Japan has a hotel where guests are served by robots, and in Australia self-driving tractors autonomously harvest crops, day and night. Robots help with care for residents in some Dutch nursing homes; once in your house, they can order you a taxi, order your food, or mow your lawn. Robots of all shapes and sizes are beginning to penetrate our lives. Do they generate smarter, happier lives? What are the implications of a robotic revolution for our freedom and autonomy?
For long, views on future robotisation in films, novels and public debate have been divided between utopian and dystopian visions. In 1921, robots appeared in the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek; the word is derived from the Czech word ‘robota’, which translates to ‘toiling and servitude’. In ‘I, Robot’—Isamov’s classic 1969 science fiction novel—robots start off as a helpful comrades, but end up controlling humans.
Discussing the positive effects of robotisation, next to convenience—such as robots taking over household chores—medical applications come to mind. Robot radiologists could be analysing your X-rays possibly much better than your doctor. Robotic surgery is already common practice, easing a surgeon’s work. Rehabilitation robotics makes good progress and helps the paralysed to walk. New research shows paralysed patients who steer robotic arms and legs with their thoughts, based on the decoding of the neural signals that are converted into robotic guidance. Concurrently, advances in robotisation cause concerns about the expansion of surveillance and the erosion of (mental) privacy and identity.
When discussing societal impacts of robotisation, two starting points could be helpful. First, we should look beyond visible incarnations of automation-like robots. The algorithms within robots are increasingly central in everything we do online, as well as within the internet of things, from machines, cars, refrigerators to smart cities—everything gets connected and exchanges data. Second, a distinction between a person’s role either as consumer, employee, or citizen facilitates the categorisation of the manifold effects of such automation.
As (online) consumers, we tend to be winners. An ever-increasing range of products is just a mouse click away due to the rapid sophistication in online ordering algorithms and the massive investments in the ‘last mile’ of consumer product logistics. ‘The client is king’ already seems outdated; the consumer is turned into an ‘emperor’. The flipside of this apparent consumer Valhalla with almost real-time delivery constitutes the worsening labour conditions of workers in the value chains enabling it. In the distribution centres of companies like Amazon, underpaid workers often operate under a regime of unrealistic work targets, rigid digital surveillance, and a work pace that is set by robots. Even farms are affected—in India, the rise of e-agriculture has been found to contribute to agrarian distress (Stone 2011).
As citizens, our agency and physical and mental privacy seems to be increasingly under threat as both Big Tech and governments try to target or nudge citizens with algorithms which are unregulated and lack transparency. Think about the targeted advertisements in your web browser for weeks after visiting once an online shoe store. It is increasingly difficult to escape individual media bubbles or corporate surveillance, let alone the mass surveillance of those living under authoritarian regimes. In such an algorithm-led society, will people end up as emperors without clothes?
2018: a watershed year
Looking back, 2018 seemed a watershed in the public debate. It shifted from Tech companies as drivers of technological innovation (for consumers) and subsequently freedom (benefiting us as citizens), to these companies’ troublesome record in preventing fake news, let alone respecting privacy and democracy. With a recurring pattern of irresponsible conduct regarding privacy and fake news, Facebook has come to symbolise the downsides of an algorithm-led society.
Regarding the impact on us as employees, international agencies like the OECD recently issued unsettling reports on the effects of automatisation for labour, which are likely to exacerbate inequalities both within countries as well as between the Global South and North. Finally, policy action has been stepped up in the past year, with the EU taking the lead for instance with the GDPR regulations on privacy and law proposals to curb the excessive power of Big Tech.
Robotisation has arrived and will continue to change the way we consume, work, and live. As with all technologies, it can be used for good and for bad. Robotisation can be used to augment us, help us innovate, and can help address many of society’s grand challenges, yet it can also put us in undesirable competitions, eroding privacy, dignity, and identity. To make robotisation, algorithms, and data science beneficial and inclusive, it is time that governments, tech companies, civic organisations, hospitals, ethicists, and (social) scientists start having a serious dialogue on how to make this digital revolution ‘the best rather than the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity’.
 We loosely paraphrase Stephen Hawking [hyperlink: https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/the-best-or-worst-thing-to-happen-to-humanity-stephen-hawking-launches-centre-for-the-future-of]
About the authors:
Prof. dr. Pieter Medendorp is a professor of Sensorimotor Neuroscience, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Director Centre for Cognition, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands.
Dr. Oane Visser (associate professor, Political Ecology research group, ISS) leads an international research project on the socio-economic effects of -and responses to- big data and automatization in agriculture.