The robots are coming. The second decade of the 21st century will see the rise of a mechanised army that will revolutionise private and public life just as radically as the internet and social media have shaken up the past 10 years.
Or so says Marina Gorbis, futurologist and head of the Californian think-tank, the Institute for the Future (IFTF).
The IFTF is one of the world’s most venerable think-tanks and has been plotting the course of the future for corporate and government clients since it was spun off from the Rand Corporation in 1968. Gorbis says robots will increasingly dominate everything from the way we fight wars to our work lives and even the way we organise our kitchens.
Robots are likely to prompt a political storm to equal the row over immigration as they will increasingly replace workers, says Gorbis. But it is not all bad news.
She believes that robots and humans will be able to create a world of new possibilities. And they are already here. The US military is backing the development of a four-legged mechanical pack-carrying robot, called BigDog.
Guided by its own sensors BigDog can navigate treacherous terrain carrying 150kg on its back. In the air robot drones are stalking targets in Afghanistan, remote-controlled helicopters are ferrying supplies.
Military technology and infrastructure — from Roman roads to the internet — tend to be absorbed quickly into everyday life and robots are already spreading their tentacles.
The University of South Carolina (USC) has developed a system called Contour Crafting that allows machines to construct buildings in layers guided by computers. The system can reduce construction times and costs by 75%, according to USC.
In South Korea robots assist teachers in language classes, repeating words and phrases over and over and assessing how well they are parroted back. Google is working on cars that drive themselves. Amazon and shoe retailer Zappos’s huge warehouses are organised by an army of squat orange robots designed by Kiva Systems.
Inevitably the rise of the robots will put people out of work. Gorbis believes that this will mean unemployment will remain around 10% in many parts of the developed world in the coming years.
“We are in transition. It is similar to when we mechanised agriculture.
“After that we went through a period of high unemployment as people transitioned to new kinds of jobs. People learned to do other things,” she says. We, too, are likely to become more robotic, she believes.
“We have been modifying ourselves with technology forever, with eyeglasses, cochlear implants. We are going to see more of that. Sensors are going to be on our bodies, in our bodies letting us and others know what we are doing, what is going on with our health.
All kinds of applications we haven’t even thought of yet.” — Guardian News & Media 2011