Are robots really about to take over the world? Why sales of robots have grown slowly. Future of AI / Artificial intelligence. Impact of robots and automation on jobs / unemployment and economic growth - robotics and AI keynote speaker

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Despite all the talk of robots taking over most menial jobs and putting tens of millions out of work, the growth of robots in factories has been slow – up from 92,000 to a mere 387,000 a year from 2000 to 2017.

A third of that increase was in 2017. Compare this to growth of smartphones, for instance, and the pace is still snail-like.

Sales of such robots are likely to increase by around 10-15% a year – mostly confined to the auto industry, which owns most robots in America. Robots will become cheaper and more intelligent, but smaller models will still cost over $20,000 each in 2020.

Expect rapid growth in military robots – with tens of thousands of drones owned by the Pentagon alone, raising the prospect of swarms of small, semi-autonomous flying robots being thrown into the air above a major battle zone.

“Suicide drones” will soon be available on the open market, able to fly 80 miles an hour, to detonate explosives at any target 40 miles away.

Domestic robots are already here, of course – cleaning floors, for example – but other uses will be hard for consumers to justify, apart from control devices in things like heaters or fridges as part of smart homes.

The biggest personal use of robotics will be in cars – self-drive will be almost universal. The question is only by when.

Robots as personal servants or friends?

The greatest nonsense of all has been the notion that within a couple of decades, in most homes, you will find a walking, talking cyborg-type robot that smiles, tells jokes, does a range of household tasks, or helps with personal care, and becomes a close friend.

The truth is that it will be many decades before such machines become cheaper, better and more acceptable to people than real human beings. 

Yes, it is true that sales of complex life-size robots as sex machines are growing amongst affluent men, but it is also true that real, consenting human beings are “free” and more enjoyable.

Robots will face a lot of competition for such roles. There are also ethical questions: if someone is in a relationship, and then has sex with a robot, are they being unfaithful?

However, we will see major advances in devices that think ‘intuitively’, able to infer meaning from things.

Google has led the way in ‘Semantic Search’, for example, which goes beyond keywords to try to understand what you are really thinking about.

We are still a long way from being able to have a sophisticated conversation with a robot, on a wide range of themes, where you cannot tell if a human is replying or if it really is just a machine. Expect many more experiments, with far more realistic conversations by 2025.

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