In the last year or so there has been a deluge of journalistic output on robots – to be precise, on the potential impact of these previously innocuous electronic aides on the global job market. As robots become ever-more obviously dextrous, intelligent and humanoid, this is a theme which warrants serious analysis.
It was therefore with some surprise that we at Mediolana came across one of the more questionable evaluations of this dynamic and emerging sector by none other than a genuine expert in the field: Tony Prescott, director of the Sheffield Robotics laboratory and a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Sheffield. Speaking in the Guardian (Caress me, I’m an iCub, 21st May 2015 in print edition) about the likelihood of a new wave of robo-labour invading the workplace and displacing humans, Prescott conceded that this was a possibility, but added: ‘…it will be the dirty and dangerous jobs, letting us focus on the things we are better at. And we’ll be wealthier, giving us the time to do what we want to do.’
Prescott’s reassurances sound ameliorative – until one actually examines their substantive content. The troubling reality is that the first statement is already demonstrably false: as discussed on this very blog, the multilingual Nano robot is being rolled out across SoftBank branches in Japan not as a mere replacement teller, but as a customer service agent capable of giving advice in no less than nineteen languages; in the same country, a hotel almost entirely staffed by non-humans has been inaugurated. Safe and even desirable middle-class jobs – as well as decidedly less glamorous occupations – are squarely in the firing line of the roboklasse – not in some hypothetical future scenario, but presently.
As to Prescott’s second contention, the idea that ‘we’ will be wealthier in the future is rather contingent on what position one occupies in the ‘new’ society, but many students at his institution and throughout the (post-)developed world are not merely incomparably more indebted than their parents, but face an unforgiving job market: youth unemployment rates are north of 50% in numerous jurisdictions, and even many of those with jobs are not earning enough to trigger the commencement of student loan repayments.
Put bluntly: there is no guaranteed happy ending to the story of advancing robotics in the workplace. Those without the qualifications and uniqueness to ride out the robo-revolution risk finding themselves not merely outsourced, but ‘outperformed’ by an electronic rival which requires no salary or social security. No one who reads this blog can say that they were not forewarned.
Back in the mid-2000s – an era when technology seemed impossibly benign by today’s infinitely more circumspect context – our Creative Director & CSO spotted an invention that totally captivated him: a robot by the name of Qrio. Whereas most electronic humanoids of that era behaved and interacted in ways which were anything but human, Qrio – developed by the Japanese corporation Sony – possessed that barely-definable magic by which illusion can be suspended. It performed actions such as walking, climbing stairs and throwing in a way that was totally endearing and indicative of a massive future; the shelving of the Qrio project remains one of the great corporate mysteries of our time (and perhaps typifies Sony’s alarming decline).
A decade on, another Japanese corporation – the telecoms and finance giant Softbank – is installing another small, humanoid robot by the name of Nao in a select number of branches of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group from April 2015. But Nao is no ingenious prototype yet to enter production: he is being put to work as a customer assistant. Despite being just 0.58m tall and much less convincing than Qrio, Nao – which was developed by the Paris-based Softbank subsidiary Aldebaran Robotics in 2006 – has impressive technical specifications. He speaks 19 languages and can analyse customers’ emotions successfully enough to have detailed conversations with them on certain clearly-defined topics.
The development of what have been termed ‘non-human resources’ is meant to be a boon for Japan, given the country’s stubborn and possibly suicidal refusal to countenance immigration reforms to remedy its anaemic birthrate: robots such as Nao will help plug the chasms in labour force sectors such as healthcare and other service industries.
But – at least on this occasion – what is good for Japan is not necessarily good for the world. Once employers twig that large occupational categories can be largely or completely fulfilled by utilising robots, the ensuing worldwide wave of ‘deep’ automation is likely to have devastating consequences, particularly those without the educational qualifications and/or technical expertise to insulate themselves from this tsunami.
Dealing with all-too-messy humans – who require salaries, insurance and social benefits – will be an obligation that many enjoying privileged positions in power structures will be only too happy to rid themselves of. Education – which is the one weapon that can protect against this impulse – has rarely had a better justification.