Computing Applications Viewpoint

Robots Are Coming

Considering the societal implications of the robotics revolution.
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Robots Are Coming, illustration

There has been considerable debate recently in academia and among policy makers regarding the role of technology in general and particularly robotics and intelligent systems in creating or reducing jobs. U.S. President Obama and other politicians expressed concerns on hollowing the middle class, concentrating the wealth in a few, and leaving the rest of U.S. citizens behind. Hence, it behooves the responsible scientists and IT practitioners (especially robotics workers) to examine the issues and think about what should be done to create a just, fair, and democratic society. While robots can replace not only the manual work but can combine the manual work with intellectual work, the fundamental question is: How to distribute the benefits of this work?

In this Viewpoint, I examine the social and economic consequences of the third revolution, which combines information and communication technologies with robotics.

First, let us acknowledge a few facts:

Fact 1: Progress and technological innovation are not going to stop. In fact, robotics is primed to develop even faster than thus far, because of convergence of faster, more powerful computers, new lighter materials, more powerful sensors, easy connectivity and wireless networks and many other factors. Bill Gates, in his January 2007 Scientific American article "A Robot in Every Home," wrote that robotics development state was where the computer industry was in 1970s. Of course since 2007, great progress has been made, especially in the automotive and electronics industries. Predictions for the service industry for 2015 are very optimistic.

Fact 2: Robots and intelligent systems are and will improve productivity just as it happened in the previous technological revolutions, when horse power was replaced by steam engines that in turn were replaced by electricity.

Fact 3: As in previous industrial revolutions, the new technology replaces the old technology, which in turn causes worker displacement. While in the past the electrification revolution increased the worker’s wages twofold, hence it increased the size of the middle class, the information revolution did not have the same effect. In reality, the middle class has shrunken!

Even Henry Ford in the 1930s understood that in order to benefit from the new technology (assembly lines) he had to create a middle class that could afford to purchase his cars. But more importantly he also understood that in order to keep peace and productivity of his workers, he had to facilitate social welfare by building affordable housing, schools, and hospitals—at least for his workers and employees.

So what are the socioeconomical-political implications of the third Industrial revolution, its leaders, and society? How can society benefit from the increased productivity afforded by robotics and the information revolution in general?

Jaron Lanier in his 2013 IEEE Spectrum magazine interview, suggested we all should be rewarded for the information we provide to the corporations such as Google, Facebook, and their like. The question is how can we monetize information? It is much easier to put monetary value for a car, or any graspable, material object, but it is not clear how to monetize your financial bits, versus your personal health bits or your geographical location bits, and so on. However, by the same argument should we pay for the knowledge every time we access Google, Facebook, and similar databases?

Again I come back to the question posed in the beginning: How to distribute the benefits of the work that robots will perform?

This is the question of our times! Who should be given credit? Should it be the inventor, the manufacturer, the user, the facilitators, and to what degree? Consider an example: a house-cleaning robot is replacing your cleaning person. After amortization of your investment for the house-cleaning robot, you will be saving money but you also will be depriving the person who used clean your house a job and salary. How should this saved money be distributed/shared?

In his July 2013 Communications Viewpoint, Martin Ford presented a challenge to economists to come up with a new model of economics, different from a strictly market-based economy but not a welfare economy that responds to the rapid technological changes of today. In my view we need an economical model that supports the growth of the middle class so there is a balance between the production (by people and/or robots) and consumption.

In addition to the financial distribution from the robotic work, employment has another social effect on people. That is: the society is telling them they are wanted and needed. It satisfies a very basic human need.

How can society benefit from the increased productivity afforded by robotics and the information revolution in general?

In their article "Dancing with Robots: Human skills for computerized work," (see http://content.thirdway.org/publications/714/Dancing-With-Robots.pdf) Frank Levy and Richard Murnane argue the challenge with computerized work is not mass unemployment but rather educating far more people for higher jobs that computers cannot do.

I would go further and suggest that our education should be broad, preparing the future generation for the global world that includes not only robots and technology but different cultures, languages, and history.

The recent developments in the use of the Internet to broaden access to education are commendable but will not solve all the problems stemming from the robotic revolution. It will have to be accompanied by a cultural revolution that begins in the family where learning is promoted as the highest goal.

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    The opinions expressed in this Viewpoint are the author's, and I thank my colleagues and students for their thoughtful comments on the previous versions of this material. I also want to acknowledge Moshe Vardi for giving me the opportunity to raise important questions on the socioeconomic effects of the robotics revolution.

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