Tech tycoon launches home robot revolution

A UK billionaire has announced that he is to build a new generation of domestic droids to mark the end of household chores. Could humanity be engineering its own downfall?

Robots dust the house and do the dishes. They clean tirelessly, meticulously, and thanklessly, leaving their human masters time to devote to the arts, the life of the mind and other, more meaningful leisure activities. This, at least, is entrepreneur James Dyson’s vision.

He will begin turning it into reality this week by announcing a new £5m robotics laboratory in London to supplement the 2,000 scientists and engineers he already has working on the task.

Dyson believes that machines will soon be capable of learning to think and behave more like humans. Artificial intelligence (AI) means that the robots will be almost autonomous. ‘You will send a robot to clean windows. It will know where it is going. It will know how to clean the windows. And it will know when it is finished,’ he said yesterday.

He is not alone in his beliefs. In 1998 Tokyo’s Waseda University developed a robot that is sensitive enough to crack eggs for frying. Its update is a humanoid nurse called ‘Twendy-One’, which could be on sale next year. And the internet giant Google has been on a buying spree of robotic and artificial intelligence companies over the past year. Among its purchases are Schaft, a Japanese robot firm, Boston Dynamics, a military robot manufacturer, and DeepMind, a London-based artificial intelligence company. The move has prompted some to ask whether it is building an android army.

But in the past, innovation has also cost people their jobs. In the Industrial Revolution artisan weavers, the Luddites, were swept aside by the mechanical loom, and over the past 30 years the digital revolution has displaced many of the mid-skill jobs that have underpinned life in the 20th century. Typists, ticket agents, bank tellers and many production-line jobs have all seen a significant reduction in the numbers employed to do them.

Brave new world

The Economist magazine last week published a grave warning about the speed of change. Technology’s impact will feel ‘like a tornado’ it said, hitting the rich world first, but eventually sweeping through poorer countries too. ‘No government is prepared for it.’ And it will only serve to make the super-rich richer and the poor poorer, increasing the world’s already yawning wealth gap.

But surely, say more optimistic voices, no right-minded person would want to go back to the days of handloom weavers. Although innovation kills some jobs, it creates new and better ones, as a more productive society becomes richer and its wealthier inhabitants demand more goods and services. Robots will free us to use our minds to change the world.

You Decide

  1. Has technology made us happier?
  2. Would it be immoral to create a machine that could think and feel for itself?

Activities

  1. In groups of four, think of some jobs that a robot could never do.
  2. Research the dangers of artificial intelligence. Write a page of recommendations that would help to keep us safe.

Some People Say...

“The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.’Karl Marx”

What do you think?

Q & A

But it’s already so hard to get a good job!
Dyson would disagree. He says the real problem is that not enough British students are training to be engineers and even now there are 61,000 engineering vacancies that are unfilled due to a lack of candidates. The Royal Academy of Engineers estimates that there will be demand for 100,000 new engineers each year until 2020.
Could robots rise up and overthrow humans?
This is a classic sci-fi plot, famously explored in the Terminator series of films, where an artificial intelligence system becomes aware of its own superiority over mankind and fights back. The idea was taken seriously in 2012, when the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk began to study possible scenarios in which artificial intelligence could become dangerous.

Word Watch

Artificial intelligence (AI)
The idea of AI goes as far back as the Greek myths when Hephaestus was said to manufacture mechanical servants. Yet our modern understanding of it goes back to the 1950s, when scientists began to develop programs that could solve basic analogy problems taken from IQ tests. Today, things have come a long way. AI now allows robots to mimic the minds of insects when navigating difficult terrain. It can also drive cars automatically in complete safety, and AI programs can even identify different brands of drinks by analysing their taste.
Luddites
The Luddites were skilled textile weavers who started to go out of business from 1811 onwards due to technological innovations such as the power loom and spinning frame. These machines drastically reduced the amount of time needed to produce cloth. They are thought to be named after Ned Ludd, a young man who destroyed two stocking frames over thirty years earlier. In legend, Ned Ludd became King Ludd, who lived in Sherwood Forest and became involved in Robin Hood-type escapades.

Subjects

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