The Democratic Republic of Congo has introduced robotic police to regulate traffic. But as robots become more prevalent in our workforce, will they liberate us or simply leave us jobless?

‘We should respect the robot,’ says a taxi driver. He isn’t talking about a mechanical slave that cleans his home, but an electronic giant that could give him a parking ticket.

Towering over the streets of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, five broad, solar-powered metal humanoids gaze down from human-like faces. The robots have been introduced to manage traffic flow and crack down on drivers flouting the highway code. While some drivers are said not to respect traffic police, there seems to be shared veneration towards these newanthropomorphic machines.

[column size=one_half position=first ]Soon we might all be paying our respects to robots, as they become more emotionally intelligent and increasingly popular in the workforce.[/column]

[column size=one_half position=last ]‘Machines do not think’.

Alan Turing

[/column]

The Associated Press news agency has started using robot journalists to write financial reports, while Amazon’s Chief Executive is experimenting with delivery drones. Even some medical staff could soon be automated.

A recent study concluded that over the next 20 years, 47% of employment will be at high risk of impact from technological changes. In other words, robots are stealing our jobs. In one sense this is positive: robots will complete many tasks vastly more efficiently than humans ever could. Economic productivityis likely to rocket and, as the CEO of Google puts it, the goods that make us comfortable in everyday life will get ‘much, much, much cheaper’.

More optimistic futurologists envisage a harmonious working relationship between robots and humans. The robots will carry out the repetitive and menial work, leaving us free to create, tell stories, think of ideas and invent things.

Others aren’t so enthusiastic, predicting that the economy will go into a ‘deflationary spiral’, with worsening income inequality and massive disruption to people’s livelihoods. Author Andrew Keen predicts that the changes will only benefit a ‘new elite’ comprising those who can own or design computers. To anybody who relies on industrial skills to make their living, the rise of robots is ‘deeply threatening’.

[divider]Artificial workforce[/divider]

‘I don’t understand why some people are not concerned’ says IT billionaire Bill Gates, who worries robots will become too strong for us to control. Many predict that robots will destroy our livelihoods, leaving humanity obsolete. Who wants a world run by a master race of non-sentient technocrats?

Artificial intelligence is nothing to fear, others argue. It will make the world a better, more productive place. Robots can do the boring jobs and leave space for us humans to do the fun things in life. And if we end up earning less, it won’t matter — a world with lower prices and robots to tie our shoelaces doesn’t sound too bad at all.

What will we do all day if robots replace us all? Good question. There’s no precedent for this because it’s never happened before, so no one can definitely say what will happen. Some predict that it will be the middle-skilled jobs that are hit the hardest, rendering the majority of workers unemployed. With no jobs and no income — who knows what we’ll do? Some predict that we will work alongside robots, and will be paid according to how well we work with them.

Have we always known that technology might overtake us? The idea of robots overtaking the workforce is not brand new. As long ago as 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes said we were being inflicted with a ‘new disease’. He referred to it as ‘technological unemployment’ and said we would hear about it a lot in years to come.

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