One robot is worth six people. Or rather, for every industrial robot introduced per thousand workers, 5.6 roles are displaced, and wages are depressed by 0.25–0.5%. This is according to a research report released last week from the independent and non-partisan US National Bureau of Economic Research, conducted by two MIT economists using real-world historical data.
Compare this with research trumpeted by The Manufacturer magazine this week. Its article ‘Robots don’t steal jobs, they create them’ was based on a survey of 1000 manufacturing professionals conducted by a jobs site and ergonomics institution. Two thirds of the respondents said they had never seen a robot displacing a human worker.
Hmmm, the analysis of two independent, highly-skilled academics, based on real world data, versus the opinions and recollections of a thousand people inside the industry being studied.
I think I know which one I’ll place more faith in.
Industrial robots aren’t particularly humanoid, in any sense. Typically they are disembodied giant arms whirling dangerously around, wielding welders or paint sprayers. They have small fractions of a human’s intelligence or flexibility. But fractions are all that are needed to be able to relentlessly conduct a repeatable task with a level of accuracy that a human can’t match.
The software systems that are starting to displace workers in non-industrial settings are in many ways even less human. Some might be able to converse more capably, but they have no physical embodiment. Nonetheless, that small shard of humanity will be enough to replace five, ten, even a few hundred humans each only applying a small fraction of their real capabilities to complete the bulk of their daily tasks.
Robots don’t need to be much like humans to take human work.
Despite this, when we think of robots we mostly think of androids — human-shaped machines. The Science Museum in London is currently hosting an exhibition called ‘Robots: The 500 year quest to make machines human’, which plots our attempts from early automata to the latest domestic, industrial and research machines, like Pepper and Baxter.
Some of these machines are downright disturbing. A remote-controlled baby used in films. A limbless video conferencing avatar. Robots with hand-sculpted skeletons designed to have human frailties. It all sits somewhere between the uncanny valley and an HR Geiger nightmare.
None of these machines have much more than the shard of humanity possessed by the industrial robots. We are a long, long way from recreating the densely-packed wonder of our own evolved form: a hyper-computer in a self-healing, independently powered, ultra-adaptable shell. Achieving a truly humanoid robot is an interesting area for experimentation but it remains an aspiration more than a reality.
Robots that look like robots
While androids remain an aspiration, we should get used to robots that look like robots, adapted to their task rather than our form. They will still be anthropomorphised with cute ‘eyes’ and ‘faces’, but machines just don’t need to look like us to play a role in our world — positive or otherwise. Personally, I was always more interested in R2-D2 than C3PO. The robots of my dreams in childhood were distinctly mechanical, not the smooth humanoids of Channel 4’s Humans. Maybe that’s now retro-futurism. But to me the future will always be flashing lights and squeaking robots.