I think a lot of us, when we muse about artificial intelligence, fret that machines will become sentient and self-reliant. When we think about robots, we worry that, like Transformers, they will be hulking, dangerous machines or, like in Westworld, androids who can crush our windpipes.
But what if they are more subtle? What if they just steal our jobs? And, what if the jobs they purloin aren't just the dirty ones, or the ones on assembly lines and in ditches? What if they come next for truck and cab drivers, lawyers, doctors and all manner of other knowledge workers? In other words, what if they keep snacking on our employment all the way up the food chain until there is nothing left for us to do except service them like, well, automatons? And what if they're not just subtle, but sneak thieves, ninjas and spies -- nowhere but everywhere? Hello 2017.
Of course, since the 19th century machines have replaced workers. And they have allowed factory owners to deconstruct the skills of artisans into narrow but consecutive tasks that unskilled labour could carry out repeatedly. They've replaced weavers with gins. They have usurped the role and name of humans who did repetitive arithmetic (originally called computers). They replaced the workers, cables and plugs of telephone switchboards. They've turned the hand-tooled into the machined-stamped and glistening backs into backhoes.
But today's machines are different. They're smarter, cheaper, more adaptable and more aware of the world, its patterns and its rules. They can talk to each other in what are called mesh networks and can move around instead of being anchored to a shop floor. Robots like the Simbe Robotics Tally bot can roll down supermarket aisles restocking and doing inventory while rubbing shoulders with shoppers. Or the Hadrian X robot that works outdoors and can lay a thousand bricks an hour. Other androids can sew clothes at a rate even the cruellest sweatshop couldn't keep up with. The International Labor Organization thinks that 137 million garment workers in Southeast Asia could soon be replaced by robots. That's 56 per cent of the workforce in those countries.
And many don't even have the circuitry, gears and the hydraulics that are the hallmarks of machines. They're just software -- the products of deep machine learning and artificial intelligence. Some of them sit benignly in our kitchens and living rooms. The meme of this year's Consumer Electronics Show was "Alexa everywhere." Alexa, of course, is Amazon's home AI software. She listens and obeys. And this year she'll be built into vacuum cleaners, a robot nanny, a light and a fridge.
Other software machines are far smarter. For example this year Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance will use a specialized version of IBM's silicon brain, Watson, to replace 34 full-time employees. How? By scanning hospital records to determine what claims should be paid out, and how. Insurance Watson will cost $1.7 million to install, and nearly $130,000 a year to keep running, but the company expects it will save a million over the cost of the three dozen workers doing the same job.
Meanwhile, ROSS, another derivative of Watson, has recently been hired by the law firm BakerHostetler to be a legal researcher for that firm, a job normally done by rookie law school graduates.
Foxconn, the Chinese company which assembles iPhones for Apple, and other devices for Samsung, Motorola and others, intends to replace 30 per cent of its workforce with robots by 2020. Its goal is to eventually create completely automated production lines. It's already deployed 40,000 robots in its factories and can produce 10,000 more annually.
Meanwhile, in North America, delivery, truck and taxi drivers may soon be replaced by autonomous vehicles. That's Uber's vision for the future. And Google's, and Tesla's. And most vehicle manufacturers'. There are 3.5 million truckers in the U.S. alone. In many states it's the main form of employment. The mining company Rio Tinto uses 45 driverless trucks to move ore around its mines. Driverless trucks on highways have been shown to be far safer than human-driven ones.
But the saddest statistic of all is this: a 2015 survey conducted by the Pew Research Institute found that 65 per cent of those polled felt that in 50 years most of the work done by humans will be carried out by computers and robots. But, the same study found that 80 per cent of respondents believed their own jobs will exist in their current form in the next half century.
That is wishful thinking, which is, ironically, something robots will find hard to do.
Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.
Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.
Photo: Ben Husmann/flickr