Am I too dumb to be a droid? Part one
Authors: Geoff Mulgan
Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive, NESTA
10 June 2013
My son (who’s six and knows about these things) says that I’m too dumb to be a droid. It’s true that I may soon be put out to grass, replaced by an infinity of smart machines. But for now it’s me writing this piece and not a computer. And what I want to say isn’t all that encouraging for the droids.
Unlike many, I generally welcome the advance of robots. Indeed I'm frustrated they've taken so long to move from sci-fi imagination to daily reality. Replacing dull, monotonous work is good. Most of what robots do well is what humans do out of grim necessity not love: easily definable, repetitive and precise tasks. Against expectations though, the great majority of jobs still look pretty resistant to automation. In time, robots may become good at everything from changing children's nappies to providing counselling, and I'd quite like there to be a robot that could clean my house. But sadly that still looks a long way off.
That's a surprise. All my life robots have been about to take our jobs. This was the message from Isaac Asimov in the 1950s, and hoards of both optimists (like Marvin Minsky) and doom-mongers (like Jeremy Rifkin) from the 1960s onwards. A generation later, the argument moved on, and since at least the 1980s, it's been forecast that, having done away with millions of blue collar jobs, robots were now ready to demolish white collar jobs too.
20 years ago, when I ran the think-tank Demos, I published a pamphlet on the imminent demise of lawyers, accountants and other professions who would be replaced by smart algorithms. I'm afraid to say that that prediction sits alongside my forecasts of revolution in Saudi Arabia and mail order clones. Most of the occupations that should have been wiped out have grown in numbers during this period. Oddly too, during the forty years since most futurologists predicted the end of jobs and the end of work, employment rates have tended to rise rather than fall (albeit with a significant shift away from men and towards women). This is not to say that there hasn't been a lot of automation, from car factories to Amazon warehouses. But on a global scale, the big story of the last few decades was the shift of production to Asia and that was less a shift from labour to capital and machines, and more a shift from expensive to cheaper labour.
Today, most futurologists sound identical to their forebears. They repeat the forecasts of a few decades ago, warning that hundreds of millions of jobs will disappear. The picture they paint (again, not unlike their predecessors) is one in which factories turn into sprawling complexes covered with robot swarms. Offices will hum with machines but no excited chatter at the coffee machines. Our cities will be dominated by driverless cars, and the frail elderly will remain at home waited on by robotic carers.
Much of what robots do - sensors, smart limbs, analytic capacity and memory - will be disaggregated. But a few decades later than promised, some machines will bring these capacities together, and look at least a bit more like the robots of public imagination. As that happens, we'll have to learn new rules and protocols - how to talk to your driverless car, your Servbot, your Carebot and your home (and as Jaron Lanier points out we may have to dumb ourselves down to use them well). To that extent the technological determinists will be right - society will have to respond to the new technologies (for more on this see Nesta’s upcoming Hot Topics event on Emotional Machines).
Find out how Geoff thinks society will respond to new technologies in part two of his blog.
The Work Foundation 2013 Annual Debate 'Will robots and enhanced humans steal our jobs?' will be held on 11th June. Join the debate on Twitter #stealingourjobs.
This article was originally published at Nesta.
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