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It’s time to start preparing for the robots

This column periodically takes a look at the future of different industries. Over the past year or so we have peered at what lies ahead for the car and taxi industry, television, banking and insurance, amongst others.

For the next two weeks, let’s consider an industry that’s going to play a considerable role in all our lives in the next decade: robotics.

Futurist Brett King (in his book, Augmented) estimates that by the early 2030s the population of robots on earth my exceed that of human beings. Before you jump out of your seat in fear, please note that he is not referring to those sinister humanoids and androids you’ve seen menacing humanity in sci-fi movies. The robotics industry covers the spectrum of self-directing devices, from industrial robots to home companions to digital assistants to autonomous vehicles. You’d better get used to all those things. They’re going to be all around you.

I write a weekly newsletter that focuses mostly on the future of technology-centred business. In recent months I have covered the following: a robot in a pill that you swallow; a self-flying taxi drone; a robot suitcase that carries your stuff and follows you around; a robot home chef; a robot that shoots baskets; a robot that does micro-surgery; a robot that delivers your pizza; a robot that greets your visitors.

Here’s the thing, though: none of those are coming sometime in the future; those are all robots that are already here. They’re being tested or rolled out somewhere in the world. If you take a look at the number of industries and activities affected by just that list, you will see that we all need to pay attention to this phenomenon.

To understand why the march of robots will be inexorable, consider the factors driving the industry: demand and supply. On the demand side, there are countries like Japan, where a have a third of the people will be aged 65 or older in just a few years. It simply does not have enough young people to do the work of its huge economy. That includes those who will care for the rapidly ageing population. So who is currently the world leader in robotics? You guessed it: Japan. Indeed, some senior executives at Toyota think the legendary automaker’s future lies more in domestic robots than in vehicles.

Japan may have the most severe ageing problem, but most mature economies will be in a similar predicament in the years to come. In the past five decades, mass migration has been one of the solutions to labour shortages, but the current global backlash against immigrants shows the limitations of human beings’ capacity to integrate with those from other cultures and religions. That adds further fuel to the demand for robots. And don’t forget that much of the work currently done by humans is simply too dangerous, too unpleasant or too arduous to be sustained. You can expect the future of warfare, policing, cleaning, serving, driving, exploration, mining, manufacturing and building to be heavily centred on robotics and automation.

Consider now the supply side. When you replace a human worker with a robot, you have changed the cost game: you move from heavy operating expenditure (human salaries and benefits) to capital expenditure with little maintenance cost thereafter. An industrial robot might cost $25,000 to buy today, but that cost will come down rapidly once the robotics industry scales up. And remember, robots don’t get a salary; they don’t need leave; they don’t have personal issues; they don’t cause office politics.

So whether or not you are comfortable with the idea of robots around you, you can bet that shareholders and senior executives are going to drive them through regardless. It will simply stop making economic sense to use a human to do any work that is repetitive, or involves heavy lifting or danger. Another futurist, Alec Ross (in his comprehensive study The Industries of the Future) points out the phenomenon of cloud robotics: when you connect a robot to the internet, you give it massive learning power. So even jobs that rely on the cognitive function are at risk from networked robots applying artificial intelligence to big data as they work.

As you read this, I trust you are becoming uncomfortably aware of the consequences of widespread robotics. What will become of those who supply cheap human labour? Will we accept humanoids in our everyday lives? Which nations will benefit, and which may suffer? What will all the human employees who are no longer needed do with themselves?

See you here next week.

(Sunday Nation, 2 April 2017)

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