Technology in the third quarter of 2015 seems to have been dominated by robot stories of one form and another. Last week another study, this one by Boston Consulting group, suggesting that 25% of our jobs are up for grabs by robots in the next decade — in line with the previous figures from the Oxford Martin study that suggested 35% by 2025.
On the same day, two academics launched a campaign against ‘sex robots’, on the grounds that the concept perpetuates gender inequalities. And earlier Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and others signed an open letter calling for a ban on autonomous weapons.
I’m tracking some technologies that seem to support the forecasts from Oxford Martin and Boston Consulting. I may disagree with precisely which jobs are at threat, but it’s clear that machines will soon be able to do many routine tasks that form the bulk of much paid employment.
Personally, I believe white collar jobs are the most at risk in the UK, as software robots become rapidly more capable, and improvements in usability allow fewer people to do more. The costly mechanics and materials of hardware robots, combined with weaknesses in their perception and contextual understanding mean they are a little further out — certainly in any ‘general purpose’ guise. Just look at the recent DARPA trials for evidence.
Lobbying and public squeamishness will slow the adoption of more specialist robots: for example, self-driving cars and trucks, and delivery drones.
But we may only be able to sustain any rejection for so long. Because almost without realising it, robots are becoming part of our lives and workplaces.
Often when we interact with call centres now, our initial interactions are with a — often frustrating — simple robot. Siri and Cortana are becoming increasingly integrated into our lives along with personal assistants like EasilyDo, and automation tools like Zapier.
Corporate social media accounts — even ours — is often handled in part by a robot, helping us to navigate the mass of content out there and identify potentially interesting interactions. As individuals we will increasingly use similar tools as the complexity of global media becomes nearly unnavigable without algorithmic assistance.
A company I’ve worked with has even developed a robot sales director, who impersonates the real one, sending out instructions to employees about who to contact and when. Imagine this extended to its natural conclusion: a company run by a robot but with human employees.
Sex robots, killer robots and robots that take our jobs might be grabbing the headlines but it’s always with an eye on the future. The reality is that this is happening today. I don’t think it has to be a bad thing for us as a society, but it will be if we walk blindly into an automated future without considering the consequences.
For companies, the need for internal debate is urgent. Robots aren’t a question for tomorrow, they are a challenge for today. And what you do about them will define your success over a much shorter term than you may think.