The Robot Scare – is it justified?

Numerous movies have been made in Hollywood based on robots going rouge, berserk and humanity fighting for survival in the physical, cyber and aerospace. Now robot scare, being described as the rise of the machines, has been hitting news headlines in recent times. Andy Haldane, Bank of England’s Chief Economist, has warned that up to 15 million jobs in Britain are at risk of being lost to an age of robots where increasingly sophisticated machines do work that that was previously the preserve of humans. According to a study undertaken by the Bank, administrative, clerical and production tasks were most at threat, even as automation posed a risk to almost half those employed in the UK, and that a “third machine age” would hollow out the labour market, widening the gap between rich and poor. Interestingly while addressing Britain’s Trade Union Congress, he wondered if the actions of smashing machines during the Industrial Revolution had proved right two centuries later; machines have substituted not just for manual human tasks, but cognitive ones too.

But wait till you read the book ‘Rise of the Robots – Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future’ by Martin Ford published last year. The publisher warns you through Martin Ford to be prepared for a roller-coaster ride as you see what’s coming and what’s already arrived in the form of robots, advanced machines and artificial intelligence (AI). Machines write many of the stories you read online and in print. They drive cars, perform surgeries, compose symphonies and build houses. You and your fellow diners soon might be the only humans in your favorite restaurant – the cooks and servers will be robots. And that’s only if you can afford to eat there, because you might lose your job to a robot as millions already have.

Notwithstanding the above, fears of robots overtaking humanity and rendering millions of jobless needs dispassionate examination. First, if we are talking about numbers, a country like Japan whose latest census showed its population shrank nearly by one million over last five years besides having large population on the wrong side of 50 (50,000 over the age of 100 as per one report) would certainly need robots in large numbers. Perhaps that is the reason Japan is highly advanced in robotics, employing over a quarter of a million industrial robot workers. Some different types of robots include: Humanoid Entertainment Robots, Androids, Animal (four legged) Robots, Social Robots, Guard Robots, Domestic Robots, Mobility Robots, Rescue Robots, Industrial Robots, all with a range of variants. The Robotics industry is more important in Japan than any other country in the world. In the next 15 years, Japan estimates the number of robots to jump to over one million and they expect revenue for robotics to be near $70 billion by 2025.

Sure advancements in technology have ushered in a variety of robots but robots per se have been around since World War II. The idea that robots will one day take over humanity has been proliferating for long and bordering on the bizarre caught the fancy of Hollywood. So you see all types of movies with human, beings battling the machines, robots, computers and unmanned platforms going rogue and the like. But aren’t humans necessary to design, maintain, upgrade and regulate any snags that develop in these machines? Basically it is the employer who will decide whether he wants a computer or a human, who suits him / her better and what is cost effective in the long run commercially including running costs. Robots may have entered the cognitive domain but have any gone rogue, what is their cost, maintainability and employability in what large numbers? Can we really develop robots that have magical capabilities, built, marketed, sold, operated and replicated at practically negligible cost?

Practically all type of robots have their limitations. Besides, not only is development of advanced robots finance incentive, rapid advancements in technology could make models obsolete over short periods. Moreover, human override can perhaps never be eliminated altogether. You find advanced automation in merchant navy ships but the crew cannot be eliminated. The Reliance Oil Refinery in Gujarat is one of the finest examples of automation of a gigantic complex in India, but still needs humans to run it. Many examples of robot failures exist, the latest being accident of the driverless car by Google. Robots may appeal to some, but certainly would not to all. In a free market, prices will determine the eventual proportion of the market shared held by each. Concerns and scare about robots have been expressed by many in the West, especially about the unemployment robots will bring in. But history also indicates that whenever robots have appeared on the scene, humans have adjusted and carried on with new capabilities, computers, agriculture and industrial revolutions of all sorts being examples.

Never can the robots overtake humanity, even as robots assist humans to undertake future galactic travels in space to colonize other planets.

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