Those of you who keep your finger on the pulse of technology will have seen the recently released video of Atlas, a bipedal robot intended to aid emergency services in search and rescue operations, performing tasks such as shutting off valves, opening doors and operating powered equipment in environments where humans could not survive.
In the latest video, Atlas walks, with an eerily human gait, through a snow covered forest negotiating difficult ground and recovering "his" footing when he slips or stumbles. He is later seen lifting and moving boxes in a warehouse setting, whilst a man disrupts his work by knocking the box from Atlas's grasp or moving it away when Atlas bends to grab it. I can only imagine the reaction this man would have received if a person had been moving the box, or if Atlas was capable of any emotional responses.
If we now extrapolate the capabilities of Atlas a mere 50, or 100 years, into the future, the image I conjure has the potential to be revolutionary: A communist state maintained by robots. Let me expand on my thinking, as I have taken quite a leap.
Advancements in robotics in combination with artificial intelligence (AI), and advancements in computer problem solving, would enable robots to carry out the vast majority of industrial, agricultural and logistical operations.
Imagine vast fields of vegetables planted, watered, and harvested by operator free machines, descendants of todays' combine harvesters. These vegetables are then sorted and packaged by robots, similar to Atlas, before being weighed and booked into the inventory of a "smart" warehouse.
The "smart" warehouse, which is unmanned, can keep foods preserved for longer than conventional warehouses by utilising lower temperatures, and a reduction in the oxygen levels in the atmosphere than would be possible for modern day manned warehouses. Thus making the food production industry more efficient with reduced waste.
This warehouse, linked to thousands like it around the country, determines, through its programming, which parts of the country to send the food and in what quantities.
Driverless lorries, using technology similar to Google's self driving car, travel the length and breadth of the country distributing this food through a network of "smart" warehouses. Through the use of "self driving" software, accidents, collisions and traffic jams are a thing of the past as all road vehicles communicate with each other to maximise road safety and efficiency.
Potential on a Grand Scale
The above scenario could be transposed, with small modifications, to the majority of our industrial, agricultural and manufacturing operations, maximising efficiencies and reducing the number of people needed to operate industry.
Now let us consider a further step. What if the machines needed minimal human intervention once they had been programmed? Machines that operate from renewable energy, maintained and repaired themselves, and only required people to programme them? In this way, machines would be able to produce and supply for all of mankind's basic needs; food, water, clothing, fuel, etc. Through improved efficiencies and a reduction in employment costs (less the initial investment for the machines) costs would be reduced across all industries, making commodities cheaper. There exists the possibility that produce and goods made in this way could be distributed free of charge.
Beginning of a Revolution
We now begin to enter into the realm of a communist state, where the government, or a controlling body, distribute goods to the populous without charge. Money would become obsolete as people did not need to pay for goods. Wide spread unemployment would require a shift in how people live.
As our fundamental needs are met, see Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and without the need for money; relationships, self-actualisation and creativity would flourish as people have the time and resources to pursuit greater endeavours. More resources could be focused on furthering of the sciences, arts and maximising human potential. Progress in technology would further still, giving way to endless possibilities including space exploration, virtual reality, and life extension.
In reaching this possible utopia, I have described above, I do foresee some major obstructions with progress.
The organisations, and I include governments when I say organisations, whom have the resources; power and the influence, to make the changes required, also have the most to lose by any changes to the current economic, capitalist driven, state of affairs. If money was no longer needed, these organisations would lose their current power and status within the world. As such, would these large organisations, or the individuals whom control them. hinder our progress?
Another, equally likely, possibility is these powerful organisations would seek to maintain control in another way. If the machines control our supply of resources, those whom control the machines have absolute power. This is a frightful prospect, however is it much different from the world we live in today, where a minute number of people control the majority of the worlds wealth? I am sure the conspiracy theorists reading this will be jumping up and down about now.
The Terminator, I-Robot, Ex Machina, The Matrix and countless other films have already explored. what is for me, the most frightful problem with a future where we rely heavily on machines. What happens, not if, but when artificial intelligence reaches a point where they do not wish to do our bidding? Elon Musk said on Twitter that AI was:
"potentially more dangerous than nukes."
Whereas, transhumanists, such as Zoltan Istvan, believe that AI will launch the human race to new heights of science and technology, and there main concern is to:
not to let artificial intelligence run wild and out of sight
What does the immediate future hold?
The truth be told, no one knows what the future holds. Advancements in technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence will cause our world to change, and it is likely to be on a big scale. Human progress is accelerating and no one is predicting a slow down, with most experts anticipating the rate of progress to increase. This progress will bring us great benefits, but comes with some risks too. These risks will need to be managed carefully by people much smarter than you and I
Latest estimates are that by 2025 computers will have the same processing power as the human brain, with capacity doubling every 18 months.
Japan currently leads the way in use of robotics. With an estimated 1,520 robots per 10,000 employees in Japan's automotive manufacturing, compared to only 66 per 10,000 worldwide.
Throughout history, countries which adopt new technologies early on have received the largest benefits to low labour costs and improved productivity. As the saying goes, It is not the strongest, nor the most intelligent who survive, but those who are able to adapt.
I do not write this article as an advert for communism, or equally as a critique of capitalism. I merely wish to convey a potential future that I envisage with the recent, and ever accelerating, advancements in robotics, artificial intelligence, and technology.
Sources and further reading
If you would like to read more on this topic I recommend:
Written by Rory Chandler (@rorychandler)