Robot revolution set to rewire the world

Helping hands: Robots will take over much of the care in nursing and looking after the elderly.

The next ten years — experts say that our sci-fi fantasies of robot servants will begin to come true the next decade. What major developments are in store and how will they change society?

In science fiction, robots have provided writers and film makers an inexhaustible way of exploring hopes and fears about technology. They replaced the human body in Metropolis, were ethically-challenging servant drones in I, Robot and have waged an apocalyptic war against humanity in the Terminator and the Matrix films.

But outside of sci-fi, aside from the 10m vacuum cleaner disks clumsily roaming the world’s carpets, robots have proved rather underwhelming. Developers have spent decades and millions of pounds just on getting them to walk reasonably well.

Yet the robots’ slow shuffle is set to become a sprint in the next decade, as improvements in chip processors, digital sensors and communications unleash rapid development. Amazon is investing heavily in automating its warehouses. Google bought eight exciting robot start ups last year alone and a multimillion dollar robotics factory is currently being built in London.

Many designers have made great progress with robot assistants which could well be in homes across the rich world in the next ten years. A Japanese-made humanoid nurse called ‘Twendy-One’, which is sensitive enough to crack eggs and fry them, will be on sale by next year. Robots are being designed to nurse the elderly, reminding them to take their medication and helping them with household chores.

Robots will mostly be humanoid so they can navigate the stairs and doorways designed for our human shape. Yet aerial robots will help farmers water their crops without having to step foot outside. Flying drones could also deliver our online orders. Swarms of mini termite-like robots that can work together on simple tasks could be used to build houses cheaply and with mathematical precision.

Other robots will be driving. Google is testing driverless cars in the US where they have now racked up over 700,000 miles of tests without an accident. Google thinks they could be on general sale by 2020.

Better than human

Experts say that in a decade’s time, robots will not be autonomous thinking machines, but rather extensions of humans. Yet they will still raise all kinds of ethical quandaries. Is it acceptable to leave the elderly in the hands of uncaring robots? Should they be made to obey any human? Should a robot ever be able to defend itself, or others?

Yet the biggest changes could be in the economy as robots bring a period of ‘creative destruction’. They will be able to do manual labour jobs better and more cheaply than humans and one study suggests half of current jobs could be redundant in the next ten years through robot technology. While robots will make the future a very exciting place, many humans will lose out as androids steal their jobs.

You Decide

  1. Is the rise of robots exciting or frightening?
  2. ‘Technology is taking away human dignity.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. In pairs, come up with five ways you would most like to see robots change the world in the future.
  2. Using the links in ‘Become an expert’, list as many new kinds of robots that might exist or be available in a decade, with a brief description of each. Which is your favourite?

Some People Say...

“Mankind is throwing all its effort into making mankind obsolete.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Will robots really affect my life in ten years?
Yes! Technology is having a huge impact on what sort of jobs are available. An Oxford study thinks that telemarketing, accounting and audit, as well as retail jobs may be some of the most likely to be hit in the last 10 or 20 years. Yet the UK may well have a shortage of 80,000 engineers, so there will be new opportunities appearing for young people.
Could robots rise up against us?
While this is a standard theme in science fiction, many experts really do take the threat seriously. Eminent technologist Ray Kurzweil says that by 2029, computers will reach the ‘singularity’, the point where they become smarter than humans, understanding our languages and learning from experience. It is a problem that will become more urgent as technology advances.

Word Watch

London
James Dyson, the entrepreneur building the factory, has invested £5m in the project and has 2,000 engineers and scientists on the task.
Rich
Developing robots is getting much cheaper. Baxter, a manufacturing robot with two arms, was barely conceivable ten years ago. Nowadays he costs just $25,000. Still, within ten years, it is likely that only richer countries will be able to afford robots.
Outside
The technology could mean fewer farmers are needed to farm larger areas. This will continue a trend of shrinking farm labour: in the pre-modern world, agriculture used to provide almost all the jobs. Now, it only provides 2%.
Termite
Inspired by nature, termite robots need little instruction and can go about building large structures unsupervised. They could be used to build in hostile environments, such as in the Arctic or even on the moon.
Destruction
Technological changes destroy many jobs but create new ones. Typists have become near obsolete in the last two decades, but there has also been huge growth in IT jobs, for example.

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