The outsourcing of human jobs as a side effect of globalization has arguably contributed to the current unemployment crisis. However, a growing trend sees humans done away with altogether, even in the low-wage countries where many American jobs have landed.
Citing brutal working conditions, inefficiency and corporate bottom lines, human beings are gradually becoming redundant. Moreover, there are indications that even skilled labor will soon be replaced, rendering humans obsolete in a variety of new ways.
At this point it doesn't seem like the outsourcing of human abilities to our robotic counterparts is leading us toward the life of leisure that has been promised, but instead is leading to humans being perceived as nothing more than a troubling quantity within a new economic algorithm. How can we ensure that we maintain relevance during a time of such rapid change?
Product Fulfillment Process: We all have become incrementally familiar with the ways that our orders, requests and demands are handled by non-humans. Fulfillment can range from ATMs, automatic grocery checkout, online order processing, having a movie delivered by mail or Internet, to automated answer systems for nearly all of our products.
Order fulfillment by machines is nearly ubiquitous. A component of this is the warehouse -- finding an item, packaging, and shipping it. The following personal account titled, "We are Obsolete" sums up perfectly the company reasoning behind getting rid of humans in this part of the workplace:
My boss informed me that another employee was replacing me. The new employee was far better then me and would never take a day off. The new employee would never fall sick, never ask for overtime pay, and had nothing to do with the union. The new employee would not waste time near the water cooler socializing with other employees and would never waste time on Facebook. The new employee would never get stressed out, or have a nervous breakdown. The new employee would never get tired and will work tirelessly forever. Most importantly, the new employee will never get injured and sue the company for compensation.
Meet 1557. The new employee is a robot. This robot just replaced me in the warehouse today. This is the reality. (Source)
The fulfillment process also takes place in the medical field. We are now seeing robotic assistants in surgery and diagnostics, as well as research, manufacturing and dispensing. Artificial neural networks have been implemented to help make diagnoses, thus reducing human error. Some speculate that with the advent of nanotechnology it won't be long before autonomous robotic diagnosis and surgery from the inside out will be possible down to the DNA level.
Manufacturing: The Taiwanese Company Foxconn, answered criticism of its brutal working conditions by replacing its human force of 1.2 million people with 1 million robots to make laptops, mobile devices and other electronics hardware for Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Sony. The company previously had made workers sign contracts that they would not commit suicide, and would even install "suicide nets." But even these measure seem to be too much of a hassle for executives to deal with. (Source) As computer engineer, and author Martin Ford has stated, it is not merely the repetitive and precise needs of the assembly line that are being met by machines in a variety of industries, but more skilled labor as well.
How could management get rid of these skilled workers?
They could simply build a remote controlled robot to perform the task, and then offshore the control function. As we have pointed out, it is the ability to recognize a complex visual image and then manipulate a robot arm based on that image that is a primary challenge preventing full robotic automation. Transmitting a real-time visual image overseas, where a low paid worker can then manipulate the machinery, is certainly already feasible. Remote controlled robots are currently used in military and police applications that would be dangerous for humans. We very likely will see such robots in factories and workplaces in the near future. (Source)
Domestic Service: A host of lifelike, even humanoid robots, have been developed with a range of motion and ability that is leading to a growing possibility of a "bot in every household." An article written back in 2004 titled, "From Outsourcing to Botsourcing" posited a disturbing near-term future at the time of its writing:
If you're middle-aged now, perhaps your closest companion in your dotage will be a wirelessly connected android that traipses after you, bringing iced tea or martinis, and reminding you to take your medications, send a birthday card to your grandson, and sell your Cisco stock. (Source)
Eight years is an eternity in computing, so where do we stand here in 2012 relative to the above scenario? The following is a short list of commercially available service robots, the prices of which have fallen at warp speed to be within reach of an increasing number of people. When Bill Gates says that this industry can change the world we should probably listen. So much so that even the world's oldest service profession can be outsourced, which should lead us to wonder just how attached we already have become to the machines in our lives. (Source)
Warfare: In a matter of just a few years, we have gone from the idea of drones in America being a secret, to having the open announcement that there are now 63 drone bases on American soil. Machine warfare very well could be our greatest existential threat, as autonomous intercommunicating systems are being developed with the capability for unilateral threat assessment and war theater decision making. However, there is also the human toll. It is once again cited that robotic warfare lessens the dangers to humans, but at some level it becomes an outright replacement, such as DARPA's amazingly human PETMAN and other warbots at its disposal. Similar to the machines in a factory, robots don't have human frailties such as sickness, tiredness, mental health issues, clouded judgement based on emotions ... or conscience. Where do the human resources of war go when they have been outsourced?
Artificial Intelligence: This is the overlay X-factor for each of the categories above that are already in place and affecting the global economy. Until now, robotic systems have been no better than how they have been programmed to behave. Yes, they are more efficient, durable, and predictable in most cases; however, we are now on the cusp of the next stage of development where full-blown autonomous self-learning systems take us into the realm of science fiction -- delivery systems and self-driving vehicles alone could change day-to-day life as we know it, not to mention the social implications. (Source)
Two future areas which could have the largest transformative effect on what it means to be a human member of society are in the areas of education and governance.
It is a logical extension to presume that the above-listed abilities applied within medicine, healthcare and domestic services could apply quite easily to teaching. In fact, economist Kim Shin-hwan at South Korea’s Hyundai Research Institute says, “By 2015, robots should be able to assist teachers in the classroom. By 2018, they should be able to teach on their own, and this will cause many teachers to lose their jobs.” ( Source)
Likewise, "positive futurist" Dick Pelletier considers the greater impact of the loss of skilled jobs, right up to and including law makers, judges and police officers. The above-mentioned PETMAN project at DARPA makes it clear that they are actively seeking humanoid replacements in war, so law enforcement can't be far off. However, an even greater ethical debate is raised when we look at government, which is currently filled stem to stern with all manner of corruption. Pelletier cites National Science Foundation consultant Pamela McCorduck for this argument:
I’d rather take my chances with an impartial computer,' referring to conditions where she would prefer to have automated law makers, judges, and police that have no personal agenda. (Source)
Beyond ethics, such widespread replacement of humans would remake the economy far beyond what we currently see. Pelletier notes that nearly 50 million jobs are expected to be lost to machines by 2030, and perhaps half of all human jobs by 2040.
Technology always has been a double-edged sword. The possibilities presented by artificial intelligence and robotics hold massive positive potential that actually could challenge elite power structures. In the meantime our economy is transforming away from human inefficiency and variability to a robot economy that could threaten the self-determination of billions of people. [Ron: WHY? Surely a rational society will simply dispense with the old paradigm "money" economy and move to a new paradigm in which robotics makes abundance available for all and people can choose to spend most of their time on personal projects and development instead of scrabbling in paid employment just to survive?]. Without a massive paradigm shift in the ability for the average person to tap into the growing potential for a massive reduction in cost of goods and services, we will be left with another system of haves and have nots. [Ron: Surely the paradigm shift has to be made by those who control and operate society rather than the masses? If human societal leadership has good will and the interests of everyone at heart the machine age of abundance and lesiure could, in due course, usher in a semi-paradise society. ].
Futurist, Peter Diamandis, states with certainty in the video below that the developments over the coming decade or two will lead us to superhuman powers that will render us "Godlike." Notice that he states "all of us." Really? If so, it is an ethical decision we need to commit to before that decision is made for us either by those who aim to control the technology, or the technology itself.
[Ron: This video appears to be unavailable.].
For an excellent compendium on the latest in robotics and artificial intelligence, I highly recommend that you visit ROS Robotics News.
For a positive outlook with some proposed solutions for humanity within the ongoing evolution of robotics and automated systems, visit Dick Pelletier's website Positive Futurist. In a similar vein, I also would recommend Tony Cartalucci's fantastic article "Elite Power Threatened by Global Technological Progress."
A positive outcome is certainly worth considering, as we have our fair share of dystopian works of science fiction to serve as a collective cautionary tale against permitting intelligent machines.
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