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Robots are here

C GOPINATH | Updated on January 09, 2018 Published on August 24, 2017

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And they are already disrupting labour

Leading technocrats have warned us of the dangers of using robots in battles. These are autonomous weapons when they are installed with artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities and become ‘killer robots.’ The fear is that the scale and intensity of warfare will increase significantly when we start using robots.

This warning about the dual use of AI and robots is welcome for we need to be reminded about these things on a regular basis, but it will have the same effect as the warning about the dual use of explosives, nuclear fission, and so on, which is nothing.

But robots and AI are having and will have a more insidious effect on our society and there seems to be little one can do about that either. Take employment. With the planet merrily increasing population, activities that reduce employment cannot be dismissed on the grounds that those replaced will be trained for more skilled occupations. It does not happen and the pockets of unemployed within a country have deep social and political implications.

Here again, one can conceive of a dual use approach: one use where robots/AI support and another where it replaces human activity. Enhancing human activity in terms of increasing precision, for example, would be welcome. Similarly, replacing human activity in areas that endanger health and human safety would also be welcome.

The debate arises when their use replaces humans who are at skill levels where opportunities to earn a living are increasingly shrinking. Recently, the City Union Bank announced that its current robot in a branch in Chennai that answers customer queries would soon begin accepting cash, deposit it in a counting machine and through facial recognition software, confirm the deposit through a SMS. It will thus stand next to and assist the teller. Bank officials claimed that it was reducing the work pressure facing officials.

Developed countries have been experimenting with robots in several areas for quite some time. They were welcome in the welding sections of auto assembly for having taken away one area of manufacturing that had a higher probability for workplace injury. So is the case when robots were introduced in warehouses to move goods from one area to another; they are about 50 per cent faster than humans and again eliminate injuries while lifting.

The issue of technology replacing human activity is a broader one and the arrival or robots/ AI is likely to hasten the pace. In many parts of the world, toll booths have been replaced by cameras that capture license plate information for billing or other ways of recognising that you have a pre-paid dongle. Low-skilled jobs like the toll booth collector at the highest risk. In Norway, they are experimenting with crewless container ships that will cost about three times the conventional one but reduce operating costs by 90 per cent.

The societal question is receiving less attention. HR departments may be pleased that robots do not take breaks or fall sick and can work 24 hours. HR managers are not paid to worry about who will buy the products robots are making and transporting. Other robots? For if society does not provide for enough low and high skilled jobs, then we need to be prepared to pay everyone a minimum income to live!

The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston

Published on August 24, 2017

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