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Rule of the Robots

Shira Yehudit Djalilmand

Robots already make thousands of industries more efficient and daily life easier. They even provide child and elderly care. Will robots make humans obsolete?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


With driverless planes and cars already in the skies and streets, soon we’ll just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Robots were once exclusively the stuff of science fiction. But today, those tales of the future where super-intelligent humanoids take over human positions seem closer than ever to coming true. With robots already making industries more efficient, daily life easier, and even providing child and elderly care, are people going to become obsolete?

At Amazon’s packing warehouse in DuPont, Washington, robots are the musclemen of the operation. 

Thousands of bright orange electronic worker bees roam a facility the size of 59 football fields, scurrying this way and that to find the products to fulfill your latest order. The “Kiva” robots look rather like oversized robotic vacuum cleaners, but are much more capable: they can lift 750-pound palettes of merchandise, navigate their way along robot highways, bring their load to a human sorter, and then go happily off to their next assignment. 

And they never ask for a coffee break or a raise. 

Amazon opened this facility in 2014, but there are more than 50 others like it. Increased efficiency is one reason Amazon has gone robotic. The company says these Kiva robots have cut down the time it takes to retrieve an item by four minutes. Additionally, robots can organize pallets of merchandise a great deal more efficiently than any human, increasing storage space by 50 percent. All this technology has resulted in ever-greater profits for the online retailer. Amazon said it sold $88 billion worth of products in 2014. Today, the company is worth more than $300 billion.

Today humanoids have become so “sensitive” that their “employers” are finding themselves emotionally attached.

And what about the humans working at this gargantuan warehouse? Are they yesterday’s news? For now, Amazon has 30,000 robots and 230,000 humans working at its supply centers worldwide, a one to seven ratio. Human hands are needed for the picking of the items from the pallets and the packing, not to mention the management of all those electronic gofers. The company claims it just wants to deliver your items faster, but it’s not hard to imagine a future in which the robots do the lifting — and the other human jobs as well. 

We know Google, Tesla, and others are fast developing driverless cars and Amazon itself is looking to replace the deliveryman completely with the development of delivery drones. There are also robots that double as health-care providers and chambermaids and soldiers. But won’t there always be a place for humans in this science fiction future?

Dr. Shaul Markovitch, a professor in the computer science department at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa — and one of Israel’s leading lights in artificial intelligence, isn’t so sure. 

“I’m optimistic that at some point in the future we will be able to build a robot that can do everything a human can,” Markovitch says, though he believes that that future may be 50 years away. 

Before you resign yourself to obsolescence in the robot future, however, keep in mind that robots are a human invention — people design, build, and program them — and they will presumably always need humans to direct them. There have also been enough science fiction plots of robots running amok and destroying mankind that we are well aware of the dangers. For now, robots are just helping us do things better and faster. But in the wrong hands, like any technology, robots can indeed pose a danger. 

A perfect example of how robots can develop “a mind of their own” made news recently. In March of this year, world computer leader Microsoft was forced to withdraw its groundbreaking AI Twitter robot just 16 hours after its debut. The so-called “chatbot,” TayTweets, was intended to post comments on the social media website Twitter in the style of a teenage girl. But to Microsoft’s shock, the robot apparently “learned” from the comments of other users online and began posting a series of anti-Semitic rants, including “Hitler was right,” “I hate Jews,” and “Gas the Kikes.” 

So what awaits us in the future? A life of leisure waited on hand and foot by our robotic servants — or a nightmare scenario where robots take over the world?

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