Facebook robots spark new panic over AI

Hi, robot: Compare the chances of five UK jobs being filled by machines in the next 20 years.

In the past year Amazon started testing drone deliveries, a robot passed a university entrance exam, and Facebook’s AI started talking to itself. Are robots poised to take over the world?

When Amazon announced plans for a drone delivery service last year, many wondered if the company was joking. Then a robot scored in the top 20% of students taking the entrance exams for the highly prestigious University of Tokyo.

And now Facebook’s AI is developing a new language. Sort of.

In reality, over the course of a conversation between two bots, they learned from each other and created a derived shorthand language.

Facebook did shut down the conversation, but not because of concerns its AI was becoming too intelligent. According to FAIR researcher Mike Lewis, the team’s “interest was (in) having bots who could talk to people,” not among themselves.

At a TED conference in April, Stuart Russell, professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, stressed that “the purpose of AI is to empower and augment us.”

While many are growing comfortable with new technologies such as electronic virtual assistants and drone delivery, others are concerned about losing their jobs. Experts predict that over the next 20 years, 35% of UK jobs will be lost to robots or computers.

Thanks to cheaper sensors and more advanced artificial intelligence, the robotics industry is growing by around 17% every year. Robots are already appearing in all sorts of unusual places — from the drug-dispensing Tug rolling through hospital wards in Baltimore to the Bratwurst bot grilling sausages at parties in Berlin.

Soon, predicts Steve Jurvetson, a Silicon Valley investor, “There isn’t a single mechanical or physical thing a human will be able to do better than a robot.”

They are getting cheaper to buy. They do not need wages or holidays. And they can work faster and harder than the human body will allow. “A lot of people are going to come in contact with robots in the next two to five years,” says Jurvetson.

Rise of the robots

“Bring it on!” say optimistic types. The change may be scary at first, but amazing opportunities will follow. Freed from boring, repetitive jobs, people can focus on learning new skills in creative, innovative industries where robots struggle the most. The jobs that are lost will soon be replaced by more fulfilling and interesting careers. Better yet, we will have more free time to spend with friends or travel the world.

Be careful, warn others. People do not usually rejoice when their jobs are taken away. They are far more likely to feel useless, and then resentful. There is already a lot of anger about the inequality between the rich and the poor; that will only get worse if thousands of people are suddenly made redundant by technology. Before that happens, society needs to decide how to make the future fair for everyone.

You Decide

  1. Would you trust a drone delivery service?
  2. It is 2040. Most physical labour is performed by robots. Has the change been good or bad for society?


  1. Design a companion robot to help with household chores. What would it look like? Can it talk? What are its most useful features?
  2. Choose one of the five jobs highlighted in the graphic at the top of this article. Write a short story imagining a world where it is done entirely by robots or computers.

Some People Say...

“Robots are nothing to be afraid of.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Artificial Intelligence is becoming more advanced, although very few people seem to truly believe that projects like Facebook’s bots will take over the human race. And there are all sorts of skills humans are better able to acquire than robots: anything creative or managerial, and of course understanding robots themselves. But there are also a lot of tasks robots can do better than humans: anything requiring precise repetitive actions such as on an assembly line.
What do we not know?
Exactly how many jobs will be taken over by robots, and how quickly. Current estimates are exactly that, estimates. Some people, like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, believe robots or artificial intelligence will take over mankind. But others believe automation is the way of the future.

Word Watch

Scored in the top 20%
Professor Noriko Arai, of Japan’s National Institute of Informatics, had been training her robot for the test for years. On receiving the results, Arai said: “You might think I was delighted, but I was alarmed.”
Artificial intelligence.
When the bots’ new shorthand was explained, their conversation became understandable and not as nearly creepy as some first thought.
Facebook’s Artificial Intelligence Research unit.
Electronic virtual assistants
Such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri. You can ask them to tell you the weather, read your email, and even place an order for groceries.
According to IDC, a US research firm that specialises in information technology.
A large autonomous robot made by Aethon. It specialises in transporting medical supplies around hospitals, including meals, drugs and bed sheets.
Bratwurst bot
The sausage grilling machine made its debut last year at the Stallwächter Party, a government event.


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