Where are robots and IT going? Nearly every day we hear that robots are multiplying. Robots and IT are supposed to be poised to take millions of jobs, increasing social inequality. Shop workers, it’s forecast, will be particularly hard hit. We’re told that we will just have to deal with the potentially damaging consequences, and shift society’s focus towards improving education and lifelong learning.
It’s also said that IT systems are already brighter, and work faster, than human beings. The intelligence of computers is, we’re told, increasing exponentially – indeed, it’s argued that the machines are already accelerating away from people, and that by 2030, robots (or ‘smart machines’, at least) will ‘have on average an IQ higher than 99 per cent of humans’.
How seriously should we take these claims? Let’s start with robots, the most evocative face of IT. It’s true that robot numbers are increasing fast. In Europe, where the number of robots per workers is, surprisingly, among the highest in the world, robots enjoyed a compound annual growth rate of 26 per cent in Poland, and no less than 40 per cent in the Czech Republic, between 2010 and 2015.
Yet it’s only in this sense that we can speak of any ‘rise of the robots’, for their penetration of industry will remain tiny for years to come. South Korea boasts the highest density of robots in the world, but has just one for every 20 manufacturing workers. Even China, which in 2015 bought nearly 70,000 units, 20,000 more than Europe, aims only to have 1.5 robots per 100 employees in 2020. To reach that target, it will have to buy half a million robots – twice more than that bought by the whole world in 2015.
This is welcome progress – robots are becoming lighter, more mobile and more modular in construction. They can also make a real difference: a Dutch surgical-assistance robot is stable and precise enough to work inside a moving, if anaesthetised, human eye, and restore sight. But to portray robots and IT as omnipotent enough to add to social inequality is ridiculous.