Numerous intelligent people have now claimed that within the next few decades, robots will automate half of all existing jobs. Whether or not that will pan out — or whether you're in the luckless 50 per cent — will only be determined by time. But either way, what would that world look like? The latest robotic prophecy comes from Rice University computer scientist Moshe Vardi. At a presentation yesterday, Vardi delivered his prediction that by 2045, computers may be able to do almost any human task and unemployment will sit close to 50 per cent.
The greatest unknowns in that scenario wouldn't be scientific or robotic; they would be economic and sociological. Conventional economics would have you believe that as technology increases, so does productivity, wages and total output. It's a theory that has held true since the industrial revolution, and seen the standard of living in developed countries go from mud hut to iPhones for all.
But that theory is designed for technology complementing human labour, not replacing it altogether. What Vardi (and hundreds of other scientists and economists) are questioning is how the rise of robotics will affect our economy.
The questions are big, and the answers radical. In Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford argues that the answer lies in a full-on worker revolt: rather than letting the benefits of automation be captured by the Ubers and Amazons of the world, workers will band together to push for significant wealth redistribution, and ultimately a universal basic income guaranteed by the proceeds of machine labour.
Other people disagree: the underlying assumption with technology is that as machines automate jobs, those displaced workers will retrain, adapt and shift to a field that hasn't been taken over by robots yet, or a field that hadn't even existed before — horseshoe making isn't a big industry any more, but neither was IT in the 1930s.
Vardi doesn't claim to have all the answers to how society will adapt to automation, but his questions are worth thinking about. He asks:
Does the technology we are developing ultimately benefit mankind? A typical answer is that if machines will do all our work, we will be free to pursue leisure activities...[but] I do not find this a promising future, as I do not find the prospect of leisure-only life appealing. I believe that work is essential to human well-being.
At the moment, a robot takeover is mostly the topic of movie reboots, thinkpieces and the occasional gag reel. But more than just thinking about what jobs robots are going to take over, it's increasingly clear that people need to think about what an automated society will look like, how a political system will function and the number of people who might starve on the streets. It's a lot less fun than a Terminator marathon, but then again, Skynet isn't the only apocalyptic future out there.