Robots are coming, but are rarely discussed beyond the interested few

Yesterday I gave a talk to an audience of year 13 students at UTC MediaCity. I talked about the growing power and influence of digital skills. About how they define much of our experience today, how our news, products, media and search results are all individually tailored based on an algorithm’s understanding of what we are most likely to want. I talked about how digital skills will increasingly define our physical world with the rise of robots and augmented reality.

At the end, I asked for questions.

Silence.

But not for long. One timid hand raised and its owner offered a question inspired by the film iRobot, about our ability to control this new technology. I answered that this was still a question to be answered. I told her about DeepMind creating its own language. About the game-playing robot that chose to pause the game rather than lose.

Then the flood gates opened.

For the next fifteen minutes, we ranged across politics, philosophy, ethics and economics, as well as technology. Questions about universal basic income. About care and human safety. And about future job prospects.

The students asked a lot of very smart questions. But they were questions that I think most people could, and would, ask, given the right information.

Open questions

What amazes me is that we don’t hear these questions more often.

Outside of a small group of journalists, academics, futurists and forward-thinking business leaders, these conversations are just not being had. These are perhaps some of the most important questions today. Questions that will define the very shape of our future world. Questions that, if more widely discussed, might have a very serious impact on people’s choices — in education, career, location and most definitely, voting.

These are questions of emotion as much as questions of fact. They are questions of fear and self-preservation. Of hope and ambition. Why aren’t more people talking about this?

Our government isn’t. Our media is beginning to discuss these issues, but usually with a somewhat sceptical bent. This is not necessarily a criticism — these ideas are radical and need challenging. But the balance the best media tries to present leaves many comfortable believing these things are still science fiction, not a near reality.

Fact and fiction

This is perhaps not surprising since our fiction has been full of these ideas for decades. We’ve been shown robots taking over since Capek’s play that first gave us the term. Perhaps it’s no wonder people don’t take it seriously. At least not beyond a thin strata of society, defined not by class but by their own self-determined engagement with the issues.

But they — we — must start talking about this. It’s happening. We should not let it take society by surprise.