Belfast Telegraph

Adrian Weckler: I, for one, welcome our robot overlords

Are robots coming to take our jobs? Yes. Should we welcome them? Absolutely.

 Robots and artificial intelligence will make our lives easier and more productive. Standards of living will go up and we'll wonder how we coped without them.

It's happening already. When I'm at work, a small Dyson robot vacuum cleaner hoovers the kitchen and hall by itself. If anything happens in my house, a Nest security camera activates itself and sends me photos and videos. I'll soon have a home voice-recognition system (from Google or Amazon) that can switch house lights and other electrical devices on and off just by me saying so.

And in a couple of years, I'll have a self-driving car that can pick me up from the pub and take me home without risking my licence for drink-driving. Or I'll order a car to do this, such as one from Uber, which has begun testing its self-driving passenger pick-up service in San Francisco. (My chances of being killed by other drink-drivers will also be much smaller, as they will likely be using self-driving cars too.) I'll also likely have free same-day delivery for small items I buy online through drone dispatches from Amazon and other online retailers. The items themselves will almost certainly be cheaper than they are now, as robots will make a higher proportion of them at less expense.

Robots are even taking over my fast-food habits. When I walk into McDonald's in Dublin today, I order using the self-serve touchscreen menus. Robots may soon also make the food: the US chain Carl's Jr has signalled as much.

And they may even do the bulk of the food growing and preparation. Big farms are starting to automate more and more traditional processes, such as crop-dusting, harvesting and milking.

This isn't a dystopian, scary future - it's a better one. Scarcity of goods and basic foods will become less frequent, goods will be cheaper and people won't have to work as hard just to survive. Road deaths will almost certainly fall, as will insurance rates (machines don't have as many costly mishaps as humans do).

In general, the basic plumbing-type maintenance we waste so much time and effort on every week will be taken care of by clever computer assistants and machines.

Read more

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So why the long faces and predictions of doom and gloom? Well, job security is admittedly a concern in the short term.

Factory and call-centre jobs are being replaced at breakneck speed by robots. Apple's iPhone manufacturer, Foxconn, is switching 60,000 human workers for mobile machines. Amazon now has 30,000 'Kiva' robots in its warehouses, which replace the need for humans to fetch products from shelves.

Call centres are gradually switching over from humans to online bots, helped by new services from Microsoft which is releasing software to allow online customer service robots initiate, co-ordinate, and confirm calls completely by themselves.

Taxi, bus and professional car drivers are surely on a countdown clock with the arrival of self-driving cars, now being introduced in the US.

Lawyers and accountants have also been put on notice. Holland's legal aid board is replacing lawyers with online algorithms to help settle divorce cases. Canada is about to introduce a similar system relating to certain property disputes. Bread-and-butter book-keeping tasks such as expenses and tax returns are expected to become completely automated in the next ten years, according to a recent Oxford study.

And then there is retail. Amazon recently showcased a supermarket without manned pay booths, where wireless technology lets you pick something up and walk out, debiting your Amazon account as it does so. In Ireland, some major supermarkets are also now starting to trial more intelligent paypoint terminals so that even fewer floor staff will be required.

For lots of workers, then, the rise of robots looks like a threatening thing. Indeed, one of the most quoted studies this year (from Forrester, a research agency) predicted that robots would cause 7pc of people to lose their current jobs.

And when that many people are laid off in a generation, things like Trump or Brexit can happen.

Some economists and technologists suggest a universal basic income of between €12,000 to €30,000 per annum so that workers in the worst-hit industrial sectors could regroup and focus on something different without looking over their shoulder at State authorities nagging them to get an available job as a cleaner.

But one thing pessimists rarely acknowledge is that technology advances usually create at least as many jobs as they destroy. The advent of the train, the plane or the computer (automated machines doing previously labour-intensive processes) did not undermine employment levels. They created more jobs (in maintenance, mechanics and engineering) and spurred a better overall quality of life for everyone.

As for more imaginative theories of Terminator or Cylon-style robots subjugating us in the near future, Facebook's chief technology officer recently told me that such intelligence levels were decades off "at a minimum".

The transition to more automation will have its ups and downs. But mostly ups. In a decade, we'll love it.

In the meantime, Panasonic has announced a robotic machine that analyses the clothes in your heap, separates them and folds them. Take my money, Panasonic.

Further reading

Darpa Robotics Challenge: Pitting the world’s most advanced robots against each other

MIT cheetah robots can now clear hurdles as they run

'Deadly drones' threat to humans

Virtual pets 'the norm in future'

Robot that bought MDMA, passport and baseball cap released by authorities

Killer robots: No one liable if future machines decide to kill, says Human Rights Watch

Aibo: Japanese hold funerals for robot dogs discontinued by Sony

Why artificial intelligence could kill us – and it's not because it's evil

Robot revolution gathering pace but at what cost to jobs?

Google's robot dog Spot: Can I kick it? Yes, you can!

Empathetic robot Pepper to get AI

Henn-na Hotel staffed by robots to open in Japan

Japan's biggest bank to introduce robot workers

First operation for surgical robot 

Giant killer Robot Overlords loose in Bangor