By: Roland Flamini
In the numerous hi-tech trade shows in the U.S. and elsewhere, the space that (after video games) draws most media and public attention is robotics. The robots on show are almost always painted a neutral white, and the emphasis is on cuteness as they chat with children and whizz around displaying inane skills like serving cocktails while blinking cheerfully at the public.
There is, however, a more serious side to robots as their use grows exponentially, leaving science fiction behind and raising serious, nagging questions that remain largely unanswered.
Over the past two years, Halcyon, a Georgetown non-profit group that examines 21st century problems and how to deal with them, brought together an army of experts for a detailed study of robotics, and then issued a final report that sheds some light on their future development.
Since the computer Hal rebelled in Stanley Kubrick’s movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” (“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”), robots have made great strides. They are used extensively in a wide range of fields including manufacturing, aviation, healthcare and agriculture. What is a drone, if not a robot? Or a self-driving car, for that matter? As for agriculture, a Swedish firm has created a cow-milking robot that makes the milkmaid of literature and legend redundant. The robot allows the cows to come and be milked on their own, when they want to.
The list of robots already in use is endless. Bomb disposal robots used by the military and the police save lives; in the U.K., a prototype robot called Pepper is teaching math classes; a fully automated chef invented by a British robotics company can memorize recipes and create gourmet meals; and in many U.S. hospitals, robots perform surgical procedures.
The Halcyon report predicts a quantum leap forward in the use of robotics in virtually all areas of human endeavor, and includes proposals for advancing technology to achieve this, and ways of confronting some of the problems created by what is without question the most profoundly disruptive technological shift since the 19th century industrial revolution.
Depending on one’s view of the spread of robotic automation, the Halcyon report (compiled in association with the American Association of Advanced Science) is either timely, overdue or too late. Already, according to the Robotics Industries Association trade organization, more than 265,000 robots are now in operation in the U.S., making it third in worldwide terms in robot use behind China and Japan. As the numbers increase the Halcyon report emphasizes the need for new legislation, more regulation, training for workers who could lose their jobs to robots, and a campaign to emphasize the positive aspects of shifting to robotic technology.
“Robots,” the report says, “are not inherently good or bad. However, they can have effects that are negative for particular people and groups of people.” Topping the list of particular people are workers who have lost their jobs to robots, and others who will doubtless suffer the same fate in the future. Robots are considered ideal to perform work categorized as the three ds, “dull, dirty and dangerous.” The problem is that there are already millions of unskilled laborers earning a living in those dull, dirty and dangerous jobs.
But progress being what it is, the prestigious Geneva-based World Economic Forum predicted recently that robotic automation will result in the net loss of more than five million jobs in 15 developed nations by 2020, and experts regard that as a conservative estimate. As any economist will tell you, an American company obeying President Donald Trump’s call to repatriate its manufacturing operations will be hit hard by higher labor costs and will have to replace workers with robots to maintain profit levels acceptable to its shareholders.
The pro-robot crowd points out that manufacturing the robots has introduced a new range of high skilled jobs – as have other high-tech developments. Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley, writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, argues that “if robots threatened human labor, human joblessness would be growing. But it’s not. In fact, since 2008, job growth has been strongest in countries like Germany and Japan, which deploy the most robots.”
Sharma also quotes new Pew Research showing that “most Americans do not think that animation threatens their own jobs.” However, at least one other expert has interpreted the findings of the same Pew survey as a false sense of security among Americans who don’t know enough about the spread of robotics.
The Halcyon report also refers to the need for mechanisms to ensure against the Hal factor. The “how robots should behave themselves” list includes: “Robots should abide by the law,” and again that they “should be as least expressive and manipulative as possible.” It also says care needs to be taken not to create robot replicas of human limbs, such as hands or legs, that are excessively stronger or could run faster than the human version. But that’s another movie.
This article ran in the November 2017 issue of Washington Life.