Technological revolutions are nothing new, but each revolution comes much more quickly and lasts for a shorter period of time than the previous one. Thus, it always useful to look backwards, in order to understand what lies ahead.
We will never know what initially propelled the first humans to pick up a stone and turn it into a weapon, but it was the miraculous and turbulent beginnings of technology.
The first real revolution began when we learned how to form an agrarian society by implementing resources and working together as a community. We discovered that through farming, we could more efficiently and reliably feed ourselves. This was around 8000BC, but it would be another 9760 years before the next major industrial revolution.2 Somewhere in our evolution, our brains evolved to the point in which we realized that by taking advantage of natural resources and manipulating them to serve us, it would increase our chances of survival. Ever since then, we have both taken advantage of and abused this evolutionary step. We utilized animals as our engines for hundreds of years and dehumanized our own species to create slavery. However, if you look at the history of robotics, you will also see that the humans started imagining robotics even before we wrote the Bible.
It should come as no surprise that the first conceptual mentions of robotics came from Asia almost two and a half thousand years ago, when a Chinese King wrote about receiving a “mechanical man.” Whether or not this encounter actually took place, we will never know. But, given that the mechanical man had all the major organs of a human, the historical account may have been a slight exaggeration. Like ancient China, ancient western history also provides accounts of robotic conceptualization. Aristotle himself once wrote, “There is only one condition in which we can imagine managers not needing subordinates, and masters not needing slaves. This condition would be that each instrument could do its own work, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation”.3 The Asian trend of robotics continued with the first recorded automated entertainment devices in China and the Middle East around 1000-1200 AD, which included humanoid musicians and chiming clocks. This may have been a far cry from today’s idea of a robot, but in the ancient world even a light bulb would have been considered magic.
It was probably Leonardo da Vinci in around 1500 AD that first conceptualized what we would consider a true robot with his Anthrobot, a human sized robot knight in shining amour that could sit, stand, move its arm and even open and close its visor. It is not known whether or not Leonardo actually built the Anthrobot, but various replicas in the modern world have shown that the basic concepts and ideas were sound.
The Industrial Revolution, like many technological revolutions, was not considered a revolution until it was well under way. From 1830 to 1960, there were a number of simultaneous discoveries and advances in society that led to a critical mass of innovation.4 Most people of the time period did not realize the Industrial Revolution was occurring until it impacted their lives in unimaginable ways. The same phenomenon will occur during our inevitable robotic revolution.
Massive technological innovations generally bring unparalleled benefits to humanity. Although the Industrial Revolution forever changed the economic growth and stability for entire populations, there are those who do not view it so. You may have heard of a Luddite, an individual who does not accept new technology and wishes it away. However, the origin of Luddites stems from the Industrial Revolution, during which cotton was spun by hand. It was a manual, strenuous and time consuming process that employed thousands upon thousands of people. One of the first industrial uses of technology was that of the cotton mills, which replaced the thousands of young women working to produce cotton. As they quickly became replaced by technology, those who once held steady jobs found themselves on the street. Without a means to support themselves, most starved and some died. Due to unemployment rates and suffering, the Luddites formed with the primary purpose of destroying technology. The Luddites went to the extremes of destroying cotton mills, which resulted in reinforcements from the British Army in the 1800s.5
The Luddites were ultimately misguided. It has been proven again and again that technological revolutions bring about long term economic gains in society. This is due to downwards pressure of replacing low skilled jobs with higher skilled jobs. If technology has been proven to provide economic success over multiple circumstances, you may wonder why we face any risks. You may also question whether or not this book makes the same types of predictions as the Luddites made. However, this book’s primary purpose is to explore jobs that are going to be replaced by robots, as opposed to the new jobs that will be created by them.