Robots ‘R Us (?)


In the field of robotics, as in so many other areas of life, science fiction writers saw the future decades before the rest of us; they warned that androids were coming and the relationship would not always be easy.

Recently, I’ve seen adds on the cable channels by legal firms inviting the “thousands of victims” of botched robot surgery to join class actions suits (go to  Ironically, the same Google search that brought up the lawsuit page also showed adds for robotic prostate surgery, which is not the time you want your robots going rogue!

Practicing medicine without proper training isn’t all the dastardly droids have been up to.  In an article called, When the future comes, what are we going to do with it?, blogger Orkinpod looks at how robots eliminate manufacturing jobs.

As an Apple geek, I was dismayed last year to hear stories of mistreated workers at Foxconn, the mammoth Taiwanese contractor that assembles iPads and iPhones.  Apple hired independent auditors to investigate, and Foxconn agreed to clean up its act, but that was not their only decision.  According to links in Orkinpod’s post, Foxconn is stepping up plans, announced in 2011, to deploy a million robots across their assembly lines.  They are much less inconvenient than humans.

If the sheer size of this transition is hard to grasp, the trend itself isn’t news.  Industry experts have already warned us not to get too excited about Apple’s move to bring mac production back to the states.  The process is now so automated that the number of new jobs will be far less than hoped for.

All this prompts Orkinpod to pose a question I haven’t heard anyone ask before:  “When the future arrives (and I believe that it is very, very close), and machines can supply all the things that humans could possibly ever want, what is everybody going to do?”  

That’s a question I’ve been thinking about since I read his post, and it generates many other questions centering on the value of work.  Even excluding the jobs that are dangerous or abusive, no work situation is perfect.  Everyone wants more respect or money or benefits than they currently get, but if we’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that being out of work is usually worse than being badly employed or under employed.  Aside from the money, work lies close to the core of self-esteem and meaning in our lives.  Even if we are working on the great American novel at night, as an artist I admire once said, “You’ve got to do something during the day.”

Even where there are safety nets, ever larger numbers of people displaced by technology is an issue I don’t think any nation has started to address.  In December, I discussed a report by the National Intelligence Council called Global Trends 2030:  Alternative Worlds. The report’s most definite conclusion was that the next 18 years will usher in more rapid change than anyone living has ever seen.  Summing up the findings, NIC Chairman, Christopher Kojm said:

“We are at a critical juncture in human history, which could lead to widely contrasting futures. It is our contention that the future is not set in stone, but is malleable, the result of an interplay among megatrends, game-changers and, above all, human agency. Our effort is to encourage decision makers—whether in government or outside—to think and plan for the long term so that negative futures do not occur and positive ones have a better chance of unfolding.”

I recommend Orkinpod’s post, which asks important questions “for the long term, so that negative futures do not occur and positive ones have a better chance of unfolding.”


4 thoughts on “Robots ‘R Us (?)

  1. If they could just teach robots to dust. (sigh) I agree that the importance to work as part of our overall well-being is something that really needs to be considered when building the machines of the future. I stuggle with that as a retiree. I keep taking on more and more — volunteering at the grandkids school, taking on a Home & Hospital student, etc. — trying to find a way to alleviate my guilt at being retired. It’s a conundrum.


    • What I didn’t fully grasp before I retired was how much work is a key external validation. Even on days when I accomplished nothing or took two steps back, if I showed up, I’d “done my duty.” Now I’m doing more of what I cared about then, what I consider valuable, but without that objective measure, I have to be mindful in order to deal with the inner critical voices sometimes saying it’s not enough.

      What are we now, six-billion people, heading for seven? I can’t think of many happy outcomes if more and more people have no economic raison d’être. One thing I thought about but didn’t mention in the post was how drones even have the potential of throwing soldiers out of work. (Let alone our seeming delusion that we can keep the technology to ourselves – like atomic weapons, right?)


  2. And though they’re not with us, yet, there are also nanorobots / nanobots promised in the coming years. According to the great oracle Wikipedia, “bankers are also strategically investing with the intent to acquire beforehand rights and royalties on future nanorobots commercialization”. At least the bankers won’t be out of a job when bots take over the world.


    • Your comment reminded me of something I heard from a venture capitalist who contributed seed money to Amazon before it launched. Set for life as he is, he was also strongly in favor of progressive measures to help the middle class, and he put his argument in pragmatic as well as humanitarian terms.

      He said “We could have started Amazon in Kenya with the same business plan, and it wouldn’t have gone anywhere. Think about it. Amazon depends on millions of people with the money, time, and education to want to buy books.”

      In the end, if the ship goes down, I think the bankers will just find themselves on the upper decks of Titanic…


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