Technologically, humanity is at an inflection point. More and more industries are advancing so much that concepts and technologies previously reduced to cameo appearances in Sci-Fi films are beginning to come into the mainstream. This trend is currently being driven by a few key technologies such as autonomous or flying vehicles, the metaverse and, particularly recently, artificial intelligence. However, there is one technology that has so far gone under the radar a little more, which is on the way to completely revolutionising the world as we know it – humanoid robots.
These machines, popularised in films such as The Terminator, or I, Robot mimic human behaviour and appearance allowing them to slot themselves seamlessly into modern human life. Invariably in these depictions, all hell breaks loose, and they need to be stopped. But what would a world look like where their integration is successful and they become a ubiquitous and integral part of everyday life?
That picture is starting to become clear.
Blending in with the crowd
A humanoid’s unique value, and what separates them from other robots already in use such as those on production lines, is derived from their outward appearance. These humanoids look and move like humans – and even possess recognisable facial features.
The fact that they look and move like humans is why their potential for widespread use is so interesting. These features will allow them to be able to seamlessly integrate themselves into our world, taking up positions in warehouses, restaurants, shops, and even our homes.
Humanoids’ design allows them to be adept at a range of tasks usually reserved for humans, often involving high levels of mobility or dexterity. The possibilities in this regard are almost endless. This could be in the service industry acting as waiters, in a warehouse or factory setting helping to stack shelves or organise products, or at home fulfilling a range of household chores. As they will never get ill, and don’t need sleep in the same way we do (apart from the odd recharge here and there), their potential to ease the burden of everyday tasks is clear to see. Other potential, but important, use cases include performing tasks that are dangerous for humans. For example, Boston Dynamics has trialled one of its robots to patrol around Chernobyl testing radiation levels – a job we can be thankful about having lost to machines.
Impact on jobs
Understandably, there is a lot of concern about the potential impact that these machines will have on people’s jobs – perhaps even more so than other technologies due to their likeness to us. Clearly, they will hugely disrupt the working world – as is their entire purpose – with the WEF estimating that 85 million jobs will be displaced globally by the shift from human to robot as early as 2025. This trend could be even more disruptive as humanoids continue to advance. However, in the same report it is estimated that 97 million jobs will be created in the same timeframe. This is down to the fact that these humanoids have no ‘soft skills’ that would involve reasoning or critical thinking – they are specifically designed to do a range of highly-structured tasks, which will free us humans up to apply our intuition and problem solving to other means.
This is the same principle that has been the case in a range of other disruptive technologies in the past such as the internet, which have eliminated some jobs, but created many more.
One of the principal challenges involved in developing humanoids enough so they can work shoulder to shoulder with us is in the way we communicate with them. We are all used to speaking to our phones, or products like Alexa, to give a range of simple instructions. However, there is a lot more work in being able to communicate more complex tasks that we might take for granted such as, ‘please wash the whites on a mixed load at 30 degrees’. This is where a large amount of the work is being done by companies such as 1X, or Boston Dynamics and one of the key roadblocks to humanoids’ mass adoption.
This also raises the question of wider communication. Luckily for us, there are whole industries dedicated to how we communicate effectively with each other. What implications would it have for communications more broadly if we were to suddenly introduce a whole spectrum of human-to-robot communication? In many ways we are currently doing this with things like SEO optimisation, by making sure we tailor our headings and content to stand out for algorithms, but this would develop even further.
I already struggle sometimes with chatbots on companies’ websites – am I speaking to an AI, or to a person? Should I be using “please” and “thank you”, or am I wasting precious seconds typing it out? If there was a world in which up to half the ‘people’ you interacted with on a daily basis weren’t actually human, it would arguably be the biggest transformation in communication since the emergence of language.
Ultimately, there is still a way to go before there are humanoids on every street corner. However, their emergence in the coming years is poised to be one of the most disruptive and transformative technologies yet developed, and as a society we should start preparing for it.
Whether we need John Connor or not, remains to be seen.