David Byers

I can’t wait for those robots

A report released this month by PwC predicted that 40 per cent of American jobs would be replaced by automation by the early 2030s.

April 12, 2017 13:08

When a foreign construction worker called Sam arrives in Britain in around 18 months, some of his fellow builders may not be happy. Sam won’t wolf-whistle at passing women. Neither will he take long lunch-breaks or demand constant refills of tea.

But it isn’t Sam’s meticulous politeness — or his overseas nationality — that will bother his colleagues. It’s the fact that he’s a robot. And he will have stolen their jobs.

Sam’s full name is Semi-Automated Mason. He comes from New York and he is capable of laying up to 3,000 bricks every day compared with the human average of 500. A robotic expert at JLL, the property consultancy, told me recently that robo-brickies like Sam (or the appropriately-named Australian version, Hadrian) will soon be commonplace on British building sites.

Sam is a little late to the party. We’ve already seen robot surgeons (they carried out their first full operation in Montreal in 2010), robot milking farmers (there are hundreds in the UK already), and even a mini-Terminator (made in Israel, it climbs stairs, goes round corners and fires a pistol).

A report released this month by PriceWaterhouseCoopers predicted four out of 10 American jobs would be replaced by automation by the early 2030s.

This gives the British labour force much to think about, of course. But from my own selfish point of view, I’d like to welcome the forthcoming robot invasion with open arms.

It was Guide to the Jewish man, written anonymously for the JC in 2012, which asserted despairingly: “The male Jew is not predisposed, at a cellular level, towards manual labour.”

I can reveal that my skills in this regard are even more lamentable than most Jewish men. So bad, in fact, that I confess I once knocked my own grandmother out when changing a light bulb by dropping a glass light-fitting on her head (nothing that a packet of frozen peas didn’t sort out).

This kind of technical deficiency seriously affected my love-life as a young man, reinforcing a sort-of David Schwimmer-like status within my friendship group as a charming if unsexy nerd. For anyone frustrated, like me, by their domestic haplessness, robots that build stuff will be our saviour — and save us a fortune in handyman bills.

Putting Sam aside, though, the robot set to revolutionise our lives the most is the driverless car, which is predicted to be a maximum of 10 years away. This prospect terrifies many who fear the technology could be hacked, leaving them hurtling along a freeway a bit like Keanu Reeves in Speed.

On the other hand, I’d argue that allowing our limited human brains to take control of cars for the first time, back in 1886, was one of mankind’s silliest technological decisions, and it’s high time we reversed it. “Over a million people are killed in car accidents every year around the world, mostly due to human error, and in a fully autonomous world all of those (and many more injuries) will also go away,” Benedict Evans, Silicon Valley technology writer, blogs. More than a million deaths a year! That means ceding control of cars could have the same annual global impact as eliminating all fatalities from lung cancer.

Plus, the benefits to our household finances will be enormous. No more will I need to worry about a close family member inflicting prangs to my driveway (twice), my parents’ driveway (twice) or a particularly fast-moving Finchley oak tree (twice).

For someone like me, unsuited to the practical world, I’m all for the robot revolution. That is, if they leave me with a job to go to.

David Byers is assistant editor (property and personal finance) at The Times

April 12, 2017 13:08

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