There are just a couple of things that need to be invented. The first is a cheap and reliable synthetic vision system. This is already in work by the likes of Google, Nvidia, and IBM. If object recognition (which also implies distance and orientation recognition) can be had for under a couple of hundred dollars, then we need…
The second thing: cheap, reliable, efficient, and fast-acting artificial muscles. The power-to-weight and response time needs to be on par with human muscle fibers. And conversion efficiency (electrical power to mechanical power) needs to be at least fifty percent. These are also in work. Cheap options include muscles made from shape-memory alloy and even fishing line. Both are very inexpensive, but not terribly efficient and with a horrible response time. But better is certainly coming. And then we’ll have the ability to…
Replace pretty much every manual task with a robot. It won’t even make sense to keep sweatshops around when the factory owner can pick up something for a thousand dollars that works without error, 24-7. Sure, they may consume a kilowatt or so of electricity, but in most places that’s less than twenty cents an hour.
In about fifteen years’ time, self-driving cars will become available. Fifteen years after that, normal. Right now, the most common job in the United States is “driver”, be it trucker, cabbie, delivery driver, or bus driver. Those are going to go away. Add in vision systems and artificial muscles with the aforementioned parameters, and every manual labor task will also fall away. If technology continues on its current path (and there’s no real reason that it should not), then this is an inevitability. So the end result will be cutting off the lower two-thirds of employment. Most of the jobs on the global market are those that could be automated, but currently are not due to a lack of robot hands and artificial vision.
Unfortunately, we’re planning our economy as though none of these will ever exist. All throughout this election cycle, I’ve heard calls to “bring manufacturing back to America!” But the sad truth is that it never actually left. It’s just done by automation and, soon enough, will be done everywhere by automation. We as a society have to start planning for this, or we’ll wake up wondering why unemployment is at eighty percent.
Here are a few links to give you something to think about:
Google Self-driving Car project
The Autonomous Tractor Corporation
Fruit-picking robot could replace seasonal contractors
AI Driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution
There are a couple of ways to deal with this (okay, really more than a couple, but I’ll consider the two extremes). First, we can decide that a person’s livelihood is entirely up to them. If they cannot find a job, well that’s just tough. Sort of like how we’ve been doing it for the last few thousand years, and particularly throughout the current industrial revolution.
Or we can take a socialistic approach and say that everyone owns “shares” of collected resources. In that case, you wouldn’t have to work (or work as much, if you liked your job) because the output of the robots would be collectively owned. The automated farm would produce food for everyone, equally. Automated factories would produce goods that people could “purchase” with their collective resource shares. This latter option is much more humane, but our economic system is not at all set up to manage that.
So I’m not offering solutions here. Just something to think about.