A Czech playwright named Karel Čapek wrote a play called \”Rossum\’s Universal Robots\” in 1920, which was translated into English and performed in New York by 1922. The new word–\”robot\”–spread quickly into newspapers and public discussion. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was suggested to Čapek by his brother Josef. It referred back to the robot, which the OED defines as a \”central European system of serfdom, by which a tenant\’s rent was paid in forced labour or service. Now hist. The system was abolished in the Austrian Empire in 1848.\”
Now, countless stories and movies later, there are ongoing predictions that the age of robots may be near. I\’m not talking about automated factory robots, stuck in one place on a factory floor, little more than a swinging arm performing a repetitive function. The current discussion is about robots that are mobile, able to receive a variety of commands, and with the capability to carry them out. For example, the March 29 issue of the Economist has a lengthy cover story on the \”Rise of the Robots.\” But I\’ll focus here on Stuart W. Elliott\’s article, \”Anticipating a Luddite Revival,\” which discusses how robots will affect the future of human work. It appears in the Spring 2014 edition of Issues in Science and Technology. Elliott did a literature review of the robot capabilities that are cutting edge and now becoming feasible as discussed in AI Magazine and IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine from 2003 to 2012. Here, I\’ll refer to his discussion of the more recent capabilities of robots in four areas: language capabilities, reasoning capabilities, vision capabilities, and movement capabilities.
Vision capabilities. \”[T]he tasks included recognizing chess pieces by location, rapidly identifying types of fish, recognizing the presence of nearby people, identifying the movements of other vehicles for an autonomous car, locating and grasping objects in a cluttered environment, moving around a cluttered environment without collisions, learning to play ball-and-cup, playing a game that involved building towers of blocks, navigating public streets and avoiding obstacles to collect trash, identifying people and locating drinks and laundry in an apartment, and using Web sites to find visual information for carrying out novel tasks such as making pancakes from a package mix.\”
Movement capabilities. \”[T]he tasks included moving chess pieces, driving a car in traffic, grasping objects in a cluttered environment, moving around a cluttered environment without collisions, learning to play ball-and-cup, playing a game that involved building towers of blocks, navigating public streets and avoiding obstacles to collect trash, retrieving and delivering drinks and laundry in an apartment, and using the Web to figure out how to make pancakes from a package mix.\”
Elliott compares the emerging capabilities of robots to the capabilities that the U.S. Department of Labor says are necessary for many jobs, and find that about 80% of U.S. jobs have the capacity to be substantially disrupted by the new robots. But of course, the concern that automation and robots will lead to dramatic changes in the world of work have long been with us. Back in the 1960s, for example the concern that automation would reduce the number of jobs was strong enough that in 1964, Lyndon Johnson signed into law a National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress. Here are a few of his comments from a half-century ago:
\”Automation is not our enemy. Our enemies are ignorance, indifference, and inertia. Automation can be the ally of our prosperity if we will just look ahead, if we will understand what is to come, and if we will set our course wisely after proper planning for the future. … The techniques of automation are already permitting us to do many things that we simply could not do otherwise. Some of our largest industries, some of our largest employers would not exist and could not operate without automation … We could not provide our great shield for the security of this country and the shield for the security of the free world if we did not have automation in the United States. If we understand it, if we plan for it, if we apply it well, automation will not be a job destroyer or a family displaced. Instead, it can remove dullness from the work of man and provide him with more than man has ever had before.\”
In my own life, I think about how much time I spend each week on tasks like driving, doing laundry, folding and putting away clothes, making the bed, loading and unloading the dishwasher, setting the table, food preparation. Household robots would free up time, and ultimately, we all face an unbreakable constraint that each week has only 168 hours. For the US economy as a whole, prosperity, jobs, and a rising standard of living are a lot more likely to be found in ways that workers of all skill levels can use robots to complement their efforts, than in attempting to freeze technology in place. And remember, in a globalized economy the US could conceivably decide not to limit the use of robots here, but it will not stop them from being widely deployed elsewhere.