Robots, Automation and the Growth of Smart Machines
An automated future
From their first installation in a General Motors factory in New Jersey in 1962 industrial robots have evolved from simple mechanical limbs into the front-end of connected intelligent systems that integrate data about consumers’ preferences with materials handling and component management software. Not only does smart manufacturing require fewer workers, it can deliver tailor-made products at the price of formerly mass-produced goods.
More recently home assistants—notably Google’s Home and Amazon’s Echo—are beginning to combine speech recognition with services such as internet search, food delivery, taxis, and online retail. Along with smart home systems that manage heating, lighting, and security, these technologies have already moved beyond the expensive-novelty phase and are becoming normal labour-saving conveniences.
But the convenience and potential economic benefits do not hide a persistent anxiety about what the transformation in labour-saving technology means—for labour. What are the challenges and opportunities of this new world? Will robots and smart machines cause mass unemployment and growing inequality? Will their inventors and the owners of their intellectual property become a global aristocracy presiding over millions of new helots? Or will robots and smart machines liberate mankind from drudgery in the home and dangers in the workplace? Will they become our servants, our teachers and our companions? Will they allow us to live like wealthy Renaissance men and women?
The roundtable will begin with three 15-minute talks. The first by Hans Peter Brondmo, a Norwegian native who leads one of the X’s robotics projects. X describes itself as a ‘“factory...with the mission to invent and launch “moonshot” technologies that we hope could, someday, make the world a radically better place’. The second talk will be given by Edward Jones-Imhotep, Associate Professor, History of Technology at York University, Toronto, where he focuses on the intertwined cultural histories of reliable humans and trustworthy machines. The third will be given by Prof. Eric Bartelsman, General Director at the Vrije Universiteit and Tinbergen Institute where he is an economist focusing on productivity growth.
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