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Will Japanese Robots Rule the World by 2020?

Why might robots be the greatest threat we face in the near future?

March 16, 2006

Why might robots be the greatest threat we face in the near future?

Return to Part I.

Some people accuse me of being over-optimistic about Japan’s ability to launch sophisticated entertainment and personal-service robots by 2015.

Well, I would simply invite them to consider how many cases they can recollect, in the last 50 years, where Japan has missed a nationally-set industrial target.

So I have no doubt that the Japanese will unleash the next generation of sophisticated robots starting in about 2012. That will mean that the question occupying most people’s minds then (sadly, too late!) will no longer be ecological sustainability.

In my view, the real question for the future of the globe is not sustainability.

True, the impact of our non-sustainable policies has started affecting us and will gradually worsen — but it is not going to be catastrophic for humanity as a whole.

Asian tsunamis and Katrina and Rita-type hurricanes notwithstanding, the environment will probably not degrade rapidly in the next 50 or so years, as far as I can make out.

The real question is: How will we as a human society adjust to a world with such sophisticated robots in the next seven to ten years? More precisely, the question is: Who will own the robots? And will the owners be humanitarians — or despots?

How can we stop owners from misusing robots — for example to attack specific or certain types of human beings? There is even the possibility of keeping the rest of the world population in virtual slavery.

That would finally bring about the world of “1984” demonstrating that George Orwell was only about 30 years off in his estimate — though, of course, he had in mind a different kind of fascism.

No doubt, my concerns will be dismissed by many as mere doom-mongering.

However, I am convinced that the question facing the world is how to build by 2015 (or 2020 at the latest) the necessary worldwide legal agreements, in order to most effectively take advantage of the unparalleled prosperity and freedom from drudgery afforded by robot-driven production of goods and services.

This will enable every human being to live a more dignified and worthwhile life. Even so, many people will be totally paralyzed by the question: “What would you really like to do with your life?” They may well respond: “Can’t I just go back to my old job?”

So the rise of robots raises eminent political, spiritual and value-oriented questions.

The frightening thing is that the most able people in the world are largely focused on (a) making more money for themselves or (b) wrestling with the enormous challenges already facing humanity today.

I don't duck the making of money (I do work for one of the world's largest banks!). Nor do I duck the mega-challenges of the present, such as corruption in India, or the challenge of social justice and sustainability worldwide.

However, no one seems to be working on the challenge of robots — and this challenge will very quickly dwarf all the other challenges facing humanity at present. So who wants to join me in addressing the challenge posed by robots to the future of humanity?

For starters, I propose the following five measures:

First, global society needs time to digest the fact that these robots have been developed — and it needs time to agree on suitable socio-economic-political policies and arrangements to prevent mass-unemployment and political unrest.

How can we slow down the introduction of this new generation of robots — so that before they are unleashed commercially, we have sufficient consensus on the following questions?

Second, these policies could include a Robotics Research Tax on the development of such sophisticated robots (say, a tax of 1,000% of the money invested in robot research — yes, I did write one-thousand percent).

This tax money should be put into a global fund for formulating and getting public agreement about possible new models to provide finance for survival and consumption (including cost-free basic food, shelter and clothing, since these will cost practically nothing in a robot-driven world economy).

Additionally, we need to get public agreement for new models of social and political organization (will we need a “winner-take-all” world economy when these robots have become widespread?).

Third, there could also be a Sophisticated Robot Introduction Tax (of say 500% for the introduction of each robot into actual commercial service).

This money would go into a fund to re-train the people whose sophisticated jobs are going to be made redundant by this new generation, and then by subsequent generations, of robots.

Fourth, the sums that I have proposed may well be too small. I have proposed these based simply on intuition at present.

If economists wish to join me in pursuing more rigorous thinking on the actual tax rate, as well as on the changes in the global economic, business, monetary and financial system that will be entailed, that would be excellent.

And lastly, all basic R&D in robotics should be publicly funded with the resulting intellectual property rights in the public realm — and not belonging to corporations.

At present, most of the fundamental research into robotics is funded by the Japanese and other governments. However, access to the research results is given only to selected companies by neat legal arrangements.

Corporations worldwide should be encouraged, on the basis of the research available to them all, to produce robot-related products and services on a competitive basis.

I have not made the above suggestions lightly. Terrible diseases require strong medicine. The arrival of robots could be the equivalent of a terrible plague — or it could be an enormous blessing to humanity.

If we don’t consider taking some actions similar to the ones outlined above, then I guarantee that robots will be a curse to humanity.

On the other hand, if we are willing to take such actions, then robots could be the best thing that have ever happened, enabling the development of the first genuinely humane society worldwide.

Regretfully, as far as I can see, the world will not take either my recommendations or my warnings seriously. So what will be the result? Japanese robots, launched from 2010 at the latest, will rapidly displace most human jobs in both the developed and developing worlds.

They will also replace the kinds of robotic machinery that is being installed in the “latest” factories, for example in China.

Even without the cultural reformation that is otherwise necessary, Japan will therefore finally break through its stagnation, and move from being the world’s second-largest economy — a position it has held for over 30 years — to becoming the world’s leading economic power by 2020 at the latest.

That's the benefit of being the master inventor of all these robots.

The above feature represents the personal views of Professor Prabhu Guptara, and was contributed in an entirely personal capacity