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02 December 2014

Help! A robot is going to steal my job

The 2012 Swedish television series Äkta människor (aired in English-speaking countries as Real Humans) shows how society has to adapt after the arrival of commercial robots. In the series the hubots (HUman roBOTS) are programmed for tasks like warehouse assistants or maintenance mechanics. Some people in the story embrace technology, while others exhibit a serious aversion and are afraid that the hubots will evolve, so that humanity will be superseded.

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Do you recognise this? Robots are taking our jobs! This is a fear of many people when tasks are automated. It already sounds very different when we suggest that robots are being deployed to help people by taking over specific tasks. That the advancing technology will produce robots is inescapable, but how will we deal with the robotisation of society?

Tools

People have always used tools to achieve specific objectives. A spear for hunting, a calculator to perform complex mathematics and a steam locomotive to transport goods or people to distant destinations. In so doing, people have always maintained the tempo of the technology: at the moment that something is made possible technologically, they consider what practical applications there could be.

In 1999 Sony unveiled the AIBO, the first robot dog for consumers. This robot dog could move reasonably fluidly, knew all sorts of tricks and expressed emotions. It was unique because the robot picked up signals and could act on them: interacting with the surroundings. But what if this toy technology evolves into an advanced device which can help people? It’s already possible to use a vacuuming robot to clean the floor, but what are the possibilities if such robots could also take over more complex tasks, like repairing an installation?

Communicating

It becomes both exciting and interesting when robots can communicate with us, and decide for themselves how to act based on signals. Utopia? For now, certainly, but experiments are already underway. That there are already social robots which can help overweight people is apparent from research being done by the University of Massachusetts. One prediction is that machines which surpass human intelligence will evolve within 15 years. Raymond Kurzweil, head of development at Google, predicts that everything we now consider to be magic will be possible in a humans-and-machines civilisation.

For my part I don’t think that people can be superseded: emotion, behaviour and creativity are unique human characteristics which cannot be captured in a model. Deploying robots to assist us in performing complex tasks is however coming steadily closer. Consider for example a maintenance mechanic who is working in a hazardous situation. When a robot can do that, the human mechanic can coordinate the operation from a distance, and man and the robot can agree on the best solution. Then the deployment of technology is extremely practical.

The next step

The arrival of the robot is the next step in evolution. Is that dreadful? I don’t think so. If robots are deployed to do our work, that means we will then need to work less ourselves. The first robots for inspections, cleaning and maintenance already exist. Productivity is being set up differently, so that the value of work will be different and people will gain more freedom to develop other activities.

But some activities simply cannot be taken over by a robot. So will we eventually be superseded? Probably not. Don’t then regard the robot as an enemy, but more as a friend. At least to a certain degree, because I can’t imagine it’s fun to share a beer with a robot in the bar.

Nico van Dijk
Product Manager Asset & Maintenance Management