Outsource this

I just finished reading Phil Jacobsen’s touching post on outsourcing, which is well worth reading even if you don’t read him on a regular basis.

And then I turned to this article in the Times talking about the changing world of robotics. What the authors are pointing out, essentially, is that as the science of robotics makes advances, we need to start seriously thinking about the roles of robots in society, what niches they are going to fill, what sort of rights they may or may not be entitled to, and whether or not we need broad spectrum laws to deal with the issue. And make no mistake, robots are getting smarter and more complex every year. According to the article, “In Japan, human-like robots such as Honda’?s Asimo and Sony’?s Qrio can walk on two legs. More advanced versions are expected to be undertaking everyday domestic tasks and helping to care for the elderly in as little as 20 years.” At first glance, this seems like a major step to solving the problem of the baby boomers, who are rapidly growing older and will soon max out our capacity to care for them.

To me, the robotics has some very exciting potential. It’s fascinating to read about the steps that have been made, and where we are going with robots as a society. More and more tasks are automated now, from flying aircraft to detecting rotten fruit. The myriad uses that people have developed robots or automated systems for are really quite incredible, and it’s awesome to see some of this stuff at work. It’s an almost Willy Wonka-like dreamworld, where things are not always what they seem.

But to me there is a sinister undercurrent. (And no, it’s not robot sexuality.) It’s that as robots get more advanced, and are capable of performing simple, repetitive tasks, what happens to the humans who have performed these tasks since time immemorial? If the timeline above is correct, we may see robots efficient and cheap enough for most consumers within forty years. Will this lead to mass human unemployment as basic jobs are outsourced to the robot community? Will we end up in a highly stratified society where humans with unique abilities and skills rule over a teeming underclass which is unable to find employment thanks to the highly advanced state of automation? Will this underclass in turn revolt and speak out against the robot takeover, or will it shrink in size and dwindle away with until all that’s left is a small core of humans, surrounded by service bots?

I admit, part of this possibility intrigues me, because I feel that at this point humans are making too large a footprint on the world, one which will ultimately lead to ecological disaster. But I suspect that in this instance, the first world (and its robots) would continue chewing up resources while the third world continued much as it always has. The number of robots you have, in the first world, would serve as a class indicator, certainly, much like servants and slaves did not that long ago. The lower classes will probably grow larger, and continue struggling to survive as they always have. A utopian society of happy educated skilled yuppies drifting through gardens tended by robots might be possible–but only if the garden is enclosed by a heavy wall to keep the rest of us out.

I’m not sure where robotics is going to take us, and I’m glad that scientists and thinkers are pondering this, thinking about the ways in which we need to expand the laws of robotics, and hopefully thinking about the implications of highly developed service robots. Especially as these are naturally going to integrate some form of artificial intelligence and a learning mechanism in order to perform these tasks better. It seems likely that robots will not face the same conflicts and logical fallacies that humans do, at least at first, and that may put us in an interesting place.

Are we ready for it?