Human progress is bound only by the limits of human imagination, and the boundaries are disappearing at warp speed. Information technology is lending an invisible hand to major sectors of human activity, and robots are muscling in on the rest. Whether it’s all, or just mostly, to the good is a subject for ethicists, philosophers and theologians. For everyone else, the challenge is simply how to adjust.
Commerce makes the world go ‘round, and that’s not likely to change. Amazon, the world’s largest internet retailer, along with other Web-based sellers, moved a step closer to making rapid delivery via unmanned aerial vehicles a reality when President Trump signed an executive order last month granting local governments more authority to test the use of drones for deliveries.
The prospect of freeing the nation’s crowded roadways from trucks and delivery vans is a welcome one. Pilot programs for drones, like Amazon’s Prime Air and Alphabet’s Project Wing, must earn their wings by demonstrating that a gust of wind or a dropped remote signal won’t send a whirligig laden with pizza and a six-pack into a tailspin that cracks a windshield or a pedestrian’s skull. Truckers with foresight will practice drone skills in anticipation of the day when the boss hands them a remote control instead of the keys to the truck.
Amazon is further experimenting with a store without cashiers, where customers simply collect their purchases and head for the door. Amazon Go, currently being tested in Seattle, uses “just walk out” technology that includes a tracking system equipped with product sensors and cameras to add up the bill and deliver it to the shopper’s smartphone. Designing the system requires the expertise of research scientists and engineers paid far more than the starter wages paid to teenage cashiers. Once the virtual employee is perfected, economy of scale is likely to steal the occupations of flesh and blood workers. Automation is expected to eliminate 73 million jobs by 2030, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.
Americans are already bracing for the rise of the machines. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of those surveyed expect stores to be fully automated within the next 20 years, and 65 percent say they believe most deliveries in urban areas will be handled by drones.
The armed forces are always on the scout for a few good men (and women, too) to fight the nation’s wars, but that, too, could change. Advanced nations are developing fully autonomous weapons — “killer robots” — to serve as expendable mechanical warriors. Saving lives from the battlefield meatgrinder is a worthy goal, but malfunctioning robots might kill with the indiscriminate abandon of a video game. The United Nations is currently drafting a set of rules governing weapons capable of destroying targets without human control. It’s a step that must precede further developments in the martial arts.
The advent of robots that make war may be accompanied by robots that make love (or a reasonable enough facsimile). Companies around the world are manufacturing lifelike sexbots (mostly female) that look and feel like the real thing. A brothel in Barcelona has replaced its live women with soft polymer models.
In the era of hypersensitivity to sexual harassment, manufactured companionship may seem a safe alternative. But with rapid advances in artificial intelligence, computer scientists say human-like machines are on the cusp of self-awareness. The day may not be far off when a comely robot jolts the world with cries of rape. “The future,” as the eminent philosopher Yogi Berra warned us, “ain’t what it used to be.”