AI, robots in the workplace – or the homehelp that doesn’t stop for endless cups of tea

AI – artificial intelligence – has been all the talk over the past few weeks. It’s not that long ago that it was the stuff of the outer fringes of sci-fi. As it became more of a possibility, film-makers got in on the act, usually in that pleasurably scary way that sends you out into the night thinking “Thank heavens, it’s just a film.”

Now it is moving out of the realm of film and fiction and out of the lab and into the mainstream of our lives. From production lines in car plants to the classroom, robots are assuming ever more important roles. Here are just a handful of things I found on a brief trawl around the internet.

The Japanese, who have been at the forefront of technological advances for more than 60 years, are predictably the world leaders in the development and use of robots. They are used in restaurant kitchens to make sushi and chop vegetables and in bars they can make coffee or serve drinks.. Earlier in the food production system, they are used to plant rice or to tend growing crops.

Robots can help to fight crime. Some police forces are already using robots to check buildings to pinpoint the location of criminals they expect to be armed and dangerous. They can similarly be used to check cars or locations for booby traps – and they can be programmed to disarm them.

In health, robots can be programmed to distribute medication to patients in hospitals, or to help look after the elderly in care homes and nursing homes.

Education is another growth area. Already there is an early childhood education centre in  San Diego, California, where a robot “works” as an assistant,  teaching the kids to sing, and there are many robotic toys coming onto the market for children of all ages.

Here in Britain, the Dyson company, which has consistently pushed the technological boundaries in home cleaning and general public health, has developed a robotic vacuum cleaner which can memorise the complete layout of a house and clear every area of every room. Out in the garden, there are robots that can cut the lawn and mulch it at the same time, or clean your swimming pool, if you are lucky enough to have one.

So, looking a few years ahead, to a time when having your own household robot team – your own Carson, Mrs Hughes and Mrs Patmore, as it were – may be as common as a fridge or a washing-up machine is now, what would you want them to do?

A BBC science programme explored this with three panellists whose requirements of robotic help were described as “mundane” by the presenter. He was disappointed that their ambitions for their home robots were distinctly domestic. One wanted a robot who would properly clean the bike she uses around London all the time. Another found washing machines very inadequate – he wanted a robot that would not only do the washing but also iron and fold the clothes. Having explored the possibilities of robots in 2015, I think these are quite achievable ambitions!

So, robots will save us time – and in terms of household staff, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, schools, factories etc, after the initial outlay, and presumably some maintenance costs, they will also reduce wage bills for companies and service organisations.

Unsurprisingly, these time, staff and money-saving robots have got trade unions and staff associations very worried. There are already senior executives in the newspaper industry who think that much editorial copy can be written and subbed by robots. Traditional jobs have been disappearing for 50 years now, replaced by computers and digital and technological innovation. Many new jobs have been created by these developing industries, of course, but in the process communities have been destroyed and long-valued skills have been cast aside.

Of course, the other problem with robots is that, while they may appeal to those who just can’t resist the latest technological innovation (how many people rushed out and ordered the new iPhone6 after the adverts during last Sunday’s broadcast of Downton Abbey?), there are many, perhaps many more, for whom these machines pose searching questions about what it means to be human.

Do you want your three year old to learn songs from a jolly robot or a flesh and blood teacher, who will recognise the individual needs, talents and ideas of different children? Can a robot, however efficient, replace a sympathetic face for a bed-bound old person in a nursing home?

Like it or not, we cannot escape the inexorable rise of technology and with it, a growing population of Artificial Intelligence robots. But there are two other words that begin with A and I – Alienation and Isolation are already major problems in western society. We have to think and talk seriously about the implications of robots in our lives – this is not a subject where you will find the answers on Google.

Fanny Charles