There is nothing new about concerns that robots will take over the world.

As Dr Gareth Jones, a University of East Anglia honorary lecturer noted during a panel discussion entitled Are Robots Going to Supplant Humanity?, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov raised this same worry 80 years ago.

But in today’s world, with the growth of Artificial Intelligence (AI), science fiction is closer than ever to becoming reality.

Dr Jones, who has worked with computers for decades – he helped install an enormous IBM device into Norwich Union in 1979 – noted that today’s machines can be fundamentally different to those of the past. It’s not just that they are now much more powerful.

“We had computers that were going faster and faster and faster, doing more and more and more, but they did exactly what they were told … We now have, in the last 10 years, learning computers,” he said.

Dr Gareth Jones - photo credit Daniel Bardsley

Computers can be given rules or told what the outcome should be, and then they do the work themselves.

One thing that could happen is that computers understand us better than we understand ourselves. We already see this, in crude form, today, in the shopping recommendations that the likes of Amazon make when we log on to the company’s website.

Taking this phenomenon to its logical conclusion, Dr Jones sees a time when a self-driving car will come to collect us even without us requesting it – because it is able to predict what we want – and shopping will arrive without us having to make an order.

“If technology can predict to this degree, it questions whether we ever had free will,” he said at the discussion, which was part of the UEA’s Philosophy Public Lecture Series 2018.

But the march of the computer raises questions that go beyond the philosophical.

“The concern is that computers will, in a sense, get out of control,” said Dr Jones, who is affiliated to the UEA’s School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies (located in Norwich, Norfolk).

Some fear that computers will reach a stage of development that is beyond the ability of humans to understand them. If that happens, it could be “a matter of chance whether they consider us to be expendable”.

While much concern is linked to such super-intelligent robots, Dr Ryan Dawson, a computer software specialist, said we also have to consider the impact of “dumb robots”, as these will take many of the jobs that humans currently perform.

“They’re unlikely to supplant humanity in controlling the Earth, but they might supplant humanity in the economy,” he said.

“What we could see is a shift in the job market that’s analogous to the shift that took place from manufacturing to services.”

It will extend beyond low-skilled work – the effect of computers on which is already being felt, such as in the loss of retail jobs with potentially negative effects on communities – into white-collar work, including medical diagnostics and some legal functions.

A particular worry, he noted, is that this revolution could be quicker than those that have gone before, and new jobs created by a changed economy may be in different locations or for a different sector of the workforce than those that were lost, meaning communities could lose out permanently.

And in taking our jobs, these “dumb robots” could destroy our sense of purpose in life.

On top of this, said Dr Rupert Read, a reader in the School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies, is the potential ecological impact.

“If we have more and more and more of these dumb robots, where does the energy come from, where do the materials come from?” he asked.

The “hidden implication” of having so many robots to carry out our work, suggested Dr Read, is “getting rid of a lot of people”.

“That’s where it could end up material-wise and ecology-wise. That’s a fairly disturbing prospect,” he said.

If you enjoyed this article you may enjoy reading In the Face of a Deteriorating Climate, another of our reviews from the Philosophy Public Lecture Series.