Many people are interested in the future. They want to know how exactly the world will look like in 10 years or in 20 years. Will robots take over? Will intelligent machines have replaced human workers?
The first important hint is, that robots and Artificial Intelligence isn’t able to increase the productivity. In some studies of the 1980s around the Halle 54 at the car manufactorer Volkswagen this was described as a productivity paradoxon. It means, that even after advanced robotics technology was introduced into the company the productivity isn’t higher. From an economical point of view, Robots are a disaster. They are costing a lot and their output is zero. Classical non-robotics automation techniques invented in the 19th centure before the first microchip was produced are the better technology in factory automation. That means, classical assembly lines and packaging machines are superior to robotics arm and software controlled systems.
If robots can’t be used productive in the industry, where exactly are they are used in future? The walking robots of Boston Dynamics and the self-driving cars of Google are reality. That means, the technology is there and they is evolving quickly. But not into useful machines which are helping the humans but future robots are some kind of fifth wheel on the carriage. Robots are there, they are present at the street and in the industry but they have no useful task. That means, the robotarm at the assembly line doesn’t packaging products, instead it is some kind of research project. And the same is true for walking robots which can be seen in the park. The robot walks around, the algorithm works better than ever but he has no real task. Instead, the robots will costs a lot and provide nothing in exchange. They are from an economical point of view a costfactor or a luxaruy. They are financed by humans and by pure mechanical machines. Future robots will have a social role comparable to a priest. That means, they have a fixed place in the society, they have something to do, but they are not used for producing goods and services. Instead robots are the problems.
Let us make an example. The vision of Waymo is, to revolutionize the transport business and replace normal taxis with self-driving cars. What will really happen in 10 years is, that the waymo cars are driving without a driver through the city, but with no guests on board. They are driving alone. Rich companies and private citizen have them bought as some kind of toy or for promotional usage. But these self-driving car are not able to replace real drivers. They won’t reduce traffic accidents and they won’t reduce the transportation costs. They will become some kind of useless invention without any purpose.
To understand the situation let us focus on the opposite: technology which is useful. A normal car or a non-robotics assembly line provides something. That means, a mechanical assembly line is bought by a company to increase their productivity. The idea is to reduce the costs and increase the output per day. The same is true for a normal car. The idea is to travel a distance for lower costs than without the car. Both are an investment. They were bought because of economical reasons. If a persons owns this technology he has a benefit. And now let us compare this with spiritual robots. These machines will have a negative balance sheet. That means, a company buys a dual arm robot for their assembly line and from a financial perspective the investment was a bad choice. The robot will need a lot of electricity, asks for a professional programmer and his output is zero. That means, the company is not able to benefit from the technolgy. The same is true for self-driving cars. These cars will costs a half million US$, they will drive completly autonomous, but their economic impact is negative. They are not replacing existing car or existing human drivers, they are operating on top of existing systems. Robotics and ARtificial Intelligence is generating additional costs and will charge the enviornment.
The idea of useless things isn’t uncommon in modern society. Many people in the world are owner of dogs and cats. These animals have no purpose in the family except from making life more interesting. The human has bought the dog to get a lot of trouble with him. And exactly this is the role of robots too. They will cost a lot but have no benefit. In the future, robots will be everywhere. They are present in schools, in the industry and at home. That means, but not as a helping hand. Their social role will become the opposite. That means, the robots who are making the most trouble are the favorite model. They are acting as some kind of professional trouble make similar to ALF (tv-series in the 1980s).
What is productivity?
An easy way to explain productivity is if we are comparing a pre-industrial society with an industrial society. The difference is, that in the first example all the goods are shipped with horses, while in the second the car is used. In the first use-case the humans have no access to electrical current and diesel-engines in the second case they have. That means, an industrial society has a greater productivity and the costs of the products are lower.
Now let us compare the industrial world with a robotics society. What is the difference? Some science fiction authors have imagined, that robots will increase the productivity further. According to the dream a robot is a very powerful steam engine which can replace human work completely. This kind of outlook is naive and wrong. It misinterprets the nature of human work. In an industrial society, most of the manual work is already automatized. That means, the automation level is 80% and higher. What all the humans are doing is not to produce goods but they are communicating about economy. Only very few jobs have to do with production itself, and even these jobs are mostly organized in teams, so that in reality work has always to do with talking to each other. A robot, which is by definition a non-human worker can’t be part of this discussion. He will reduce the productivity of the humans.
This hypothesis to understand is difficult. And no large scale studies are available which have researched the topic in detail. In some of the literature it is called the productivity paradoxon and means, that it is not possible to increase the automation level over a certain degree. If a company has already an assembly line in charge there is no way in optimize the production further. That means, an industrialized society provides already the maximum in productivity.
At the same time, robots are evolving into a working technology. That means, we see on the first hand each year new and better working robots and at the same time there is no need for such technology. That means, robots are invented without a need but as an extra society on top of the existing. Similar to the existing population of all household dogs and cats. They are there, they are doing something, but they have no real task in the society. This makes robots unique from inventions in the past, like the car or the diesel engine. The car and other machines have a purpose. They will make people more efficient and they are reducing the costs. In contrast, a robot is a negative machine. It takes energy and skills from the environments and doesn’t provide a useful feedback back.
A prominent example it the Unimation company. It was the first robotics company, founded by Joseph Engelberger in 1962. From an economical point of view, the company has produced dogs. That means, the Unimate robots have produced a lot of costs, but doesn’t automate anything. The vision of Engelberger was to produce robots for hospitals, and some older pictures shows these robots in reality. But they were not able to replace a single worker. Most of the time, the robots were defect or they were travelling without a purpose through the house.
The unimata robots are a typical example of spiritual robots. That means, these machines were from productivity point of view a nightmare, and their only purpose was to make a lot of trouble. Hundred of engineers and programmers have tried to bring the robots onlline and they are wasted their life with the robots. Exactly this social pattern will repeat in every robotics company. A modern example is Waymo, which is a spinoff of the Google self-driving car. We will see the same social pattern like in the Unimation example. The engineers will put all their energy into the self-driving cars and at the end they get nothing back.
Are robots useless?
At first we have to define productivity from an economical point of view. A machine make sense for a company, if the machines helps to increase the profit. This is true for mechanical automation. Without the assembly line the company will produce 100 pizzas a day, with the assembly line they can produce 100000. They reason, why machines are bought in industry is to earn more money and to reduce the costs. From that point of view, robots are useless, because they doesn’t fulfill these requirements. Robots are expensive machines, they will need a lot of programming hours and the end the company is not able to increase the number of produced pizza. Also the robots won’t help to reduce the costs.
If a company is buying a robot, this is equal to that the company is buying goldfish. That means, the animal has a price, it will look great in the office but it is doing nothing. Somebody may argue, that a goldfish and robots too have a meaning. But not from an economical point of view. To see the meaning the definition has to be changed. That means, if somebody likes robots he won’t argue with costs but he would say, that a robot is equal to a vision of the future. And perhaps the robot will help him to become more productive. But this explanation is not quite accurate. Because the term useful has a clear economy driven meaning. The correct definition of a hamster, a household dog or a painting of van gogh is that it is all useless from a productivity point of view.
Let us take a look back to Joseph Engelberger and ask him something about robotics. What can we learn from his life or his company? The perception under AI researcher is, that Engelberger was with his robots ahead of his time. He invented the first robots even before the first microcomputer was available. So he failed of technical reasons, right? That is not accurate. It is true, that in the 1970s and 80s computers were too slow to control a robot, bu if Engelberger would program today’s more modern robots he would fail again. A modern version of Engelberger is Rodney Brooks. He has founded Rethink robotics in the year 2008. In that time, the microcomputer was already invented and high performance Raspberry PI computer was sold at the market. Brooks started his company in a time in which computer hardware and software was highly developed. But his company failed of the same reason like Engelberger failed. The problem is, that more advanced robots are not able to provide more sense or a higher productivity. What i want to tell is, that the Unimate robot is useless and the Baxter robot as well. They are not able to replace human workers or increase the productivity in a company. Even worse, they are increasing the costs and lowering the productivity.
To understand Engelberger and Brooks we must see robots as spiritual machines. That are inventions which have never a positive effect. They are equal to a black hole which absorbs money, human intellect and manhours and doesn’t provide something back. And we can go a step further and predict that future robotics companies will run into the same problems. Even the latest generation of Boston Dynamics walking robots are useless. These advanced machines are more powerful than the Baxter robot and the Unimate robot. The Boston Dynamics robots can walk, jump and even make a backflip. But they won’t provide anything back to society. They are absorbing lots of energy and can’t be used in a productive meaning.
Increasing the productivity?
Is it possible to increase the productivity of today’s robot? Is it possible to use them in industry, for rescue missions or in the household? Unfortunately the answer is no. If the aim is to increase the productivity in an economical meaning a look back into the technology of the 19th century make sense. Most of the machines invented before the advent of computers can be used to increase the productivity. Positive examples are the refrigerator, the car, the telephone, the electric light, the tin can and the vacuum cleaner. The common feature of these machines is the absence of computerized control. They are working without microelectronics and they are driven by manual buttons for turning them on or off.
It is not possible to increase the productivity further above the automation level of the 19th century. If a robot is used with that aim, the productivity curve will be lower. This effect can’t be overcome by better programming or newly developed algorithm, it is normal for all robots.
If we want to understand what robots are, we must built real robots. That are robots designed as a useless machine. The reason is, that all robots are useless so it make sense to invent from the beginning a machine which has no meaning. On the internet some examples of useless machines and especially of useless robots are given. These machines are the real robots. That means, they were constructed without wrong expectations. The robot is providing exactly this behavior what was expected from the begining. That means, the system is called useless and it will behave so.
Limits of automation
Instead of focus on robotics technology itself, it make sense to observe everything apart from robots which is used for automation. Let us take a look back into the time before the first computers were used widespread. The period of the short timetravel is the 1950’s and the 1960’s. That means, much of modern technology was already invented except of the microcomputer revolution of the 1980s. What can be automated with technology from the 1960’s? Surprisingly very much. Harvesters are used in the agriculture, the industry is working with mechanical machines, the products were transported into the city with trucks and the homes are equipped with refrigerators and toasters. That means, 80% of the manual work was automated in the 1960s. Only minor part like driving with the car into the supermarket were not automated.
The question is, what exactly was the job of the humans in that time if everything was automated? Their task was similar to what humans are doing today. They are going to school, They have learn a lot about business, science and politics and they are meeting each other in the company to present new strategies. The term automation describes a situation in which machines are doing the manual work. For example to harvest grain or to package food. The humans are doing the remaining works which can’t be automated. For example driving the truck, teaching the students and discussing problems with employees.
And here we find the problem in automation. If a society has already reached an automation level of 80% and most of the manual work was automated, the potential for future automation is low. That means, even if one engineer makes the invention of the century, he won’t revolutionize production again. Let me give an example. A modern truck has a capacity of 40000 pounds, A state-of-the art harvester has a rotor length of 3 meters, and a coal driven powerstation can produce 100 megawatt per average. Until which level this amount can be increased? Right, the limit is reached. And even advanced robots can’t improve the situation.
Most people have the hope, that robots will help them personal and all the world in becoming more productive. They dream of a society in which robots and not humans are going to work. The truth is, that the reality is the opposite. That means, it is possible to program robots in a way, that they are completely useless, while the humans become more productive. Let us make it more realistic.
The society of the future contains of robots who own humans as their workers. That means, the advanced robot likes to go shopping and he is asking a human if he can drive him to the city. The human controls the car and gets paid for the job, while the robot is sitting in the back and reads the newspaper. This sounds funny, but it will become the future. The reason for this kind of roleplay is that humans have a demand for helping other. That means, they are inventing robots only for the purpose, to become the servant of the new species. And if the humans are not looking advanced enough and have no demand for going shopping they will get programmed in such a direction. The robots from Joseph Engelberger were build for low costs, there demand for energy and software was low. The new cars of Waymo will produce more costs and need more programmers. Robots in 10 years will become so advanced, that they will have demand for thousands of AI experts and they will have wishes like going shopping and going to the doctor.
Are robots able to replace factory workers, painters, musicians, or supermarket employees? The answer is always no. Robots can’t do it. The funny information is, that even the robot is more intelligent than a human he won’t replace him. Robots are additional entities in the society. They are similar to superintelligent house dogs. They have no purpose, instead they are producing costs. What robots are doing is not provide work, they have a demand for work. That means, it is possible that a human works for a robot. For example, a human can compose a song and play it loud to entertain the robot. A human can deliver a pizza to the robot, because he is hungry. That is the social role robots can play.
I know it sounds a bit wired, but the natural role of robots is to be a useless machine. And per definition such a technology is not able to increase the productivity but it will do the opposite. Future society will organized in a way, that robots can benefit from it. The question is how humans are able to help robots. Humans will work for robots, they will pay taxes for robots, they will repair robots, they will entertain them and humans will obey to the robots. Basically, robots will become the social role of gods on earth. The funny fact is, that this role isn’t intended by anybody but it is the natural choice.
Let us make a thought experiment. A single person and not the overall society builds a new robot from scratch. For example, a simple Lego Mindstorms line follower with a simple software. So in theory, this robot can be programmed in any direction and because it is a single engineer he can do with the machine what he wants. Which social role will the robot become in the one-to-one relationship between the robot and the human? It’s natural role is become a king or a god. That means, the EV3 brick is superior to the human, and the human will do everything to make the life of the robot better.
Perhaps the human will try to adjust the relationship into the other direction. He would invent an application for the Lego brick in which the robot is working for the human and not other way around. Is this rolemodel possible? Unfortunately not. The Mindstorms robot can’t be used for productive tasks, and even if the robot is bigger for example a full blown kuka robot nothing will change. That means, any attempt to utilize the machine for a useful purpose will fail. The human is not able to profit from the robot.
This kind of interaction will take place for the whole society. The single engineer will fail to change the relationship to the robots, and the overall society too. At the end all the humans are working for the robots and even if they are trying they are not able to make it differently. Let us give another example. Since many years the AI community is trying to build medical robots. The idea is, that a robot will replace a human doctor and this will reduce the costs. This effort wasn’t successful until now. And it won’t be able to build robot doctors in the next 100 years. Instead something remarkable is taken place. During the last years, so called robot psychiatrists are available. That are humans who are playing doctor for a robot. If a robot owner thinks that his robot needs a psychiatrist, he can visit such a person. This funny fact is, that such a relation ship works very well. That means, there is a demand for psychiatrists for robots and the prediction is, that in the future more robots needs mental help.
That means, from an engineering perspective it is possible to build robots who asks for a service, but it is impossible to build robots who are providing a service.