The robots are coming: friends or foes?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Barbican, London

Co-producer & debate chair. Has the march of the robots, which has been declared numerous times before, been greatly exaggerated?

There has been renewed excitement recently in the potential of robots, from automated machines including driverless cars to the potential of miniature robots to help diagnose and fight disease. Japanese firm Softbank has even developed a robot that can respond to human expressions and voice tones thanks to an ‘emotional engine’. Fuelled by competing investment and advances in miniaturisation techniques, networking technology and control systems, companies are fighting each other to claim the lead in both military and civilian uses. Some forecasts suggest that by 2025, the robots could render a quarter of jobs in manufacturing, construction and other similar areas redundant. Moreover, with Japan last year unveiling a ‘robot astronaut’ to assist the crew on the International Space Station, robots may soon start replacing even highly skilled human ‘knowledge workers’.

Yet while this technological resurgence has certainly captured our imaginations, some leading economists have voiced fears over robots’ disruptive impact on a fragile economy. It is feared that their rise, coinciding with increasing income inequality, could potentially have social effects similar to those of the original Industrial Revolution: Paul Krugman has declared ‘sympathy for the Luddites’. More optimistic observers counter that if Western economies are able to undertake the necessary restructuring to bring the robot age to life, they should prove capable of adapting to the needs of the workforce. Yet others are more sceptical about robots’ ability to impact the ‘productivity puzzle’ surrounding many Western economies. Indeed, some suggest that the puzzle extends to the development of the robots themselves: for all the hype, some argue, the march of the robots has been remarkably slow.

Will the ‘second machine age’ bring forth a new era of potential liberation from menial toil or will the short-term costs for low-paid workers outstrip the benefits? Does the contemporary debate simply reflecting some of the costs involved in technological progress, or is it evading some of the underlying economic and social issues? Has the march of the robots, which has been declared numerous times before, been greatly exaggerated?