The first time the world ever heard the word robot, it was during the production of Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots. The term comes from the original Czech word robota (meaning forced labor), and was used to describe a fictional, subservient artificial-worker class. If Čapek had been able to take a moment from his writing and look into the future, he would undoubtedly be surprised at how closely reality would someday mirror his fanciful concepts.
Fast-forward nearly a hundred years, and we now have entire production facilities that are manned almost entirely by artificial worker—robots.
In these factories, efficient machines perform repetitive tasks for hours on end without pause. They don’t stop to eat, don’t need sleep, don’t take vacations, and don’t require pay. They never call in sick, they never get tired, and they never have “bad days.” They can’t quit or leave at a bad time, and they absolutely never make human errors that end up costing the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. In short, these robots of the assembly line are the perfect workers. So that just leaves one question: why would anybody need human laborers anymore? Overall, we as a society are increasingly valuing automation. Home automation has never been more popular. Most industries from manufacturing and shipping, to farming and security are becoming more automated.
It’s a valid concern, and not just to the millions of factory workers throughout the world. If robots replace human workers, what will that do to the world economy?
Well, we’re actually seeing something of that future right now. Unemployment is increasing all over the world. Developed countries such as the US are outsourcing their labor to less-developed ones because it is less expensive to do so. As robotics technology advances and becomes more available, these same companies are going to see that a one time purchase of an expensive machine actually costs less in the long run than years of hourly pay that the average factory employee would earn over the course of his life. Additionally, human workers are far more likely to make errors than their mechanical counterparts, and not only on the production floor. For example, many web security problems can be traced back to human error or carelessness. Encryption management—the various tasks associated with the protection of encrypted data—could benefit from a coldly logical machine that simply follows its programing, unhindered by organic failings.
Is that it then? Are we looking at a future in which all workers are mechanical, and the living laborers of the world go hungry?
Not necessarily. While it is true that many factories and other areas are embracing mechanized and automated production, there will always be a place for humanity in the process.
For one thing, robots are unable to think creatively to overcome unforeseen problems. Humans are more than simply hands that can perform a task; they’re intelligent organisms that have the ability to look at problems from many different angles and to conceptualize possible solutions. For another thing, robotic labor is unable to inspect its own work. Human eyes will always be necessary to the production process, to ensure that a quality product is making through the shipping manifest system, and being accurately delivered to the correct location. These examples might seem very factory specific, but the truth is that there are very few jobs that could be performed exclusively by robots. For a job to be done really well, it needs to be done, at least partially, by a human being.
Of course, technology marches forward. Should the world ever cross the threshold and create a fully intelligent, learning robot, then things might change. Of course, if that happens, we might have bigger problems than unemployment to worry about. Rossum’s Universal Robots concludes with a robot uprising that ends with the extinction of the human race. Hmm. Perhaps there are worse things for a company than high cost and inefficiency…