Our robotic revolution is only just beginning to gather steam

Our industrial revolution: Robots welding part of a Chrysler SUV together at the Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit, Michigan Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Our industrial revolution: Robots welding part of a Chrysler SUV together at the Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit, Michigan Photo: AFP/Getty Images
 Our industrial revolution: Robots welding part of a Chrysler SUV together at the Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit, Michigan Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Our industrial revolution: Robots welding part of a Chrysler SUV together at the Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit, Michigan Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Robots offer the potential for unlimited economic growth – as well as a helping hand about the house.

One of the most fashionable ideas in economics right now is the “end of growth”. This is perhaps only to be expected given the challenges we face, with the barriers to recovery in many advanced economies apparently insurmountable.

One is reminded of John of Gaunt’s soliloquy in Richard II where he laments England’s decline from “scepter’d isle… set in the silver sea” to “like to a tenement or pelting farm… bound in with shame, with inky blots and rotten parchment bonds”. Declinism is very much on the up at the moment, but it is also a cyclical phenomenon; there have been many occasions throughout history when there seemed no hope for the future.

All the same, there are some quite good reasons for believing it might be true this time, and they are argued in highly persuasive terms by one Robert Gordon, a US academic whose thoughts have gone viral on the internet in recent months. Professor Gordon’s big observation is that far from being the norm, longish periods of sustained, per capita income growth are in fact comparatively rare, and are, in virtually all cases, caused by profound technological change.

The modern age has been characterised by three such revolutions. First came steam, cotton spinning, the railways and the other breakthroughs of Britain’s early industrial and agrarian revolutions. After that came mass sanitation, electrification, the motor car, aeronautics, and the jet engine, all driven primarily by tapping into energy-rich hydrocarbons. And more recently we’ve had the breakthroughs of modern computing and communications.

The second of these revolutions was byfar the most significant, transforming and improving the lives of ordinary people in ways their forebears could barely have imagined. The third, according to Professor Gordon, has not been nearly so transformational in terms of its impact on labour productivity, and is now fast running up against the law of diminishing returns.

Social media may have its merits, but as far as advanced economies are concerned, it has failed to add significantly to output and wealth. In any case, for Professor Gordon, the easy gains of the IT revolution – back-office automation, supermarket checkouts, and so on – have largely been and gone.

To my mind, this is where his theories break down. Most of those who actually work in computing think the IT revolution has barely begun. The potential productivity gains from smart machines driven by artificial intelligence – or to use the more emotive term, robots – are at least as great as any of the other revolutions.

Indeed, it is probably a mistake to think of these transformational technologies as separate events. A better way to view the march of technology is as a seamless progression of mechanical developments, starting with machinery for labour-saving functions such as lifting water and grinding grain, through to today’s legion of electro-mechanical devices, from the vacuum cleaner to the articulated welding robots that populate the automotive production lines.

The robots are already with us, but they are still in a quite underdeveloped phase. My interest in them was sparked on a visit to Japan a couple of years ago, where I observed a miniature, humanoid-type robot navigate a zigzag, elevated pathway on a small bicycle, using artificially generated sight, co-ordination and balance functions.

It was an impressive feat that would have foxed many biological humans. This robot couldn’t think for itself but it was capable of some highly complex, reactive movements strictly reserved, u

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