The march of the robots

Saturday 29 September, 13:3015:00, The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, B2 5NYUK satellites

This debate is part of Battle of Ideas Birmingham – buy tickets here.

The world’s first industrial robot went into production in 1961. Since then, opinion has been split as to whether robots would take our jobs and throw us on the dole or free us up to enjoy more rewarding work and shorter hours. And yet, though no one doubted the impact of such a change, the robotics revolution never seemed to happen. Today it is estimated that there is one robot for every 135 employees globally, though some speculate that this figure is set to rise significantly in the near future.

Many of the biggest naysayers are not the sort of the people you might expect to be down on new technology – their fears are deeper and more existential in scope. Billionaire high-tech CEO Elon Musk has said: ‘What’s going to happen is robots will be able to do everything better than us… I mean all of us.’ Bill Gates, and others, have proposed that robots should be taxed and the revenue used to finance universal basic income. This would arguably slow down their development and ease the pain as they gradually put workers out to pasture. Stephen Hawking went even further, predicting that artificial intelligence could help robots to replace humanity completely.

Is the march of the robots like a genie in a bottle – an unstoppable force beyond our capacity to moderate? Or should we work to encourage the development of robotics? Should we be protecting working life as we know it, or finding news ways to innovate?