There’s a BakeBot robot whipping up fresh cookies at MIT; hospitals are now employing medical robots to assist their doctors; and a robot named Baxter can beat any human at the popular logic game Connect Four, among many other tasks.
“Historically what we thought was that robots would do things that were the three D’s: dangerous, dirty, and dull,” explains Ryan Calo, professor at University of Washington School of Law with an expertise in robotics. “Over time, the range of things that robots can do has extended.”
Their abilities will only continue to expand. Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, anticipates that by 2029 robots will have reached human levels of intelligence.
Many people fear a jobless future — and their anxiety is not unwarranted: Gartner, an information technology research and advisory firm, predicts that one-third of jobs will be replaced by software, robots, and smart machines by 2025.
Artificial intelligence and robots are not just challenging blue-collar jobs; they are starting to take over white-collar professions as well. Financial and sports reporters, online marketers, surgeons, anesthesiologists, and financial analysts are already in danger of being replaced by robots.
While one camp of experts predict that several unlucky Americans will be pushed out of work in the near future, others argue that this increase in computing prowess will simply eliminate old jobs and introduce new ones, resulting in a net-zero effect — or even an increase in jobs. New technology means new products and services, they argue, as we saw during the Industrial Revolution.
Experts are calling this movement the “Second Machine Age,” as it is comparable to what we saw 200 years ago with the invention of the steam engine and the machine age that ensued.
The machines of the Industrial Revolution overcame the limitations of human muscle, while the robots and artificial intelligence of today are overcoming the limitations of our individual minds.
While the Industrial Revolution ultimately led to more employment opportunities, economists are heavily debating whether or not we will see the same result in the aftermath of the Second Machine Age.
The past can be helpful in predicting the future, but there are no guarantees.
While it is hard to fully anticipate the consequences of this major societal shift towards intelligent machines, we can find comfort in the fact that we still have a leg up on robots for certain jobs: ones that require judgment, creative thinking, and human interaction.
“For a long time, artificial intelligence has been better than us at highly structured, bounded tasks,” Calo explains. “What it has not been good at, and likely won’t be good at anytime soon, are the more unstructured tasks.”
Computer scientists generally agree that manipulating language — cracking jokes and detecting sarcasm — is beyond the capability of machines; with such rapid advancements however, an intelligent machine could be writing an article about humans before we know it.