolute zero so will use a lot of energy (see below). So is not likely to be portable. Even knowing as little about this as I do it seems computing power is not yet there on AI, which could save us from this threat.
The second threat is as I outlined in the opening paragraph to jobs. In the late 70’s BBC “Horizon” made a documetary showing the threat to the UK economy from computing. This so concerned my school we were all made to watch it. Of course the programme was not wholly negative and as it pointed out new technology has both pluses and minuses. Many new types of jobs have been created here, most of which would have been pure SF -web designer anyone?. What hollowed out the UK economy was Mrs Thatcher’s economic policies and then later globalisation. A whole swath of jobs just disappeared overseas. Many of these jobs were unskilled or low skilled and there is a shortage of these jobs. Robots were brought in to such settings as car factories but are used for welding or in the paint shop. Its noticeable that the insides of the cars are put together by humans. There just seems to be threat from robots moving into other sectors now. One estimate is that almost 50% of current jobs could disappear. Globalisation and automation is now threatening other jobs more skilled professional jobs. Lest you think that robots serving in restaurants is scifi there is at least one restaurant in Japan that is using them. Then there are other such areas as driverless car/trucks etc. These are on the way.
The third area of concern is that of energy. As oil and gas run down we having some success in switching to renewables. Germany, Portugal, Denmark etc. and even the UK are breaking renewable records almost everyday. However this process is just beginning. We will have to electrify almost all our economy. That is going to take a lot more energy. If we automate large swaths of it than the energy to build and maintain the robots has to come from somewhere. As does running them. Taking the McDonalds example. The robot will likely take more energy to run but even if they didn’t (taking into account commuting for example) then the displaced worker is still going to use energy sitting at home. It seems very unlikely widespread automation would use less energy as it seems unlikely widespread globalisation uses less energy. In my next post I will look at the social effects and draw some conclusions.