Last week (30 May), Maria appeared on Newsnight to discuss how robots will affect the future of military warfare. However, robots are also coming to the work place and it's a question of when this will come about, not if. Progress towards this has been going on since the beginning of mankind. Around 400,000 years ago, human beings - whose muscular strength was nowhere near that of other predators like lions and tigers - started asking the question: “Is there a better way to hunt?”. They started to throw spikes at their prey, and their brains began to assign new affordances to the things they saw around them. The value of a stick, a sharp piece of stone, a vine, and so on, changed right in front of them. Soon, the human brain saw how to combine these raw materials into the first kind of weapon – the spear – that would help this weak animal to emerge victorious among other seemingly unbeatable predators.
Since these early times, an unbroken string of innovations has driven the labour market into branches that could never have been imagined. Every new technological development has destroyed jobs while creating others, forcing society to adapt and respond and ultimately benefit from the new opportunities. This is what we face now: first the fear of change, then the embracing of it, leading to a new and improved way of life.
Technological developments move fast, and if the trend continues, it won’t be long before humans and robots are working side by side in home, field, and factory environments. Our society has to be prepared. Instead of fearing the loss of jobs and the mechanisation of our lives, we have to learn how to make advanced robotics work for our society. We will need systems of legal accountability, ethical frameworks and protocols for the deployment of robots and - above all - education about the potential and limitations of robotic systems.
We must invest in broad-based education, in order to prepare our future generations for jobs that demand advanced engineering and cognitive skills, as well as the skills required to help build the new social frameworks. Already the UK is behind in Europe, Asia, and the US, in its investment and development of robotic technology. And yet, the UK is home to some of the world-leading research and development groups working on the mechanisms and reasoning capabilities of future robots. We must be able to manufacture, deploy and profit from our future robots ourselves, not rely on importing the machines and the expertise from China and Taiwan while we remain as passive consumers letting the technological revolution pass us by.
We, the researchers in robotics, dream of a future in which people will be able to profit from their time while the robosapiens are busy cleaning up the mess we have made over the last decades: by building a cleaner infrastructure and operating on our behalf in our factories and warehouses. The major challenge we face is how to change our society to achieve these positive benefits for all.
The Work Foundation 2013 Annual Debate 'Will robots and enhanced humans steal our jobs?' is on 11 June. Follow the debate on twitter #stealingourjobs
All blog posts for this author