Science fiction writers have loved robots almost since the genre began. They is something about the idea of these shiny silver servants clanking back and forth that just seems to capture people’s imaginations. It’s a surprisingly old idea – the word itself dates back nearly a century, to a 1920 play by a Czech writer called R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The word ‘robota’ means – roughly – forced labourer in the Czech language.
But while we lost ourselves in shiny science fiction fantasies, real robots arrived. They weren’t quite C-3PO or the Cylons, but they did real work, taking on the most precise but tedious tasks in factories around the world. Sadly for some, that meant job losses. Technology moves quickly and the march of the robots has of course continued since then. We now have robots which can walk and talk, and most of us now will happily talk to the artificially intelligent agents in our phones and laptops. Are our own jobs at risk?
The official answer is ‘it depends’. Robots are still better at physical tasks and genuine artificial intelligence is still a few decades away. According to Google’s Ray Kurzweil, we may have to wait till 2045 until we reach the so-called ‘singularity’, when artificial intelligence overtakes that of humans.
In the meantime, those who work with their hands remain the most at risk from robots – if you work in a factory or do another job that solely requires manual dexterity, then yes, your position could be taken over by a robot. As things currently stand, only a modest percentage of jobs are that vulnerable: those which involve repetitive tasks in highly structured environments – for example, manufacturing, fast food or the most basic retail.
Meanwhile, jobs which require thought, acquired skill and social interaction – things still very hard to replicate in artificial intelligence –are safest (for the time being anyway). But the picture is complex. While some manual occupations like plumbers, electricians and builders are unlikely to be taken over by robots any time soon, some cerebral office jobs already have been subsumed by software : witness the nearly 600 stockbrokers who were laid off by financial giant Goldman Sachs earlier this year.
This will continue as artificial intelligence and physical robots both continue to grow more capable. But what if the customers of the companies introducing robotic assistance don’t want to deal with robots. And they (understandably perhaps) prefer human beings? Do you really want a robot to bring your order to the table in a restaurant? Or an AI to diagnose your illness? I suspect many of us would baulk in particular at the latter. However, entertaining, we may find the latest technical toys.
If wage inflation accelerates dramatically we might find ourselves confronted with such challenges: but those are big ‘if’s. So our innate preference for human interaction will inevitably act as a brake on those robots who might be capable of tackling currently human jobs.
It is human nature to fear change, but robots could bring new opportunities and need not be a wholly negative disruption to our daily lives. As ever more sophisticated robots proliferate, they will need servicing and programming and repair – and the same goes for robots which exist entirely in software, such as Siri, the AI robot built in to every recent iPhone. Innovation brings new challenges and opportunities and our economy will (inevitably) adapt and open up undreamt-of opportunities. Change cannot be fled from forever: we may as well make the most of it.