Column: Roger's Soapbox

Of Metal and Men

By: | November 3, 2014

Roger Crombie is a United Kingdom-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®. He can be reached at [email protected]

Is there a robot in your future? Or — more to the point — is there a you in your robot’s future?

The existential fear of robots has grown of late, but is not new. From H.G. Wells to Isaac Asimov, from Chaplin to Spielberg, the notion of robots helping us do our jobs has always been forecast to end badly for the human race. (The Jetsons saw it differently, but their robots were mostly vehicles and maids.)

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Stephen Hawking has asserted: “Unless mankind redesigns itself by changing our DNA through altering our genetic makeup, computer-generated robots will take over our world.”

Cambridge University is looking into the matter, and Oxford University has reported that sales assistants and bookkeepers are among the jobs most likely to be replaced by robots by the year 2030.

As Norbert Weiner put it: “The world of the future will be an even more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.”

Logically speaking, amoral, unthinking descendants of the Roomba must one day supplant man, who is a puny and often stupid creature by comparison.

That being so, the discussion moves to lesser risks: ethical questions posed by unmanned weapons; robot care units causing social isolation for their patients; the robo-divide between those able to afford their own Robby the Robot and those who are not.

And what of economic issues? Labor leader Walter Reuther once visited an automatically operated Ford plant in Cleveland.

Pointing to the robots making automobiles, Reuther’s host asked him:

“How are you going to collect union dues from those guys?”

Reuther replied: “And how are you going to get them to buy cars?”

Could a robot do your job? Could it spot a false claim or a double payment with the skill you’ve spent years accumulating?

Of course it could. The robot beats you hands down. It doesn’t take long lunches or smoking breaks; it doesn’t become emotional and largely useless when its football team loses; it never whines about its paycheck, not having one; and it doesn’t need a boss to make its life a misery.

Logically speaking, amoral, unthinking descendants of the Roomba must one day supplant man, who is a puny and often stupid creature by comparison.

Blade Runner, here we come. But even if Rolls-Royce says that unmanned robo-ships will one day sail our seas, they’ll need captains, and so will industry.

If your job title has three letters ending in O, you’ll still be needed to set strategy, plan and think outside the robot.

One or two humans will still be needed in insurance offices, of course, to oil the cyber-men.

Is all this good or bad? There’s the rub.

Robotics has already made our lives easier, and we have grown fat and lazy as a result.

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Having Google would not have put Sherlock Holmes out of business; to the contrary, Watson, I should have been able to prosecute my detective consultancy with far greater efficacy.

That’s the attitude to adopt for the future, robotic or otherwise. There will be change, some of it metallic and scary, but we will adapt.

We might be in the gutter, but some of us are gazing up at the skies while the metal men do our jobs for us.

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]