Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Robots at Aichi and the Future of Humanity

Recently, I was able to visit the World Expo in Aichi which is about a two and a half hour journey from Tokyo - one needs to take a Shinkansen (“bullet”) train to Nagoya, and then the Shuttle Bus (more expensive) or local trains/linimo (cheaper).

The Expo will close in September and is extremely popular They were originally hoping to have 15 million visitors, but they have already sold 10 million tickets…and there were very looooooooooooooong queues everywhere (usually took up to an hour just to get INTO the Expo, and then up to an hour at each of the most-popular pavilions, though you could walk into the less popular pavilions, which is most of them). Fortunately, I was an official guest, so was able to bypass most of the queues.

I did look around the British, French. German, Indian and Swiss pavilions, but my main interest was Robotics, as Japan is the world’s leading nation in this field. The robot highlights (in my experience) are at the Robot Station, the Morizo & Kiccoro Messe, the Toyota Pavilion, and the NEDO Pavilion.

What I saw was both exciting/amazing and frightening.

Exciting/amazing because of what these robots can do now, from playing music in an opera, to acting as guards (able to fire 20 paint balls a minute at an intruder, check for fires – 360* vision! – can even spot a human on the other side of a (thin) wall, multiply the physical strength of an old or sick or weak person manifold, clean surfaces (including vertical windows in high-rise buildings), play baseball (bowling as well as batting), assist surgery…there were therapeutic robots, child-care robots (able to talk and play with children and even give them quizzes etc to do), dog robots, snake robots, amphibious robots, self-reshaping robots, bomb-disposal robots, robots that communicate with each other, robots that tell you “I am hungry” when they start running out of electricity and then take themselves off for recharging, robots for Reception work in Hotels or Offices (already able to speak in 4 languages – very good voice recognition, though a bit slow), robots that have “legs” so that they can then walk along or go up stairs BUT can also able to transfer their own weight to wheels in order to speed along a paved surface (tolerance of irregularities in the surface only 10 cm at present, and able to go up/down inclines of only 10% at present, moreover their speed is only 6km at present but in principle there is no reason why they can’t in future go at the same speed as a car or aeroplane), robots that will take you around obstacles (living and non-living) to a predetermined destination without you having to “drive” them, an “artist” robot that creates caricatures of the people in front of it, using crayons on huge rice crackers (you could take the caricature of yourself home, but the queue was too long so I did not bother to have mine done).

There was also a “dance” robot but, so far as I could make out, the poor male dancer was actually pushing and shoving the “female dance robot” around – the robot was not dancing by itself …

OK, so these are all prototypes and there remain many glitches to be sorted out and the “active life” of these prototypes seems rather short (there were an enormous number of them out of commission, being repaired, that I did not see in action – presumably I would have been even more impressed if they had also been in commission!), but what will happen when these glitches have been sorted out and such robots can be mass-manufactured?

The whole drive at the Expo was to soothe and reassure the public that these robots were intended to assist particularly an ageing society in Japan, and the propaganda was in full swing, using music, multimedia and interpersonal interaction by the scientists and technologists involved with developing robots.

But if the main problem is ageing, it is much easier (and it would contribute to sorting out many more world problems) if an appropriate number of poor unemployed young people from round the world were to be imported into Japan and taught Japanese language and culture - the spoken language one can begin to cope with in about 2 months, the written language I understand is an entirely different matter, and the the culture is rather more difficult - but presumably robots will not be able to cope with nuances of culture in the foreseeable future?

In any case, the propaganda did not address the question: if we have robots that can do all these things, what “jobs” will be left for humans to do? (So far as I can make out, only the creative ones of *creating* art, music, literature, cuisine and so on, the “scientific” ones of discovering new knowledge and systematising it (including, for example, history and so on), and the technological ones of *conceiving, designing, prototyping, manufacturing and maintaining* robots)…Not a small number of jobs but nowhere near the half a billion or so "jobs" that exist today...

The jobs that would be left to do in a robot-driven world are not jobs that the mass of human beings can do and, if we could do them, the oversupply would be so great as to render the resulting “products” (under the current economic system) nearly worthless….

Anyway, I conclude that the real question for the future of the globe is not sustainability (true, the impact of our non-sustainable policies has started effecting us and will gradually worsen, but it is not going to be catastrophic for humanity for probably the next 50 or so years, as far as I can make out), the real question is how we will as a human society adjust to a world with such sophisticated robots (which the Japanese guess will start making an impact within 7-15 years)

More precisely, the question is: who will own the robots - and will the owners be humanitarians or despots?

If despots, they could use all these robots to keep the rest of the world population in virtual slavery - finally bringing about the world of "1984", and demonstrating that Orwell was only about 30 years out in his estimates (though of course he had in mind a different kind of fascism).

No doubt, my concerns will be dismissed by many as mere doom-mongering.

However, I am convinced that the question facing the world by 2015 (or 2020 at the latest) is how to build a global system, using the unparalleled prosperity and freedom from drudgery which will be possible due to robot-driven agricultural and industrial production, to enable every human being to live a more dignified and worthwhile human life.

An eminently political (that is, ultimately, a spiritual) question.

The frightening thing is that the most able people in the world are largely focused on (a) making more money for themselves or (b) wrestling with the enormous challenges already facing humanity today.

I don’t duck the making of money (I do work for one of the world’s largest banks!). Nor do I duck the challenge of the present (e.g. corruption in India, or the challenge of social justice and sustainability worldwide).

However, no one seems to be working on the challenge of robots – and this challenge will very quickly dwarf all the other challenges facing humanity at present.

So who wants to join me in addressing the key challenge posed by robots to the future of humanity?

ENDS Sphere: Related Content

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