March of the working robot

Ever since the industrial revolution revolutionaised the mass production of goods, machines have replaced manual labour slowly, but surely. The utopia where machines have taken over all manual labour is still currently a pipe a dream, but ultimately it may come to pass, if technology and all related fields keep advancing. The rudimentary tool AI that drives most current industrial robots may seem simple, but that too is mostly a question of time.

Hobbies and industries have evolved remarkably in the last hundred years, even more so in the last thirty or so years. If you wanted to make your own model kit from scratch, you needed to amass the materials and begin to cut and assemble them properly. Nowadays, that work has been relegated to a 3D printer, which simply accepts a model it needs to extrude from its nozzle. This is what essentially what’s at the core of this mechanisation of labour; one man and one machine. This is why some schools around the world have begun emphasizing skills relating to future-world jobs, like coding, in order to ensure that no child would lack the basic skills to survive in the thought modern world. Whether or not this is the best approach is up to the question, but it is undeniable that mechanical workforce is slowly but surely making their way in regions where you wouldn’t believe them fitting in. As is the case, these things usually stat out small and then build from that.

To use welding as an example, welding started out heating two objects and then adding third material to weld the objects together. It was revolutionised when modern welding via high current became a thing. Welding rods made things simpler. That evolved further into feeding a constant wire with protective gas. For some time now, in some cases the human element has been almost completely removed and a robot arm welds as instructed. The human element is there to correct the machine, maybe finalise the product, but not to work the seams the robot is responsible for. The 3D printer mentioned above is this exact same phenomena, and the same thing has been moving towards every field. Objectively speaking, we do not have a need for sculptors nowadays, when all you need is some 3D skills and an access to a CNC machine. A router with a fine tip will always be better than the human hand.

All this is more or less self-evident, but what about work places that require more human touch? Numerous stores have already installed self-service counters for customers to go through, needing to employ fewer workers. Phone service are a classical example, though not all of them work as well as they’re intended to. The issue is of intelligence, as machines don’t have general intelligence that would work and understand. Current AI can compute meanings from library of definitions, but none of them truly understand what’s told to them.

Human touch can be replaced, or at least mitigated to some extent. For example, Paro the Therapeutic Robot made its rounds few years back when every news source showcased how it helped old people with things like stress. The seal shaped robot would require some care to be given, like petting and talking sweet things to it. If left alone, it would begin to whine. Though according to the site, if you hit it, it will learn and cease repeating that action, something I doubt many people would want to be replicated with any living thing. In case of lack of contact with, well, pretty much anything when it comes to old people’s homes sometimes, a robot that responds to your actions does seem like a good alternative, at least for some time. It’s like how some people get a large pillow and put a picture of their cartoon wife on there. It might not be the same as hugging and sleeping with a real being, but human mind is plastic enough to convince itself about a lot of things, like communism being a good idea.

With time, the intelligence of machines might achieve the level high enough to at least understand limited topics. A robot cashier for example wouldn’t need to understand anything beyond what the consumer is bringing to it, scan the products and request a payment. Such robot should be relatively easy to build even with modern technology and would save companies money in salaries. Robots could even fill the shelves, given that numerous warehouses already run on automated vehicles that move things about without much human assistance.

The industrial revolution had its Luddite movement, and Neo-Luddites are a thing. Technology may make life easier and work cheaper, which often is the argument against it; it takes away jobs from the people. Car replaced the horse, and welding robot replaced the welder. This of course always opens new job fields; now somebody needs to make the cars, but the tech evolution has now machines building machines to work. The argument of course is easy to understand, but at the same time technology has always moved like this. Often a tool to make work easier and less strenuous is acceptable to most, but the idea of their job being replaced by something inanimate raises eyebrows. Sure, some fields like medical doctors won’t be replaced anytime soon, though as mentioned, as the fields evolve things won’t look the same. If we want to give all jobs like this the absolute back limit, it would be when general intelligence is created, that is AI which is one human level of intelligence. From there, nothing’s a limit anymore. At that point, not even coding needs to have a human input.

Is this post about personal fears regarding the job market? No, but the observations and discussions I’ve been making during the last seven years alone shows that industries with reliance on hard manual labour probably will see drastic changes in short period of time in the near future. It all depends on the worldwide macro-economics, as such change would need a driving force behind it. As much as some people hate to admit it, both World Wars advanced sciences and technologies in leaps and bounds, and we’ve been enjoying fruits of those labours for some time now. The Cold War drove space tech another set of steps, but after that there hasn’t been much driving us forwards. Well, outside the information warfare that’s constantly raging without us knowing or seeing it. I doubt we’re ever going to achieve post-scarcity world like in Star Trek,

The robot work revolution is not all that relevant in our time, but it’ll get there at some point, if we’re lucky. With all the cuts in education and downgrading everything surrounding it, it’s more likely that future workforce may be able to dabble with their phones more than to calculate how much grams of drugs you should get.

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