The Robot Apocalypse Starts With Ping Pong?


I just watched a robot play ping pong.

I’m at Hannover Messe, which is a giant industrial trade show that’s chocked full of every type of automation imaginable. Automation is technology that gets work done without people intervening. Robots are a subset, but so are “smart” things like engines, pallets, even entire vehicles, not to mention the computer programming that enables it all.

Robots tend to be the poster children of automation because their movement suggests agency that only we humans are capable of expressing.

The ping pong robot delivered it.

Not only did it analyze in real-time the direction and speed of the ball before whacking it in return, but it read its opponent’s facial expression and let up on its computer-assisted perfection if the other player seemed unhappy.

There were other robots on display at the show, many of them mocked up to look like the faux robot on the original Battlestar Galactica TV series (with chirpy female voiceovers). Others looked like glorified arms that pivoted in strange directions to precisely tap, hold, and move various widgets.

But this one did something more. Something different. It got me thinking about what will be left for us humans to do?

The apocalyptic scenario is that it won’t be much. Machines already do many of the jobs humans did a generation ago; you’d be shocked and impressed by the advanced state of automation in 2017, and it’s still in its infancy for many industrial sectors.

People will have to do more complicated and nuanced work, but robots will relentlessly chase those job descriptions up the brain/computing power ladder. Robots will learn to move ever more elegantly, do so in more diverse and uncontrolled environments, and interact with things with more dexterity until they exceed human reflexes (many already do).

At some point in the not so distant future, and armed with the infinite data provided by the cloud, they’ll mimic consciousness well enough to challenge its definition and ownership.

This robot apocalypse will create the dystopian world that we’ve seen in any number of sci-fi movies: A ruling elite owns the machines, and the rabble scrounges for ways to pay for the things the robots manufacture.

Then there’s the hopeful scenario.

Although industrial automation is nothing new — standardizing processes involved people power before there were machines to do the work — I think it’s fair to say that few people at the beginning of the 20th century had any idea what robots would be doing at the start of the 21st.

Maybe we’re not supposed to have a clue what people will be doing when the 22nd century kicks off?

Perhaps knowing what we won’t be doing will liberate us to invent new jobs, activities, and entirely new economies of value?

Let’s face it, there’s nothing inherently noble in working on a factory assembly line, or for any work, for that matter; meaning is something we choose to give to an activity, and value is the recognition it receives in the communities in with we live (expressed, for now, in cash).

A “good job” is something that we think is worth expending some or much of the horribly brief time we’re each allotted to walk the planet.

The hopeful scenario isn’t some Pollyanna fantasy in which we’re all walking around in white togas reading poetry. It’s the possibility that we could invent new, better reasons to strive, struggle, work, and achieve, along with better ways to do it.

So let the machines make things, and do most if not all of the jobs that we once did. I choose to be hopeful.

I never liked playing ping pong anyway.