In the coming generation we may see the early expression of the science fiction novelist’s most popular premise; a world in which a significant amount of labor is performed by robots. From the first use of the work “robot” in the 1920’s, the notion of a working force with the dexterity of human beings and none of the weaknesses has been a theme of modern civilization. Western civilization make experience this huge shift during the next generation.
This is not the product of some twisted evil genius attempting to create a “super race”. Neither is it the delusional fantasy of some well-intentioned creative type who is seeking to liberate mankind from the drudgery of labor. Strange as it is to contemplate, while both examples are diametrically opposed, they both arrive at the same conclusion. Man inherently seeks to avoid labor.
We can each speculate on that a little.
What is primarily at work in the real world is the Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”. As labor rates increase and robot costs decrease, they are starting to intersect. The labor cost to equipment personnel in hazardous atmospheres like painting a car have lead to highly automation solutions that perform better without risk to human beings. This is a great benefit to be sure, but is soundly based on economics. For a major car company to build 1 million cars a year, painting them is a major risk. Putting a $100mil investment into a highly automated painting line that will produce 1 million car finishes for 2 years means that the car finish costs $50.
The number don’t lie.
And it implies an ongoing investment at the rate of $50 million a year to further improve paint quality. However, instead of just re-investing every 2 years, the mere presence of this kind of investment among multiple manufacturers creates a marketplace in which suppliers compete to help lower the costs associated with painting cars.
It works with cars, hard disk drives, cell phones, flat screen displays (see? I didn’t use the word TV! I can learn this stuff). It is, however, based on some economies of scale.
Today there are some very high performance robots that cost less than $30,000. Less than some new cars. Less than the payroll cost of laborer per year. That is where the rubber meets the road in the coming generation. How many jobs can be done by robot better, cheaper and faster than a human being?
As our ability to supply robots grows, 163,000 units last year, how soon will a robot become commonplace? Will more sophisticated robot be created to perform in healthcare situations? Or as personal or household assistants?
What is at stake is how we will deal with the future as it comes upon us. Are robots our “slaves”? Can a robot be abused? Does a robot have rights?