2013 : WHAT *SHOULD* WE BE WORRIED ABOUT?

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Roboticist; Panasonic Professor of Robotics (emeritus) , MIT; Founder, Chairman & CTO, Rethink Robotics; Author, Flesh and Machines
Not Enough Robots

Many recent press stories have worried that smarter robots will take away too many jobs from people. What worries me most right now is that we will not find a way to make our robots smart enough quickly enough to take up the slack in all the jobs we will need them to do over the next few decades. If we fail to build better robots soon then our standard of living and our life spans are at risk. 

Population growth and technological advance have gone hand in hand for centuries with one enabling the other. Over the next fifty years the world's population growth is going to slow dramatically, and instead we are faced with a demographic shift in age profile of our population unlike anything we have seen since the Shakers--and we know what happened to them.

The one child policy in China, now well into its second generation, has already shifted the demographics of their population in visible ways. Young married couples today are the only descendants of four parents and eight grand parents--they must steel themselves for crushing responsibilities as their loved ones age.

But there is worse from a broader perspective: China has just passed its "peak 19 year old" year. Nineteen to twenty three year olds are the part of the population most drawn upon for both manufacturing workers and military service members. The strains in China are already visible. With competition for labor increasing we have seen working conditions and wages improve dramatically in China over the last three years. That is good, from a moral point of view, and it is good from a western independence point of view, as now companies are starting to make moves to insource manufacturing back to North America and Europe. But it also means that the tools we use to write and read these essays, and indeed the tools we use to run our society, and almost all manufactured goods that we buy at super stores, are going to get more expensive to build. We need productivity tools in the east and in the west, new forms of automation and robots to increase our manufacturing productivity. Over the next few years we are going to become more and more desperate for smarter robots to work in our factories.

The demographic shifts visible in China are also playing out in Japan, Europe, and the US. Our populations are ageing rapidly--slightly more slowly in the US as we, for now, have higher immigration rates than those other regions. While we worry about the solvency of our social security systems, there is a second order effect that will exacerbate the problem, and make life unpleasant for all of us lucky enough to grow older. The demographics shift that is underway will mean there are less younger people to provide services to more older people, and supply and demand will increase their labor costs. Good for nurses and elder care workers, but it will further stretch the meager incomes of the elderly, and ultimately lower their standard of living, perhaps below that of our current elderly and infirm.

This is the new frontier for robots. We are going to need lots of them that can take up the slack doing the thankless and hard grunt work necessary for elder care, e.g., lifting people into and out of bed, cleaning up the messes that occur, etc., so that the younger humans can spend their time providing the social interaction and personal face time that we old people are all going to crave.