Robots of the Future

I find robots fascinating. Not so much current robots, which are generally stupid and cannot do much, but robots of the future.

For a long time, artificial intelligence (“AI”) was going nowhere fast. As I liked to say, “Every prediction about AI, no matter how pessimistic, turns out in retrospect to wildly optimistic.” It was not that AI researchers were dumb or lazy; it’s that AI is really hard. Then around 1995 or so, AI started making some serious advances. Famous moments include IBM’s Deep Blue beating Garry Kasporov in chess in 1997, as well as IBM’s Watson winning Jeopardy in 2011. Advances in mechanics have been slower. As a friend of mine says, “It’s harder to make a machine that can walk than to think.”

But extraordinary advances will be made. At some point in the future (I would guess no earlier than 2040 and no later than 2060), there will be machines that can perform most of the manual labor that is done in our society. A robot will be able to clean your house, make your bed, fold towels, wash clothes, unpack groceries, change a baby’s diapers, pick up a glass, wash it and put it in your cupboard. At the workplace, a robot will be able to take a box off a truck, unpack it, inspect the items, and put them on a shelf. Robots will be able to perform skilled labor such as being a plumber. Robots will be able to mine coal and to fight wars. Key characteristics will be movement, fine control (picking up a glass without breaking it), and the ability to learn.

The cost of such a robot will fall over time, in nominal dollars let alone real dollars. So such a machine will eventually cost about $10,000, with a useful service life of 10 years. It will be able to work all of the time; it will not need to sleep. Let’s assume 6000 working hours a year, or 60,000 hours over its useful life. Including the cost to acquire it, the cost of capital, electricity and repairs, such a robot will cost between $1 and $2 an hour to operate.

Putting aside cost, such machines will offer several advantages over humans. They will not get sick, they will be never late for work, they will not go on vacation, they will not go on strike, they will do what they are told, they will rarely make mistakes, and when their mistakes are corrected, they will learn not to make that mistake again. They will not sue you for discrimination if you fire them or say inappropriate things. Most important, they will never quit on you. Once you decide to decommission your robot (a newer, better model has arrived), you can erase its memory banks so it will not be able to divulge your trade secrets or compete with you. In short, they would be the perfect employee. The kind of employees that managers such as myself dream of having.

So those who make a living through manual labor will be forced to compete with robots that cost $1 to $2 an hour. If you are such a person and you want $3 an hour, a potential employer will say, “I can get a robot to do that for half the cost, and I know he will never quit on me. Why should I hire you? My offer is $1.50 an hour, take it or leave it.”

There will be some jobs where robots are not capable or desired. Massages, for example. Most people would rather be massaged by a human than by a machine. Some high end restaurants will offer humans as waiters, but the cooks will be robots. But a restaurant that is not high end will use robots; they will not be able to afford humans. In short, there will no economic use for a significant percentage of the work force. Rather than 10 percent unemployment, our society will be facing 30 percent unemployment.

  • Kai

    Most of these things have already been done.