This week in the #RoboApoc*

Liz Stinson over at Wired reported on self-assembling robots that create furniture on demand. The basic idea is that these module and mobile robots can self-assemble into different forms or furniture, and can even create supplements to existing furniture.

It is fun to fantasize about what this means for personal use: small robots attaching themselves to my coffee table so it can serve drinks at my next dinner party (how nouveau bourgie, a butler without all the classist implications); my robot furniture rearranging itself  into futuristic configurations that are both beautiful and functional (IKEA beware).

But the creators themselves are thinking far more practically; these robots can configure to be a chair that follows around elderly people to catch them if/when they fall. If grandma misses the robo-chair it will reconfigure to heights that make it easier for to pull herself up. As you age is it to difficult to scoot your chair into the table at dinner? That’s cool the table will scoot to you.

 

Furniture isn’t just floral couches in plastic slipcovers that no one sits it is a technology with a myriad of uses. There are endless uses for a roboticized companion that look like a chair one minute and a coat wrack the next.

So what chicken little?  You have a chair that follows you around, it isn’t Skynet! – you say.

Sure, the robot furniture hasn’t banded together and started enslaving humans (yet!). But who will this impact? People who need help in the home AND the people who currently supply that help – care workers.

 

Some in the economics field say the service sector, in particular the home care sector, is supposedly the most protected from technologically created unemployment (you know when a robot replaces you and all of your friends and all of their friends). The reasons economists give for the unlikelihood of robots replacing the nice lady with the Jamaican accent who wears tastefully colorful scrubs to take care of your grandma  are:

  1. People wont stand for it!
  2. The technology (robots) just can’t do it.

The work of taking care of people requires the human ability to take a lot of input – including: spatial relations, body language, verbal language, tone of voice etc. – make sense of the input and respond appropriately – something most of us do instinctively. Robots are/were great in controlled environments (like car factories) but it is/was believed that they can’t handle the magnitude of inputs needed for this type of work.

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This is the same argument made not to long ago for why robots will never be able to make left turns in oncoming traffic, too much input, too complicated a task. And then Google’s self-driving car (ROBOT!) got a drivers license.

The impacts of the #roboapoc on workers doesn’t have to mean a wholesale replacement of all of the tasks any one worker does, it could just be a slow chipping away at the tasks pushing full time workers to part time. The bright side is robot butler coffee tables for everyone!

 

*Neat right? What I did there with the #hashtag, it means Robot Apocalypse. Just to be clear, the #roboapoc is not something that is coming, it is already here. It isn’t just one day there are no robots and the next day they are harvesting our bodies as batteries while keeping us in a software generated reality. It is a slow process, not as slow as the evolution from the ballpoint pen to the smartphone (both revolutionary communication technologies in their time). This acceptance of robots has both personal implications (think of all the hours you save having Roomba vacuum for you) and structural implications (the roboticization of workers in the industrial and service sectors leading to massive job loss).

So, the #roboapoc is upon us, but it may not seem like all the other mythical apocalypses. It is gradual and it even makes life a little easier, but there are some big implications for ethics, law, the worker side of the economy, and warfare.

 

 

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