In one of those weeks of weird co-incidences, I’ve had a lot of conversations about robots in the last few days. And it has reminded me that our mental image of these autonomous machines is shaped very much by a small number of sources — mostly fictional.
The MegaBots battle this week won’t do much to change this, albeit these aren’t robots in any real sense, more clumsy upright tanks.
Nor will the range of robots on sale this Christmas, of which I’ll be reviewing a few on 5live in the run-up. I’m very much looking forward to having a house full of little bots over the new few weeks. But they’re not the robots we should be thinking about right now.
Return to the robot tax
When I wrote about the realities of a robot tax recently, I don’t think I went far enough in explaining just how unlike the robots of our imagination most robots in the workplace will be.
Imagine a robot inbound call centre, taking calls for customer service, support, or sales. There will be no actual ‘centre’. The whole thing will exist virtually, in a data centre — a giant air-conditioned building full only of computers. In fact, more than likely it will exist across multiple data centres in different countries. Perhaps none of them will be the country being serviced by this call centre, or the country where the business operating it exists. There will be no phones, no phone lines, just a very fast data connection to the rest of the world.
Like human call centres this system will have peak hours and quiet hours. In peak hours it might need a few thousand agents. In quiet hours it might need a few tens of them. Virtual agents will therefore be ‘spun up’ on demand, to meet customers’ needs. These agents may only exist for the span of a single call before being wound down again to minimise the required computing power and costs.
Now apply that model to administrative tasks, or augmented reality shop assistants. Many, many of the robots coming into our workplaces might have a lifespan measured in the minutes — or even seconds — existing thousands of miles outside the jurisdiction of whatever tax authority has domain in the location they are servicing, their output carried in a common data highway. They will have no corporeal form, nor even an enduring digital presence.
We naturally anthropomorphise. Hell, half the internet is the anthropomorphisation of cats. But we have to stop thinking about robots in these terms.
The physical robots that we do have — probably delivery drones and driverless cars in the near future — will have few human physical traits. And the vast majority of robots we do encounter will have no physical form at all. They will be fleeting presences, instantiated for a single task and destroyed again the minute it is complete.