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In an era in which pop culture offers a dystopian vision of intelligent machines controlling us, it’s hard to know whether to embrace artificial intelligence or to fear it. Our most recent series explores the robot economy: from developments in driverless car technology to a recent investment boom in robotics, to a peek into a factory where robots and humans work side-by-side. Below the line, FT readers eloquently broke down their reasons to both embrace the future with open arms, and to run wailing in the opposite direction.
You talk, we listen. Here are your thoughts.
On embracing a robotic future
I visited some of the robots in my grandparents’ old house a few years ago. Saw a washing machine from the 1940s that displaced a couple of laundresses. Saw their old Plymouth that cost some horses their jobs.
Today, when I cook my family dinner, as I pull food from the fridge and turn on the stove, I’ll spare a thought for the ice men and the fire tenders no longer needed.
Please say hello to your former typesetters, printers and delivery men.
Machines can already replace 70-75% of all work as of today. Most people have meaningless jobs just to bring home a salary. Don’t you agree we are wasting the potential of the whole human race? Imagine a world where most boring meaningless jobs are carried out by robots: we could spend more time doing useful things, and have a lot more free time to spend with our loved ones. Can’t be that bad!
Robots do not worry me. Fellow Man: friend or foe?
In the 1960s the computer market took off when IBM produced a generalised operating system (OS/360) and a series of hardware platforms that enabled the development of applications that could be scaled to the workload at hand. It would seem a generalised robotics operating system/environment could enable others to focus on sensor, application, and learning applications development, reducing the time to market for a wide range of robotic solutions by enabling groups to focus on the application side.
On the underlying risks
The real tipping point is 20 years away when robotics meets bio-engineering and nanotechnology. Then living organisms will be self-programmable, self-building organic androids, part-human part-machine. Human parts will be built and improved - who wouldn’t want a bullet-proof heart or a brain with double power or legs that never tire and are twice as strong? (Note: the military!) In fact, we are slowly building a basis for super beings, an amalgam of human and machine that has long been dreamt of by sci-fi writers.
The real questions are whether humans as we are now will become redundant, or whether we will split into two races: the human and the super- engineered human (those who can afford it!). Babes in arms now may be the last generation of unadulterated humans!
We will watch an infinite series of Game of Thrones while a tube is inserted into our stomachs to both feed and drain us of organic fluids. Meanwhile the robots, now bored with making our world for us, will have settled into their own sofas to also watch endless series on Netflix. The end of sentient life on Earth effectively culminates with both humans and AI merging with our sofas, watching TV and tweeting to each other over whether certain characters are dead or not. What’s not to like?
On the low end of the automation scale, we have the push for $15 an hour by restaurant employees. This is beginning to result in a push to automate these jobs, which will adversely affect the low wage workers.
I have been in several places where small kiosks are on each table. You can view the menu and place an order. The manager said that eventually you will pay at the kiosk with a credit card or smartphone, and that he will eventually cut his staff by 50-75% Most of the displaced that are not students working part-time don’t have these skills to do anything else.
I think robots will be an inescapable tragedy for many. It will be friend for many rich people and the elderly, neutral for assembly-line workers who will appreciate a co-bot at times, and devastating for the poor and those outside of the digital world, like lots of Africa.
My 17-year-old son wants to become an architect or city planner of some sort. I asked him, “Do you think your future profession already exists?”
Thoughts on driverless cars
The following comments all come from the story Driverless Cars: when robots rule the road by Tim Bradshaw.
I want a driverless car. For the first two journeys I’ll be in the front seat, awake, watching, alert, sober, not reading a book, not being distracted by children, and amazed. Journeys 3+ will be the reason for owning a self-driving car.
Meanwhile, Google, having amassed multiple human lifetimes of driving, has had one tiny-speed paint-scratcher in which exactly nobody got hurt. A great driving record.
One further aspect and problem of the driverless car, not mentioned in the article, originates in the nature of accident insurance. When I cause an accident while driving, my liability insurance pays. When an automatically driven car gets involved in an accident, it is the car manufacturer who will be liable. His “deep pockets” will be a fascinating source of income for large lawfirms and their class action suits. In reaction, the carmakers will develop systems that cannot be at fault, with unthought-of consequences for the functioning of the system. An indicator of this can be seen in the new park-warners in my car: they are so inefficient that I park again better by myself.
In the UK in 2015, there were nearly 2000 deaths, 23,000 serious injuries and 200,000 injuries on the roads. Those numbers will include some of you, your relatives or friends.
The promise of driverless cars is that they will eventually reduce the injury and death toll on the roads.