Will Robots Make Our Lives Better or Worse?

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Will robots change our lives in the future? It's a funny question to ask when they're changing our lives now in so many ways and they have been for years. From the first time you saw a toaster pop up by itself, we've casually accepted that machines can be trusted to do things for us.

They record our shows, cook our food, play our music, and even run our cars. We just don't see it because these "robots" don't have a face we can talk to or a butt we can kick.

Technically robots are automatic motorised tools, but they're generally known as clunky humanoid foils that have bumbled about popular media for almost a century - mechanised characters of humour, or menace without status, rendering their violent removal a minor plot without guilt.

For decades, people have been predicting how the rise of advanced computing and robotic technologies will affect our lives. On one side, there are warnings that robots will displace humans in the economy, destroying livelihoods, especially for low-skill workers.

So the question is not whether robots and computers will make human labour in the goods, high-tech services, and information- producing sectors infinitely more productive. They will. What really matters is whether the jobs outside of the robot-computer economy – jobs involving people’s mouths, smiles, and minds – remain valuable and in high demand.

Others look forward to the vast economic opportunities that robots will present, claiming, for example, that they will improve productivity or take on undesirable jobs. From 1850 to 1970 or so, rapid technological progress first triggered wage increases in line with productivity gains.

Then came the protracted process of income-distribution equalization, as machines, installed to substitute for human legs, and fingers created more jobs in machine-minding, which used human brains and mouths, than it destroyed in sectors requiring routine muscle power or dexterity work. And rising real incomes increased leisure time, thereby boosting demand for smiles and the products of minds.

Will the same occur when machines take over routine brainwork? Maybe. But it is far from being a safe bet on which to rest an entire argument.

Paul Tan, Architect and Environmentalist

Currently Principal of ARKdesign Architects and Managing Editor of ARKdesign Quarterly, AQ e-magazine

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