Not everything about robots is bright and shiny though. There are social and economic hurdles that forestall robotic implementation in societies and as promising a future as robots can bring, their power if used unwisely could bring humanity to the brink of destruction. Like nuclear power, robots can be used for the benefit of humanity or as weapons of mass destruction. No one wants a robotic apocalypse, so what can be done to prevent it?
The first time humanity faced Armageddon was during the Cold War, a nuclear arms race between Communists lead by the USSR and Capitalists headed by the United States. These two economic systems had irreconcilable differences. Communism was expanding with the promise of government welfare and civil equality within the Iron Curtain, while Capitalism depended on international trade to maintain economic growth – something Communists wanted no part of. Many lives were lost in wars fought over economic policy, all the while the USSR and the United States developed increasingly more powerful nuclear weapons and stockpiled enough destructive force to destroy every man, woman, and child on Earth. The feud finally ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of the World Trade Organization, which secured Capitalism’s place as the worlds dominant economic system.
There is a new Cold War unfolding around sophisticated robotic technologies and the complex economic ramifications of their application in society. In this war Communists have an advantage because their economic model that leaves business and property ownership to the government in exchange for institutionalized public welfare programs and basic amenities like food, clothing, jobs and housing, is suitable for the implementation of a fully robotic workforce. But Communist nations aren’t nearly as technologically advanced as their Capitalist competitors who have been leading the way in scientific research and development since the end of the space race and the fall of the Soviet Union.
Over the last twenty years, however, China has undergone significant changes and rapidly advanced into a formidable world power. In 2004 China shipped over 30 percent of Asia's exports of electronic goods and slipped past Germany to become the world's second largest exporter, just behind the United States. China already produces two-thirds of the world's photo copiers, shoes, toys, and microwave ovens; half of its DVD players, digital cameras, cement, and textiles; a third of its DVD-ROM drives and desktop computers; and a fourth of its mobile phones, TV sets, PDAs, steel, and car stereos. Taiwan, though not officially a part of China, is the leader in outsourcing to mainland China. Its companies have over 50 percent of the world markets for keyboards, motherboards, monitors, and laptop computers, as well as a significant portion of the worlds silicon chip refineries.
Today, depending on whether you convert Chinese yuan into dollars at the market rate or in terms of its domestic purchasing power, it is either the world's seventh largest economy or the second largest. The International Monetary Fund believes China can easily maintain a 7-8 percent annual growth rate for another decade and perhaps longer. At that rate, China's GDP by the most conservative measure would pass Japan around 2016 and could be approaching the size of the United States as soon as 2040. If you look at this in terms of China's domestic purchasing power, however, its GDP could be effectively as large as America's by 2025.
No taxes for 20 years, labor for 30 cents on the dollar, and government grants covering up to half of the cost to build new factories. This is what China has to offer - this is the new Communist threat; China has provided economic incentives to high-tech industries that make it nearly impossible to open shop anyplace else. Though Capitalists are likely to produce the first intelligent robotic systems, if robots are to be mass-produced they will undoubtedly be made in China. Furthermore, once robotic systems are commercially viable there will be nothing stopping China from fully automating their existing manufacturing plants. All of the labor currently outsourced to China will be done by automated systems paid for by the Chinese government, American corporations will rent these fully automated facilities and pay taxes to China because it would be too expensive to build them anywhere else without the assistance of government aid.
The Capitalist economic model isn’t designed to support a robotic workforce. Capitalism relies on selling a dream to people; it survives because people believe that buying nice things will make their lives better. Like a carrot dangled in front of a mule man toils in pursuit of riches while driving progress that knows no bounds. As robots reach economic viability around 2025 will they be used as a carrot, like cars or homes – things people need to have and work endlessly to afford, or will they be the mule and work instead of man to free humanity from the drudgery of labor entirely.
To replace human labor requires a replacement of the entire Capitalist economic system, because if people don’t work, what will we pay them for? Underdeveloped countries wont be as burdened by this dilemma. A small robotic workforce could potentially sustain the basic needs of their entire population and free the people to enjoy luxuries never before possible. This is a new dream – one similar to the Marxist utopia envisioned by Communists of the past - and it posses a threat to the very foundation of Capitalism as it exists today.
During the first Cold War mans faith in the Capitalist dream was so strong that it ripped-apart Communism and the largest country in the world, the USSR. Without economic and political flexibility its possible this new dream will bring the same fate to modern Capitalism by mid-century.
As technology continues to rapidly develop we need to ask ourselves what are we making this for. Everyday when we go to work we need to know what are we working towards. If Capitalists develop economically viable robotic technologies before they are socially and economically ready to implement them it’s possible that Communist countries will piggyback similar technologies and implement them fully into their societies. The efficiency of robots used properly would bring significant leverage to the Communist countries operating under these conditions and reek havoc on Capitalist economic systems in place around the world. There is no telling how Capitalists would respond to a new Communist threat if it jeopardized their standing as world powers, but survivors of the Vietnam and Korean wars know full well that is could get rather ugly.
Ultimately there are many possibilities for what life may be like in the near future, all of which depend on the answer to a question you need to ask yourself today. As technology advances to bring unimaginably powerful machines into everyday life, how will we use them – as leverage against each other or to elevate humanity into a new age of classless freedom?
Communist Robot - Where do you stand on the future?