The universe is not only strange but stranger than we can imagine

Psst San Francisco — they’ll be back…

Cheaper, more efficient, works 24X7 without complaint… What’s not to like?

The San Francisco SPCA made headlines recently by deploying a security robot dubbed K9 to patrol the area around its campus. The intent was to discourage homeless people from setting up tent cities there and thus reduce the littering, car break-ins and crime associated with such encampments. The tactic appeared to be working until the City of San Francisco stepped in and threatened the SPCA with large fines if its robot was caught using the sidewalk while on patrol. Since, of course, the robot had to use the sidewalk to function, that was the end of the experiment.

For now.

The robot, a K5 model, moves at three miles per hour, weighs just under 400 lbs and carries four cameras, each capable of recording 300 license plates a minute, according to the web site of Knightscope, the unit’s manufacturer.  The K5 rents out at six dollars an hour, making it far cheaper than a human security guard, at least in San Francisco, where the minimum wage is $14 an hour. Cheaper, more efficient and more reliable — employers have rarely been able to say no to that combination, even when obvious moral issues (slavery, child labor) are part of the equation.  Who will bet against the rise of the robots when the benefits are massive cost savings and increased efficiency — and the downside is (maybe) depriving humans of dull, high-risk, low-wage work?

But of course, the K5 is only the very tip of the iceberg. In the next few years we are told we can expect delivery drones (goodby delivery guys), AI-guided trucks (adios truckers) and robot food servers (au revoir waiters and waitresses).  And not long after, we can expect anything from sex ‘bots (already in development) to robot real estate agents. And so on.

The implications are stunning. If robots take over the drudgery of the world, the countless jobs at the base of the employment pyramid, what happens to the billions of people who make their living, however meager, through drudgery of one sort or another? And what happens when robots start to move up the pyramid, to take over better and better jobs?

It’s hard to see how there is not a crisis in the making — a crisis that will, in the next several decades, have profound and unforeseeable consequences for pretty much everyone. Yet we hear relatively little about this looming crisis, at least in the mainstream media, or from political leaders. Is this is because Our Masters don’t see it coming, or do they just want to avoid upsetting the techno-peasants (aka the rest of us)?

Technological change has caught societies by surprise many times before, usually with tragic consequences.  If the robots continue to rise — and they almost certainly will — things will not end well for a lot of people.  It may not surprise anyone in 2050 to see robots clearing the legions of unemployables away from the gates of affluent areas, using methods a great deal more “efficient” than those employed by robots today.

K9 is gone for now, but it — and its more advanced relatives — will be back.


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