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When Robots Rule The World

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Science fiction has predicted the day when robots would replace humans for more than half a century. What seemed like far-fetched fantasy decades ago now seems like a reasonable idea to many people. Don’t look now but it’s a reality that has snuck on us without most people noticing.

Smart phones have been with us less than a decade, but for many of us it feels like we’ve always had one. Drones, and self-driving cars seemed like Hollywood plot gimmicks not so long ago. Today, if we look around we can see robotics everywhere.

 

Let’s begin by defining what we mean by the term “robot”. a robot is a device that adapts to its environment with autonomous movement and makes decisions based on artificial intelligence. This excludes other types of machines that perform repetitive tasks or require a human to control directly or remotely.

 

As in a typical science fiction plot, many advances that at first seem trivial or cute have potential to change the world we live in for the worse. Consider the novelty of the ®iRobot “Roomba”. Millions of people purchased this robot vacuum cleaner and it became a conversation piece for a short time. It didn’t take long at all for business owners to see the potential of having tedious labor done by robot and begin replacing humans that used to be required to run a vacuum cleaner. Naturally entrepreneurs began to consider how many other types of jobs a machine might be able to do as good or better than a human can and at far less expense.

The reality of industry in 2017 is that humans are being replaced in the workforce by robots at an alarming rate. According to a study by financial services firm Cornerstone Capital Group, between 6 million to 7.5 million existing jobs are at risk of being replaced in the retail industry in the U.S. over the course of the next 10 years by some form of automation. You probably noticed the increase in self check- out stations and less cashiers in stores, but you may not have noticed that the job of stocking and inventory is becoming more efficient due to the use of some robotics and artificial intelligence and thus reducing the number of people needed to do that job.

The outlook for jobs is not all doom and gloom however. Many experts believe that technology, robotics or otherwise, will continue to create more jobs than it replaces. Still, it is hard to argue that robotics won’t play a big part in changing the kinds of jobs that people do.

Geoff Colvin, author of Humans Are Underrated argues, we should stop asking what computers will never be able to do. The answer to that is likely “nothing”. Rather, we should ask: “What are the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature, will simply insist be performed by other humans?” Would you be comfortable with a robot surgeon or dentist?

Of course the challenges are not all economic or related to jobs. There is sociological fallout from increased interaction with machines. We already have some foretelling of the negative impact machines have on the way humans interact with other humans. A common meme shared on social media states “I’m having some people over tonight to stare at our phones.” Indeed, as interaction with machines becomes more commonplace, many people begin to feel more comfortable with machines than with people.

Perhaps the biggest fear is that there may come a time when machines won’t need people. Stanford computer scientists have built an A.I. that is capable of watching a pilot perform complex stunts with a model helicopter and learn how to operate it on its own. Autonomous self-development is what is allowing the state of robotics to grow so rapidly and it allows the technology to learn new things, instead of having a team of programmers plug instructions in during the development stage.

 

It is exactly that kind of machine learning that scares many people into believing that someday robots may make humans obsolete. The truth is more complicated than that. Machines were and are being developed to serve human needs. Robots have no need and therefore without humans they would have no reason to exist. Music, for example, has been produced using some degree of artificial intelligence for decades and is becoming more reliant on technology. Music has value because it can make people feel and emote. Machines can feel or emote, right? Well maybe not yet.

Researchers from Leibniz University of Hannover, are developing an “artificial robot nervous system to teach robots how to feel pain” and quickly respond in order to avoid potential damage to their motors, gears, and electronics. That is physical pain but what about emotional pain?

Well, a Japanese telecom company has released a robot that it says has emotions. Pepper, the “emotional robot”, created by Aldebaran Robotics and Japanese mobile giant SoftBank, is “the first humanoid robot designed to live with humans.” The manufacturers claim the robot can feel joy, surprise, anger, doubt and sadness. There is still much debate on whether these machines truly “feel” emotions or are just programmed to react in a way that suggests that they feel the emotions. Still most in the A.I. feel it’s only a matter of time and eventually a truly emotional robot will be reality.

The term singularity is used to describe the point at which artificial intelligence can match, and then overtake, human smarts. Nearly every computer scientist will have a different prediction for when and how the singularity will happen, but most agree it will happen and many are predicting that it will happen in this century.

Matthew Nappo

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