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Where are all the helpful robots?

One of the big predictions made about the future, in the past, was that we would have robots to do the most mundane, menial and degrading tasks. They would free up time for human beings to enjoy more of their lives.


We have robots. We've had them for decades. In recent years, they have become increasingly sophisticated. But barring a handful of robotic vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers, there seems to be very little effort to make robots particularly helpful to humans in everyday life. There seems, rather, far more effort to make robots which can spy on us or kill us (drones, both military and civilian, for example).


The transition of work in most developed countries from industry to service has not been a pleasant one. Rather than an easier life, most service workers are employed in jobs they don't particularly enjoy and are remunerated pretty poorly for. In terms of robotics, jobs such as warehouse work and cleaning come immediately to mind. The technology certainly exists to relieve human beings of this kind of work.


What perhaps doesn't exist, is the political will. There is an intrinsic requirement with increased automation for humans to no longer be needed to do certain jobs. In a capitalist world, one that is reluctant to even consider the absence of wage-slavery and enforced labour, the notion that humans might have to do less seems to be hard to digest.


When technology has provided means to alleviate human burdens, capitalism has found ways to replace them with new ones. Computing, for example, was marketed as a technology which would make work faster, more efficient, less time-consuming. Now, we find ourselves drowning in a world of endless emails, notifications, updates and tasks which seem to have been created purely for the sake of giving us more to do.


There is a lot of scope for robots, and artificial intelligence, to help humanity. But as with any technology in human history, there has to be the intention and the desire for them to do so. In hospitals, in care homes, in schools, in warehouses, in restaurants and in everybody's homes, robots could be used to make people's lives better. If profit, however, is the only motivation, then robots could be used to make our lives even harder.


In a world ruled by consumption, the power lies with consumers to demand that developing technologies are used for purposes which benefit our species, and our planet, as a whole. If we don't, we might find that they become a new burden; a new shackle which binds us to a system that wants us to work and consume in an endless, and ultimately unfulfilling, cycle.


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