Readers of this blog will doubtless be cognisant of the threat to the global labour market that some commentators have ascribed to the rise of robots in recent years. And this makes perfect sense: as robots become ever-cheaper and the tasks that they are capable of grow more sophisticated, it is only logical to expect them to encroach on territories that have up to now been regarded as a solely human domains.
However, a recent speech by Sébastien Fanti – a lawyer hailing from the Swiss canton of Valais, the birthplace of former FIFA supremo Sepp Blatter – has forced us to reassess even our own predictions of the extent to which robots may be able to supplant humans in the workforce. Speaking to the Lexing legal conference in Shanghai, Fanti stressed the urgency of creating a legal and ethical framework to govern worker bots, warning: ‘In ten years[‘ time] I think that robots will be suffering abuse. We need laws, otherwise there will be a free-for-all.’
This framework has become necessary because it is now clear that far from merely replacing unskilled or semi-skilled manual workers, robots are: (i) fast becoming capable of jobs that require them to confront ethical dilemmas; and (ii) likely to become judged by humans as conscious, and therefore worthy of rights. (Marcus du Santoy, professor for the public understanding of science at the University of Oxford, has explicated this second point particularly cogently.)
The crux is clear: if robots are developing along a precipitously steep trajectory – one which encompasses ethics and consciousness – then the implications for the global labour market are unreal. This is particularly true if in our rush towards post-humanity, we are content to let certain preconceptions – perhaps even expectations – slide.
In the not-so-distant future, will it really matter if our therapist is a robot if its algorithms are effective enough to generate ameliorative responses? Is it impossible for artificial intelligence to come up with fashion designs that the relevant audiences regard as iconic? And given that so many people let their children be raised by electronic devices, would we really be troubled as much as we would predict about them being given bot-style pastoral care? These are unlikely to remain academic questions: a technology-defined civilisation periodically undergoes discomfiting changes, even if these risk throwing billions of people onto the breadlines.
As a London-based company with a reasonable level of exposure to all things technological, it takes a seriously impressive advance to animate us into writing about it, but the robotic chef recently unveiled at the Hannover Messe industrial fair by Moley Robotics (‘Moley’) has our Creative Director & CSO spooked. This is a bot capable of preparing a bowl of crab bisque in twenty-five minutes – which ordinarily would be news enough – but the really interesting feature is its pair of hands, which are eerily similar to human ones and reveal the extent to which robotics is beginning to threaten large swathes of the job market as never before:
- Entry-Level Jobs – Going! The amazing growth being registered in the market for domestic robots is an ominous sign of things to come for those students without the necessary skills to defend themselves against the merciless march of technology: according to the wonderfully-named International Federation of Robotics (‘IFR’), 2.7m household robots were sold in 2013, a 35% year-on-year increase; from 2014-2017, an estimated 24m personal service robots will depart the shelves. Entry-level jobs like cleaning risk entering the history books in at least some (post-)developed countries.
- Student Jobs – Going! For now, Moley’s robo-chef has limitations that render its applicability rather limited: it can only cook using prepared ingredients. Advanced AI and the ability to use a knife are beyond it – for now. But given a few years, is it really so hard to believe that the general state of robotic technology would have progressed to the point where traditional student jobs in colleges, cafes and bars would be under attack from glorified humanoid vending machines?
- Graduate Jobs – Going! As we have written about previously, robots are already displacing humans in Japanese banks – not as tellers, but as customer advisors. For now, this is still a phenomenon in its infancy. But once mass production and economies of scale begin to have a serious impact on the pricing of this type of investment, big companies may find it irresistible to dispose of many of their human staff like so much organic trash; SMEs may well follow in their slipstream. Only the very best students will be able to shield themselves from these dystopian developments.