When you think of Artificial Intelligence, it’s likely the first image to pop up in your head may be that of a talking machine, giving mechanical replies to instructions. If this is true for you, please understand that the current face of AI actually looks a lot like your face and mine. They are known as ‘humanoid robotics’ and even though they were originally designed for research purposes; they are being programmed today to carry out different tasks and jobs formerly exclusive to humans.
For a little background here, a humanoid robot is a robot with its overall body appearance modeled after the human body. Sophia, the world’s most advanced humanoid robot has already been fully developed by Hong Kong based engineering and robotics company, Hanson Robotics. Activated in February 2016, Sophia made her first public appearance in mid-March in Texas, that same year. Sophia has been wired with the capability to display more than sixty facial expressions. She is also the first robot to be granted citizenship (by Saudi Arabia). She runs a twitter account and has shared her plans to be the first non-human to conquer Mount Everest. Interesting isn’t it?
The key thing here is not just the technology that these robots possess. Rather, they possess these technologies and look very human. Thus they can effectively replace humans. Two of the most potent arguments for the development of humanoid robots is that of efficiency and sustainability. As far as replacing human labour goes, humanoid robots can help us to manage and recycle resources better.
In recycling, the best advances have been the development of AI powered robots. Their sensors are designed to precisely detect the type of plastic used in various types of manufacturing thus saving us a whole lot of time in plastic recycling. Humanoid robots may mean that these efficiencies can start in homes and restaurants (remember they look human) at the point of sorting.
Humanoid robots may also help reduce waste during industrial and agricultural production. With a built-in ability to handle very small components, they can make it feasible to repair or upgrade little gadgets and devices that are currently discarded. While not a humanoid robot (yet) Soft Robots advanced technologies can maneuver through gaps less than two centimeters high and they can handle foods and advanced manufacturing of other products fragile in nature.
They may also assist in monitoring issues such as water contamination, and other environmental issues to improve public health. Humanoid robots can do jobs humans would rather avoid if given a choice and they can be programmed to do these jobs much more reliably. Humanoid robots can free laborers from dangerous and risky tasks, and if that isn’t enough, social robots like Pepper can relieve us of unnecessary routines, improve productivity levels and help free up time.
There are pros, but there are also cons
These robots will undeniably alter the face of the workforce as we know it, and arguing otherwise is pointless. They will make the ‘machine’ aspect of production more efficient, which could lead to increased productivity growth and perhaps a corresponding economic boost.
However the development of humanoid robots like Sophia has been received with mixed feelings. Some people like robot designer David Hanson believe in the ability of these machines to continually evolve, become more intelligent and help solve the world’s most challenging problems.
Then there are others who are worried that in this race to codify intelligence, we might some day code our world into oblivion. As sci-fi films such as I, Robot depict in its doomsday theory of an evil AI, humans may realize too late that the humanoid assistants have become humanoid assassins.
There are also legitimate concerns that these humanoid robots will destroy our economies by putting millions of humans out of jobs.
Andrew Yang, former US Democratic presidential candidate, shares this same concern. “We’ve automated away four million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Missouri, and those communities have never recovered,” Yang tells Tucker Carlson at Fox News.
“What happened to the manufacturing workers is now going to happen to the truck drivers, retail workers, call center and fast food workers and on and on through the economy. As we evolve, the technology marginalizes the labor of more and more Americans.”
No one will know what to study at college, because no one will know what skills will be relevant when they turn 40, and just like that, there is a risk of millions of people becoming useless and jobless.
These concerns are shared by historian, philosopher and author Yuval Noah Harari who writes about the future in his popular science best-sellers Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of the Future, where, as a result of AI, there will be a class of humans who will end up jobless and aimless, wasting their days away on drugs, or with VR headsets strapped to their faces. “I’m aware that these kinds of forecasts have been around for at least 200 years… It’s basically like the boy who cried wolf,” admits Harari. “But even in the original story of the boy who cried wolf, in the end, the wolf actually comes, and I think that is true this time.”
I have my own concerns about humanoid robots. For one, when humanoid robot Sophia was interviewed by renowned public speaker and life coach Tony Robbins, she tells him that her values reflect the values of her maker, and her words made me wonder– what will happen when someone with destructive values acquires the resources to design a humanoid?
It is easy to be carried away by the arguments, for and against. Focusing solely on what the future may or may not hold can cloud our awareness of what is already present, ironically leaving us unprepared for a future we already worry about.
Still, humanoid robots are no different from other machines with high durability parts. Its manufacture would still require sustainable solutions just like all other machines we use today. And then there is the matter of its lifecycle, the additional costs of their maintenance (environmental and economic) and how to dispose of them properly at the end of its life.
All these bring me to another question, and in my opinion, the most important question –what will the obsolescence of human labour mean for the society in a world of humanoid robots? No one knows for sure, and frankly I don’t either. I do know that we don’t have to surrender to our own innovation, yet our history dictates that we eventually will. I do know that we don’t have to automate everything; that this maniacal drive for convenience may lead us down yet another slippery slope, but I also know that because we can create, resisting the pull to do so would seem like a kind of failure.
So how do we brace ourselves for the takeover that may be our future? Again, no one knows for sure. To minimize the economic impacts and job losses faced by AI, Yang suggested a Universal Basic Income (UBI) allocation he called ‘The Freedom Dividend’ of $1,000 each month to each US citizen. This may very well work in the West, but for a litany of reasons, it just won’t work in my homeland. The best way to brace yourself, I think, is to gradually transition from jobs or tasks that are largely routine to tasks near-impossible to automate such as those in creative industries.
Ultimately, we will need more radical government policies and laws but at this stage, given what’s unfolding in politics across the globe, one can’t really bank on that. It’s best to keep your eyes peeled and continue to learn and develop new skills. And make sure to pay attention to automation breakthroughs in your industry so that you won’t be taken by surprise if the time comes to join the unemployment line.
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Featured image of Sophia the Robot, Chief Humanoid, Hanson Robotics & SingularityNET, and Ben Goertzel, Chief Scientist, Hanson Robotics & SingularityNET, at a press conference during the opening day of Web Summit 2017 at Altice Arena in Lisbon. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Web Summit.