John Hudson has authored a fascinating book about robots and their impact on the economy and society. Written by an economist, the book covers a wide variety of issues associated with robots and artificial intelligence (AI).
By Mark Knell, Research Professor, NIFU
A robot is nothing more than a machine. Automated devices have existed since ancient civilization and the five industrial revolutions. They gained importance in the digital revolution as they gradually gained AI. But a vast majority of robots today are simply machines that perform certain tasks.
General purpose technologies
The book begins with a basic introduction to the economics of innovation and Schumpeter. Hudson recognizes the idea that robots and AI could become general purpose technologies (GPTs). If they are GPTs, then they must be pervasive, show scope for improvement, and have many spillover effects. But he also recognizes that the rise of robots and AI can lead to certain destructive tendencies reminiscent of the Luddites. Chapter 9 develops some of these issues further.
In the second chapter, Hudson summarizes the history and development of robotics. Robotic devices date back to ancient times, and focused on manoeuvrability rather than having a guiding intelligence. For example, Leonardo da Vinci’s robotic knight symbolizes Renaissance.
Robots also appear as fictional characters, such as Commander Data in Star Trek (android), the Humanoid Cylons from Battlestar Galactica, to animated robots such as Rosy the robot maid in the Jetsons and Bender Bending Rodríguez from Futurama. The number of robots is growing exponentially.
Chapter three describes various kinds of robots and their role in the future. Robots can be autonomous or semi-autonomous, sometimes appearing human-like, but most often as an industrial robot. There are industrial robots, warehouse robots, agricultural robots, autonomous vehicles, caring robots, medical robots, robots in education, and robot security. On the dark side you have robot soldiers and robot drones.
Hudson begins chapter four by describing the three basics in robotics: (1) manoeuvrability; (2) a sense of space; and (3) intelligence. Most robots are stationary, but move their arms and grasp objects, while others can change location. Hudson contends that robots in part differentiates it from earlier technological revolutions in that they require knowledge from many different disciplines.
AI and machine learning are key issues in this chapter. The origin of AI goes back to the work of Turing in 1950 and later development of computing over the previous 70 years. Few robots have AI today and what they do have is narrow, and limited by an inability to deal with common sense solutions to everyday problems. Can AI convert information into knowledge? As Michio Kaku remarked, robots have the intelligence of a retarded cockroach.
Chapter five considers the impact on employment, unemployment, and wages. Does the rise of robotics and AI increase techno logical unemployment? Using Eurobarometer data, Hudson finds that most people believe that robots and AI will destroy jobs, while actual data seems to suggest they have a beneficial impact on society. This may appear overly optimistic, but if robots are complementary to human labour, rather than a substitute, some recent studies such as Frey and Osborne1 appear overly pessimistic.
Subsequent chapters consider further the potential economic impacts, perceptions, and difficulties that robots and AI pose for society.
Is there a robotics and AI revolution? Or part of industry 4.0? I believe they are an outcome of the digital revolution, which has been unfolding over the past 50 years. And the next revolution could be based on a convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and the latest technologies based on cognitive science.
Robots and AI are surely disruptive, and they may be a GPT. This book will help you understand them.
1) Frey, C.B. and Osborne, M.A. 2017. The future of employment. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 114:254–280.
Top photo: Miriam Doerr