Robots can do for us what machines did for farmers

Policymakers in the UAE are smart to throw their support behind a robotic future, as Sultan Al Mansouri, the Minister of Economy, did last Monday in a speech at a World Economic Forum conference in Abu Dhabi. He promised to bring robot laboratories to schools as part of a larger focus on science in education “to change how young people think”.

It’s a refreshing attitude that should help to counter the flood of angst about robots, smart software and automation that permeates both popular entertainment and the news media.

If it’s not superheroes fighting killer robots in summer blockbuster movies, it’s daily headlines warning of machines stealing yet more jobs currently being done by humans. It’s all contributing to ill-ease about a future that could be marked by massive unemployment or even possible extinction.

The angst around employment is particularly pressing. The Boston Consulting Group, for example, predicts that up to a quarter of jobs will be replaced by software or robots by 2025. A recent study from Oxford University says a third of today’s jobs in the United Kingdom could be automated within 20 years.

Those are scary statistics, but without context they don’t mean much. The truth is, many of the jobs that will be eliminated are ones that almost no one wants anyway. Fast food cooks, bartenders, taxi drivers – such occupations help to pay the bills for many people, but rarely have they been aspirational professions.

Neither is – or was – farming. In 1900, three-quarters of the United States’ population worked on farms. Today, after generations of continually improving automation, it’s closer to 1 per cent. Even that is shrinking as robots encroach further into the process. Pretty soon, all food production will be handled by machines.

There aren’t many downsides. Farming is hard, physical work that demands long hours, which is why there aren’t too many children who want to be farmers when they grow up.

The problem today is the same as it always has been. Nineteenth-century farmers weren’t able to envision the factory work their grandchildren would be doing, and certainly not the office jobs that would morph into. The idea of people working as web designers or social media consultants, as many do today, was simply inconceivable.

Similarly, even the most prescient futurists today have trouble imagining what people will be doing 100 years from now – but chances are good it will be better, because automation frees up people to focus on what really interests them.

The world of videogames presents some great examples.

The British studio Hello Games – a tiny operation with only 10 employees – is working on No Man’s Sky, one of the most anticipated upcoming titles for the PlayStation 4. The space exploration game features “procedural generation”, where algorithms create new planets, creatures and environments for players to explore, on the fly.

Until now, games set in large virtual worlds had to have each detail – every building, tree and character – hand-crafted by coders and artists. Hello Games’ algorithms instead allow the studio’s few designers to create a game just as big, but at a fraction of the budget and man hours. Staff can instead focus on the game’s more human elements – story, character development and emotion.

Videogames have been tied at the hip to technology for their entire history, and the global industry continues to grow. In the US alone, employment in the sector grew 9 per cent between 2009 and 2012, or 13 times the overall labour market. If technology really were a job killer, this isn’t a trend that would likely be happening.

It is individuals such as the Los Angeles-based artist Matthias Dörfelt who can provide the sparks of imagination on how robots might inspire new ways of thinking and therefore the new jobs of the future. Dörfelt programs his own drawing style into disc-shaped robots, then sets them loose to doodle.

Their drawings provide him with inspiration to go onto more involved works, which means he is essentially outsourcing the lower part of his creative process.

“I think more about the idea of the composition than an explicit composition that is static or fixed. I’m still very actively involved in that progress and that’s true for all artists,” he says. “It changes the level at which the creativity is applied.”

Dörfelt is using robots to elevate the level at which he applies his own creativity. More educational efforts such as the UAE’s planned robot laboratories will help the next generation move beyond angst and do the same.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.

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