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Are machines really taking over the world?

Posted by Salla Savolainen on 2nd July 2014

Reading technology news these days you’d be forgiven for thinking that the world is being plunged into a sci-fi movie, of the I, Robot variety (for those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s set in 2035 when robots are in every household and assist people with their daily tasks, and most things have become machine-operated, such as cars and home appliances).

Despite us still being in 2014, robots are becoming more and more common, especially in the workplace, with the International Federation of Robotics announcing that last year the global sale of industrial robots hit an all-time high of 179,000.

This has really been a big year for robotics, with the first ever robot passing the Turing test; ‘Eugene Goostman’ convinced judges for a third of the time that rather than being an automated machine, he was a young Ukrainian teen. Japan’s SoftBank Corporation also created a robot, Pepper, capable of reading human emotions and making what they call ‘independent decisions’ and similarly, ‘Bob’ is an office robot who patrols checking for anomalies and making a report of them. Automated technology is causing quite a stir in several fields and state departments, as the possibilities for its implementation are as of yet, unlimited.

What does this mean for the workforce?

Robots are likely to replace even more jobs as they become skilled in cognitive functions, and can mimic human dexterity. Automated machines are already being used in various functions, especially in car manufacturing, camera systems and on numerous production lines.

While certain jobs (such as dentists, sports trainers, therapists, actors, social workers, and most obviously, clergy) are quite safe, an increasing number of occupations are at risk of disappearing as automated technology becomes more advanced. Jobs in telemarketing, retail sales, accountancy and real estate are among those at highest risk of being replaced.

Some researchers argue that the increasing use of robots will not only improve living standards and assist people in their day-to-day tasks, but also help create jobs in the maintenance of these machines and elsewhere. However, it’s undeniable that several professions will become automated, resulting in a loss of livelihood for many people.

With unemployment rates still precariously high in so many countries, replacing workers with robots could have disastrous consequences for the population. It’s also a slightly scary thought, giving machines so much autonomy – but perhaps that’s just a Western paranoia, a result of too many highly imaginative sci-fi films. Transformers, anyone?

Professional opinions

Minoru Asada, currently head of cognitive neuroscience robotics (suddenly regretting my boring business degree) at Osaka University is more positive about the future of robotics and their role in the workplace, saying “I see robots as a kind of partner or friend of people”. Contrastingly, co-founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, shares the concern that automated technology could result in a loss of jobs, claiming “technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of [the] skill set”. This echoes the opinion of Google chairman, Eric Schmidt, who earlier this year claimed that more workers were at risk of losing their jobs to automated machines, insisting, “It’s a race between people and computers – and people need to win”.

Academics and researchers seem to be divided on the issue of just how the advances in automated technology will impact employment. The general consensus appears to be that the jobs requiring advanced detection skills (such as dentistry) or which are based on human interaction (therapy, social services) are more or less safe from robot takeovers as these require skills that surpass the capabilities of modern technology.

Automated technology is being used in everything from driverless cars to postal services and robot carers, and it will be interesting to see how governments coordinate the implementation of industrial machines with a growing workforce.

‘Intelligent’ machines represent a whole new world of possibilities, but at what cost?

photo credit: onosendai2600

Salla Savolainen