Viktar Khamianok on the future of "robots vs. humans" and side effects of progress


Viktar Khamianok (Rozum Robotics CEO) delivered a notable presentation at the forum "Business of the Future" that took place in Minsk in September.

This time, Rozum Robotics CEO did not talk about the products offered by his company, his experience in robotic and building hi-tech servo motors of exceptional quality. He chose an important topic that is rarely addressed by robotics companies and their leaders: Where is modern robotics taking us, in terms of progress and in terms of unemployment, why it is still important to mankind to keep building robots and replacing humans at work, and how to adapt to the change this kind of progress brings and prepare future generations to living in a densely automated world.

Here are the main thesis of Viktar’s presentation.

The history of human vs. robot competition counts 200 years, yet so far, all fears of unemployment have been baseless. Ever since the first anti-robot industrial strikes hit Europe as early as in the 19th century, automation has only led to increasing production volumes, expansion of engineering possibilities, growing consumption and creation of ever more working places.

Yet today, sociologists resumed discussion of unemployment risks caused by automation, and the risk is, according to them, that not even 5% or 10%, but up to 47% of working places will become obsolete due to robotization.

The reason is, by the 21st century machines have become really exceptionally smart, and in many cases even smarter than humans. Just one example is the Watson supercomputer by IBM that defeated to greatest human champs in "Jeopardy". Another example is the ASCI Red supercomputer that was built just 20 years ago in the USA and measured the size of a temmis court. And just 8 years later, a computer the size of a large book was built to be as powerful as ASCI Red yet consume a tiny percentage of what energy Red consumed, and cost as little as 400 USD. That computer was called Sony PlayStation.

This kind of technology leap is a perfect illustration of how fast, even super fast the progress is. And it's only accelerating. We are hardly able to estimate or imagine how far technology may take us in 50 years.

The achievements of artificial intelligence and robotics will be hitting news ever more often. Today we read about the Prisma (AI painting app that transforms any photo into a painting as if made by a known artist), Siri and Cortana, Uber self-driving cars etc. And who knows what comes next.

But what seems like a great improvement of life quality, growth of world economy and personal well-being, actually has a flip side.

The challenges

If earlier a computer or machine needed a human operator to function, and was nothing but a pile of iron, if not manned by an operator, today's robots often do not need any human attendance at all. Which means, jobs are in fact becoming scarce.


What should we do if robots replace humans at work?

Option 1: Stop creating innovation

This doesn't look like a good solution, because no innovation means stagnation in the spheres that are vitally important to human well being: medicine, transport, communication, production.

Option 2: Provide unconditional income

Who wouldn't want this? If you do not work yet you get a significant income that covers all your needs. Actually, research shows not so many people would like this, but we'll cover this later.

One of the concerns here is that not every society is ready to live in a reality where money, in huge amounts, is taken from those who work, and given "for free" to those who don't. Yet as researchers found out in a row of experiments held in Africa, France and the Netherlands, only 10% of people who were receiving unconditional income covering their everyday needs, actually stopped working. The remaining 90% kept doing their favorite job, or pursued a hobby or started to volunteer.

Option 3: Cut working hours

That's what actually is already happening. Just 100 years ago a factory worked would log 70 hours per week. Today we typically work 40 hours, and some countries are already cutting weekly hours to 30.

The economists have calculated that to provide everyone with work as a source of income, we would have to cut working hours to 15 or 20 per week.

Option 4: Rethink education

All previous options are arguable. Yet no one would argue that it makes sense to rethink how and what we teach our children. We can not afford spending time on teaching children things at which they wouldn't perform better than machines, or memorizing facts and following rules. In the wolds where skills and knowledge we learn in the first year of college become obsolete by the third year, what we really need to teach are skills like ability to search, sort and analyze information, adapt to change, discover and harness opportunity. Children need to learn things that, no matter how far technical progress takes us, machines won't be capable of in short distance future. That is, creativity, compassion and humanity.

How to get ready

We have to embrace the fact that humankind is stepping into the era of abundance. One of the biggest problems for a human is how to fill the off-work time and satisfy the craving for new, exciting and fun. Every year there will be more companies making billions of dollars while helping people spend their free time. Yet it's not for sure that these billions will be actually worth a penny.

As for the jobs, they will demand for more intellect, and it is obvious not everyone will want to comply. As a result, companies will have to struggle to employ the greatest minds. And these minds won't be attracted to the money paid as much as to challenging, inspiring tasks and ambitious goals.

And the most important thing is, we have to be ready to the fact that with progress being so fast, future becomes unpredictable. In the reality where many see progress as a heavy train moving full steam to the edge of a cliff, I believe in human genius. I believe that, when driven to the edge, standing on a cliff facing a choice between falling all the way down or flying up high, man will choose to soar. And it will be a glorious flight.