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Beware, the robots are coming

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

One word is already shaping up to be the word of 2014, and it is already a substantial one with endless possibilities to amuse and entertain as well as frighten and harm. This is already proving the Year of the Robot.

Watch out and possibly beware if you are an accountant, real estate agent, retail shop assistant, technical writer or telemarketer. Your jobs could be in imminent danger from the rampaging “bots.”

Robots have already made more than their share of headlines only weeks into the year. Google again made a lot of them when it bought Nest Labs, a maker of smart thermostats and smoke detectors, to add to an army of robotic companies, most recently Boston Dynamics, which it snapped up late last year.

Google has also been in the driving seat, so to speak, for the driverless car. It claims that data from its fleet of driverless Prius and Lexus cars proves that they are far safer even than vehicles in the hands of trained professional drivers. Robots have faster reaction times and better sensors than humans, the supporters of driverless cars claim. Human drivers don’t have eyes in the back of their heads, and rear-view mirrors are a poor substitute.

The Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show that was held, meanwhile, showed off an immense cornucopia of potential new robots that can help clean your windows, teach children or provide entertainment or companionship. One of the stars of the Las Vegas show was a humanoid Robo-Thespian that showed off its ability to make hand gestures and deliver speeches in a British accent (because it was made by a British based company Engineered Arts). Actors are not on the list of immediately endangered species, however, or not until robots can learn empathy.

Indeed, such has been the growth of robots, according to Incapsula, that last year more than 61 percent of all traffic on the Web was generated by nonhumans, and only 38.5 percent by human beings. In 2012, humans generated 49 percent of the traffic. There is good news and bad news in this because the nonhumans — or bots — may be good or bad.

The good bots include search engines, which accounted for 31 percent of the Web traffic. But bad bots, including scrapers, hacking tools, spammers and impersonators, make up the other 30 percent. Although there has been a decline in spammers and hackers, “other impersonators” are growing.

Incapsula warned that “The common denominator for this group is that all of its members are trying to assume someone else’s identity. Some of these bots use browser user-agents while others try to pass themselves as search engine bots or agents of other legitimate services. The goal is always the same — to infiltrate their way through the website’s security measures.”

There are a number of different, but interlinked questions here, some of them troubling. One is what the robots can do. Some robotics experts claim that by 2030 or shortly afterward, robots will do all the housework and regularly drive all vehicles, including delivering fresh food and household supplies, all ordered over the Internet, so there will be no need to visit physical shops any more. The delivery vans may be supplemented by drones.

You can see the somewhat clumsy start of all this even today. iRobot made Roomba, the vacuuming robot, and followed it with Scooba, which washes floors. It is working on other household robots that can connect wirelessly to each other through a head butler, which is operated by a human. Japanese scientists are working on robots that can care for elderly and sick people.

True believers in robots say the robots of today are similar to mobile telephones years ago when they were the size of a brick and cost thousands of dollars. But soon every household will have its own robot. They won’t necessarily look as we imagine them today or even be humanoid. Why should robots have the inefficient features of human beings, including fragile bodies?

Another worry is the potential for domination by a single company or an oligopoly of corporations. Google’s recent purchases of Nest and Boston Dynamics came on top of seven start-ups in the past few months, all companies that have very good hands, arms, motion systems and vision processors robotic systems.

Boston Dynamics already produces Big Dog, a four-legged device that carries cargo across rough terrain, and refuses to be thrown off course by ice or human attempts to interfere; the Cheetah, which runs faster than Olympic champion sprinter Usain Bolt; and Atlas, a bipedal robot that looks like the cyborg exterminators of the movies.

“The robots are coming and Google owns them,” was the headline after the company bought Boston Dynamic. Google will have competition, no doubt, which brings its own scary possibilities.

After Amazon announced its plan to deliver packages by drones, the blogosphere was filled with jokes, including the suggestion of drone warfare with Walmart launching drones to delay Amazon drones, or the sky going dark, not with pollution or night falling, but with the numbers of drones flying overhead.

The failure of national governments to revise laws to keep up with modern technology, let alone to protect consumers, is another worrying dimension.

The most troubling for workers of the world is the question whether the robots are going to march in and take jobs from humans. The traditional answer has been that mechanical tools will take the strain from humans to allow them to work more efficiently. Imagine having to dig a hole without a spade. Imagine having to use a spade rather than a mechanical digger to prepare foundations for building a road or a house. Imagine having to write a report with only a quill pen or a typewriter and without being able to call on the resources of the Internet to aid you.

The original Luddites, who smashed the new textile machines in the 19th century, were proved wrong, and the machines did create new jobs and prosperity. But robots are potentially coming so quickly and across a broad range of jobs that large numbers of workers must fear that robots may make them redundant.

Lawrence Summers, the former U.S. treasury secretary, looked at employment trends among American men aged between 25 and 54. He noted that in the 1960s, only one of each 20 men was unemployed, but calculated modern technical change is taking the form of “capital that effectively substitutes for labor.” In consequence, 10 years from now, one in every seven men could be unemployed.

Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University’s Martin School calculate that telemarketers are the most vulnerable group, with a 0.99 probability of being replaced, as big data and smart machines advance. (A probability of 1 implies certainty.) Accountants and auditors (0.94), retail sales staff (0.92), real estate agents (0.86) had better watch out. Airline pilots (0.55) and economists (0.43) also look vulnerable. Only recreational therapists (0.003), dentists (0.004) and clergy (0.008) appear supersafe for the moment.

Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives at Osaka University. He served on the World Bank staff in Washington from 1997 to 1999.