Ushering in the age of the robot

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am


Last month, Foxconn, the world's largest electronics manufacturer, began building the future at a Taiwan factory: 300,000 robots.

By the end of next year, the Taiwan-based company, which has been dogged by workforce troubles, including a spate of suicides at its sprawling Shenzhen complex, hopes to have the army of mechanised workers helping to assemble its much-coveted line of consumer electronics, which include Apple's iPhone and iPad.

In three years, Foxconn expects its automated legions to number one million, rivalling its current human workforce of 1.2 million and doubling the world's current population of industrial robots.

While robots have been on the factory floor for decades, some see Foxconn's huge mechanisation push as part of a fundamental shift.

In the short term, that change could have big implications for humanity and developing economies, like China's, dependent on the world's insatiable demand for manufacturing jobs. In the long term, it could affect all of humanity.

In short, the age of the robot may finally be upon us.

It is a change people in the robotics world have been predicting for years, as engineers design increasingly nimble and intelligent robots able to replace their human counterparts. Robots are cheaper, more productive and - at least so far - not known for bouts of worker unrest.

'As technology continues to improve, this [use of robots] will apply to more and more types of tasks,' said Dr Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of the e-book Race Against the Machine.

Brynjolfsson said robotisation comes first to jobs that can be automated easily - factory jobs, like Foxconn's - but will eventually spread to other information-processing and clerical jobs.

He admits that Asia, with its plethora of foreign-sponsored manufacturing jobs, will likely feel the changes first.

As labour gets cheaper with automation, Brynjolfsson predicts Western companies will return to their home countries to move products closer to their consumers, re-shoring instead of off-shoring.

But for Brynjolfsson, the prospect of robot job take-overs should not be a cause for panic.

'Right now, computers are not good at replacing human qualities like empathy and very creative tasks, like what entrepreneurs, artists, high-level managers and scientists do,' Brynjolfsson said. 'These are some of the limits of machines.'

Nonetheless, he said, human workers need to find other types of jobs where they can create more value than machines. That is really nothing new. Humans have adapted to upheavals in the job market all through history.

Many people might seek more education to avoid the change, but, Brynjolfsson said, finding another realm of work that involves complex physical actions is also good.

Things like hair-cutting, repair tasks, salesmanship, gardening and nursing might not seem 'highly skilled', but require interpersonal communication and physically dextrous skills that are harder to automate.

Others believe even those jobs might not be safe in the future. Engineers are making strides producing robots that convey human 'emotions', like empathy, and can help care for the for the elderly and ill.

Still, Brynjolfsson says he believes in entrepreneurs, who will work to combine technology and labour. He cites the case of Henry Ford, who pioneered the modern assembly line, a mechanised process that helped create the modern auto industry.

After all, humans have for generations fretted about being replaced by machines. Our fears have only been science fiction, right?

Michael Vassar sees a darker future.

As president of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, a global organisation that has since 2004 focused on the future of humanity as it relates to artificial intelligence, Vassar notes that unemployment did indeed rise during the industrial revolution.

That is, if you look it from the point of view of the horse. While people were not put out of their jobs by machines, most horses, whose work was purely physical, were.

This time, he fears, humans could suffer a similar fate.

Jaan Tallin is also wary of the rise of robots and artificial intelligence.

The Skype and Kazaa co-founder has been travelling the world for two years talking to AI experts and philosophers. As a computer programmer, he fears his peers have been too blind in creating new technology.

To him, losing jobs to robots is inevitable. 'Unemployment will only go up from now on,' he once said. But what is more concerning to him is what may happen when we create a robot as smart - or probably smarter - than humans.

Given the current rate of technological progress - compare the evolution of the eye over millions of years to the advent of digital cameras over several decades - such a future is not so improbable. Tallin thinks it may happen some time in the next few decades.

At that point, machines can start designing machines and, Tallin believes, humans will be in the same endangered state gorillas are in right now.

'Humans are not actively hostile towards gorillas,' he said. 'But because of humans, the gorilla's habitat is being destroyed. They have no control of their futures.'

One of the biggest pitfalls of artificial intelligence, Tallin said, is thinking of robots as humans, expecting them to act like humans and do what would be best for humanity according to the rules of evolution, which robots do not abide by.

And it would be hard to make specific enough rules. In Isaac Asimov's science fiction tale from 1943, Runaround, one of the laws for robots is, 'A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.'

'But if robots really wanted humans not to harm each other, wouldn't it be easier to just sedate them?' Tallin said.

Reposed in a floral shirt on a recent visit to Hong Kong, however, the future is not all scary to him. He simply advocates precautionary principles.

The solution, he says, is to be cautious about artificial intelligence, to get people to think about how to create better robots. Maybe then we can make robots that operate solely on human principles - something called 'friendly AI'.

Tallin has always been a forward thinker. 'We have to formulate in terms of thinking about future societies, what they would have liked to have done,' he said.

Something Tallin and Brynjolfsson and others agree on is that, in the nearer future, robots will make things much cheaper and more affordable. People will be working less.

But what will happen in the mean-time? At least in the short run, according to Brynjolfsson, instead of everyone working less, there will simply be more people unemployed while the rest of us work as hard as before. Tallin thinks society, which has been organised around work for centuries, will have to change.

Marshall Brain, who is the founder of and author of the e-book Robotic Nation, said, 'The only solution is for human beings, as a society, to recognise and acknowledge that this is happening and to then take steps that address the steps in a humane way.'

He suggests a kind of 'central bank' where people instead of governments are paid evenly divided stipends for public goods, such as natural resources, to then spend on products - presumably made by robots - in turn stimulating the economy.

'What will be required is a coming together of government, industry and the populace to create a new way of thinking about the economy,' Brain said.

At least for now, coming up with this new way of thinking is up to us humans.


Industrial robots currently deployed worldwide, according to the International Federation of Robotics