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The Reality of Robots

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Sony Creative Software Inc.

It was big news this week when the world champion of Chinese strategy game ‘Go’ was defeated by an Artificial Intelligence computer opponent. It came as such a surprise mainly because in order to prevail the computer must be capable of human like intuition. In Go each player typically has a choice of 200 moves compared with about 20 in chess. Therefore, it can be very difficult to determine who is winning and many of the top human players rely on instinct and reading the body language of opponents.

This defeat to a robot serves as a hard reminder that we are fast approaching a time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task. The University of Oxford has estimated that 47% of US jobs could be automated within the next 20 years – and it isn’t just routine or repetitive jobs that can be done by computers, algorithms, machines and robots. More ‘human’ jobs like lawyers, teachers, journalists and receptionists are under threat too.

Experts have said we are on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution, so is it time to start worrying? A poll of 2000 Americans conducted last year found that 65% Americans do believe that robots/software will definitely or probably be capable of doing much of the work that humans do now within 50 years time. Yet when it comes to considering the threat their own jobs are under 80% of those polled are convinced their profession will remain largely unchanged and will still exist 50 years from now. A mere 6% thought that their role will definitely not exist. Those who worked in education, government and the nonprofit sector were most skeptical that their jobs would be replaced.

There is no doubt that the power of technology will transform human employment. Robots will take away manual tasks from error-prone humans and employers won’t have the same productivity and retention issues with robots as they experience with humans. Over time human labour will become obsolete so the challenge we face at present is understanding what role mankind will have during and after the transition. If the jobscape is going to change so drastically how will the human race fill all the extra downtime? It has been estimated that unemployment could be as high as 50%. Many would argue  that work is essential to human well-being and gives meaning to life, so what will humans do instead of work that will be rewarding and fulfilling?

Critics have suggested that the economy has adapted in the past, and can do so again. Take the example of farming; in the 1800s 80% of the US labour force worked on farms – today it’s only 2%. Mechanisation made the economy better off and people transitioned into jobs in other areas. Skeptics argue this will be the case with robots. More recently the rise of technologies has created completely new industries; the internet and ecommerce for instance.

We already have the capabilities to substitute bartenders, prison guards, pharmacists, receptionists, taxi drivers and more with robots and Google have just won a patent to start building worker robots with individual personalities. The robotic revolution is well underway – now we just have to figure out how it will aid rather than impede mankind – and we must do so sooner rather than later.

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