I’ve written quite a bit in the past on the broad implications of robotics and automation, and as I look ahead to 2015, I believe that the age of robotics and automation will gain steam in earnest in 2015. For one thing, the various technologies involved are advancing steadily, as they have for decades, but what I believe has really changed in the past two years or so is the variety of the environments to which robotics and automation may be applied. From social robots to household robots to digital work bots, in developed “first-world” societies at least, there are so many new places where the technology will fit. And applications will continue to emerge at an accelerating pace.
To explain a bit, here’s what I think is happening: first of all, our social and economic lives have slowly changed over the past decade. Again, by this I refer primarily to developed, Western-style societies. Several trends have come together: 1) the pervasive role of the internet and digital technology in all phases of life; 2) widespread standardization of processes and protocols in all phases of life; 3) transformation of personal identity, family structures, and human inter-relationships; and 4) aging populations and flat or declining population growth in most developed societies.
Because of trends 1 and 2, it is easier to automate work and other parts of our shared collective existence. The technologies of automation just fit right in, because so much is now digital and standardized. Automation and robotics no longer just involve large industrial machines and processes, which have been standardized for a century, but now also so much else — tax returns, investing, personal schedules, warfare, and more.
When you think of more automation, it’s natural to think of fewer jobs. Yet, world population is increasing. Here’s a view of the recent UN population forecast:
The concerns I share with so many others lie in this socially disruptive power of robotics and automation. It’s clear that, in several possible future scenarios, widespread automation may render millions of human beings economically irrelevant, triggering socio-political pressures that aren’t too difficult to image — widespread poverty, riots, revolutions, or possibly more benign outcomes like the rise of large-scale national welfare programs that provide security for the structurally disenfranchised.
Fewer jobs for more and more people, it feels scary.
Yet, as mentioned in trend 4 above, population increases are not distributed evenly across the world. Check this out:
Africa is the red line. Populations in Asia, Europe, North America and South America are largely flat or declining. Yet, these are the economies that are (slowly now, at least) growing over time.
Growing economies, flat or declining populations. Who will do all the work? Will the developed economies open their borders to the swelling populations of sub-Saharan Africa? Maybe some, but labor hasn’t been very mobile in the world in the past. If there is no massive global change of heart in immigration policies, machines and machine-like things will have to fill the people gaps in growing economies with flat or declining populations.
I say people gaps above for a reason. This is where trend 3 above comes in. Robotics and automation are not just about work and employment any more. As our developed societies have become more comfortable with technology, and conceptions of identity and social interaction have become more technologically informed, we’re going to welcome more technological entities to fill the people gaps. We’re going to eventually welcome robot friends, robot colleagues, robot teachers, even perhaps robot lovers.
And we will feel good about it all, eventually, because robots and automation will fill needs. But what about all the jobs lost, all the people unemployed? Well, yes, it’s a concern, and I don’t know how it will be solved, and I think we will need to prepare for it, individually and collectively. But my thinking is shifting a bit now in the direction that it won’t be as bad or as permanent as some think. The population trends could very well smooth out the stress for the developed world. (African population, on the other hand, is a concern that should occupy more world leaders more often.)
So in the end, I think that if these trends play out, despite our trepidation about human unemployment, we may very well welcome the Robot Age that I believe will build momentum in 2015 and beyond.