Since the 1920s, Hollywood has given us a glimpse into a future with robots – and this year was no different. Ex Machina. Avengers: Age of Ultron. Chappie. Terminator Genisys. Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Not only are robots portrayed as helpful assistants, but also as beings that can destroy the world as we know it. And now, some of the world’s greatest minds, including Stephen Hawking, are sounding the alarm for potential hazards that can emerge when building increasingly intelligent robots.
Is there reason to be concerned? Let’s separate the myths from reality.
We won’t be able to tell the difference between people and robots.
Think Star Wars, not Blade Runner. Most likely, the majority of robots for the foreseeable future will be either single-purpose machines or biomechanical units—such as exoskeletons or enhancements for legs and arms—according to The Boston Consulting Group. Full-sized humanoid robots will be less common because they are the most difficult to develop and maintain. Experts suggest that we will probably see humanoid robots used for elder care and healthcare first (though not for another decade, at least), but they will be reserved for tasks where a human-like touch is important for delivering services.
Robots will be able to do everything humans can.
Robots are good at highly repetitive tasks, but they’re terrible at anything that requires judgement, such as finding patterns, setting goals, and simplifying problems. What’s more, the rich tradition of moral thought that guides human relationships cannot be replicated in robot-to-human interactions. To be able to accomplish the same physical, mental, and emotional tasks that humans do, robots would need to respond to new situations that aren’t included in their pre-programming. As Selmer Bringsjord, professor and chair of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, recently told Business Insider, the math and programming required to make robots that self-aware have not been invented yet.
Robots are taking our jobs.
Experience with automation suggests that predictable, repetitive, and manual tasks are likely to be the first type of work to be taken over by robots. Some futurists predict jobs that are more intellectually complicated will soon follow. It could be that, as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee speculate, there might someday be fewer jobs that only humans can do. On the other hand, we could be overstating the downside, as economics commentator Martin Wolf has pointed out. A future of tight collaboration and co-evolution between humans and machines appears more likely than a robot takeover. In a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, MIT electrical engineering professor Daniela Rus offers a scenario in which robots are “integrated into the fabric of daily life, becoming as common as computers and smartphones are today, performing many specialized tasks, and often operating side by side with humans.” Companies that can exploit human-robot cooperation would be more competitive than if humans or robots work alone. We could work more efficiently, as well as create jobs that might be more valuable, more meaningful, and less hazardous.