The general rule of gambling is that “the house always wins”. No matter the game, the odds are always stacked in favour of the casino and, according to Investopedia, “for every $1 million bet at the roulette tables…the casino expects to pocket a profit of slightly more than $50,000”. However, that knowledge is paradoxically what drives people back to the table—the odds may be stacked against them, but people will always love to think that they will be the ones who win big. And whether by counting cards or waiting it out for a slot machine that’s ready to drop the jackpot, humans have long tricks up their sleeve when it comes to trying to beat the house.
Of course, robots aren’t people, and artificial intelligence has already begun to turn old casino adage on its head. Libratus, an artificial intelligence bot built by a computer science professor and one of his PhD students, beat four of the world’s best poker pros in a twenty-day Texas Hold ‘Em tournament in 2017. The odds on Libratus winning were 4-1, and such was its success that it has now accepted a job planning war games for the Pentagon. Yes, really.
This isn’t the first time experts have been outsmarted by machines—from the Deep Blue computer defeating the world chess champion twenty years earlier to artificial intelligence analysing legal contracts more quickly and efficiently than experienced lawyers. It all points to a troubling future where robots might render us redundant.
But is it too early for us meatbags to start welcoming our new robot overlords? Here, we’ll take a look at a few of the biggest aspects of our lives to work out who will come out on top—man or machine.
Business and Employment
You may think you’re pretty good at your job, but how do you reckon you’d fare against a robot? Some of the world’s biggest brands, from Adidas to Amazon, already rely on machines which are considerably faster, stronger, and more accurate than their human counterparts. It’s no surprise this technology is proving popular with businesses, but mere mortals are understandably concerned about the rise of robots in the workplace.
It’s estimated that up to one-fifth of the global workforce could lose their jobs by 2030 due to robot automation, affecting 20% of UK employees. Machine operators and food workers are most vulnerable, but some unexpected roles are also at risk. Google has already revealed its advanced AI bot called Duplex, which conducts “sophisticated conversations” and completes admin tasks such as booking appointments. Robots are even moving into creative sectors. Approximately 850 articles from The Washington Post’s 2016 US election coverage was written by a robot reporting programme called Heliograf.
Thanks to the algorithms driving apps like Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge, we have already begun relying on AI to find us a mate and sort out our dating lives. There are now apps dedicated to specific personality types and the traits you look for in a partner, whether it’s religion (JDate for Jewish singletons), shared interests (Tastebuds for music aficionados) and, in Hater, an app to find someone with the same pet peeves as you. And these algorithms are only going to get more complex. According to eHarmony, AI will be able to predict sexual compatibility by 2025. Great news if you’re too busy, or indeed too shy, to go out and meet someone the old-fashioned way.
But for some, humans just don’t do it for them anymore. An increasing number of people are in favour of letting machines be involved in other, more intimate, aspects of their romantic lives. Havas surveyed more than 12,000 people from 32 countries and found that 25% of millennials would be open to having a relationship with a robot, believing it will be normal for humans to develop feelings for a robot and even fall in love. David Levy, the author of a book on the love between humans and robots, has even predicted that robot marriages will be legal by 2050.
How many times a day do you check your step count or see how many calories you’ve burned? Whether it’s on a smartwatch, phone, or a dedicated fitness tracker, these little nuggets of health information are becoming hard to ignore. But experts are determined to bring technology further into the healthcare fold. We’re talking robot physicians that know our bodies better than we do, and cyborg surgeons saving our lives.
Nanotechnology is already playing a huge role in surgery, particularly in oral procedures where miniscule nanobots have been developed to reduce pain and recovery time. Futuristic technologies are also playing their part in diagnosis, surpassing what even the most skilled physicians can do in some cases. One AI system can predict heart attacks and strokes more accurately than its human counterpart. Another AI technology is able to detect cancer risks before symptoms appear 30 times faster than a human doctor, and with 99% accuracy.
To make things even weirder, we could soon become part-nanobot ourselves. Researchers are reportedly working on a computer made from DNA, which would live inside cells and scan for any faults in genetic makeup, such as the development of cancer cells. If any faults were found, the computer would ‘reboot’ the system, destroying the unhealthy cells and reducing the risk of cancer or disease.
Trusting robots to carry out intricate procedures may be too much for some, but it makes sense. Surgical mistakes are, more often than not, caused by human error. Surgeons are not immune to fatigue or stress, regardless of how dedicated they are to their profession. Robots on the other hand do not suffer from either fatigue or stress.
There are experts who firmly believe that medical robots will simply work alongside humans rather than replace them entirely. Human traits like empathy cannot be replicated by AI, and there will always be manual tasks that robots will never be able to complete. Things like administering CPR should be done by a human, who will know exactly the pressure and speed to use over time, and, more importantly, when it’s time to stop.
Physicians also have a non-linear working method and are able to think outside the box in order to reach a correct diagnosis. With these huge factors leaving machines at a disadvantage to humans, doctors can rest easy knowing that their jobs aren’t in jeopardy to robots.
Politicians, activists, and even the great David Attenborough have warned of the grave consequences of climate change, while issues such as deforestation and pollution are also wreaking environmental havoc. Many of these concerns stem from the space and energy required to sustain a growing population in the modern world, so robots are stepping in to undo some of the damage.
For example, Australia is home to the GrowBot which plants trees 10 times faster than a human, and at half the cost. Instead of seeds, these robots plant established trees more likely to grow successfully in a new location. The GrowBot team hopes to deploy over 4,500 of these machines to help revitalise the world’s forests.
Elsewhere Down Under, we have the RangerBot. This robot has been designed to kill the crown-of-thorns starfish, one of the three major threats to the Great Barrier Reef. With 99.4% accuracy, the technology delivers a toxic substance only harmful to the starfish. And while six human divers could only cover half of the reef in a year, six RangerBots can cover the reef 14 times over the same period. The RangerBot can also monitor and gather data regarding coral bleaching, water quality, and pollution, and there has been strong interest in using it to save other coral reefs around the globe.
Meanwhile, a robotic spider called Latro is dealing with nuclear material in fuel ponds by finding, cutting up, and getting rid of waste materials. This machine does a much better clean-up job than a human, as it doesn’t need to worry about being exposed to the potentially harmful radiation on site.
Though this technology may help save the world, it could potentially cause some collateral damage. A serious malfunction could result in the release of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, and the robots themselves require significant energy to operate. Therefore, these could be unsustainable for the environment they are helping to save. Robots are also typically created from harmful materials, which are detrimental to the planet if not recycled properly. However, with the dawn of biodegradable robotics, these creations could eventually live, die, and decay without causing environmental harm, and far outlast their makers.
The 2011 film Real Steel is set nine years in the future, where all boxers—including its hapless leading man, the future great showman Hugh Jackman—are replaced by robots. Although they’re still remote controlled, these boxing robots possess human motor skills, and fight with the balance and fluid movement of expert pugilists.
We’re now one year away from Real Steel’s imagined future, and there’s still no sign of brawling bots being quite so advanced. However, since the film’s release, a handful of daring droids have undoubtedly become more athletically adept in other ways.
The annual RoboCup competition features football-playing bots powered by artificial intelligence. While the technology is fairly primitive at this stage, organisers aim to field a robot team capable of beating the human World Cup winners by 2050. It remains to be seen whether a team of androids can overcome the tiki-taka tactics of Spain or the flair and finesse of Brazil, but in basketball, robotics are a little more advanced. Forget LeBron James, CUE the ‘basketbot’ can shoot hoops at 100% accuracy. The current NBA average is just 77%.
Meanwhile, machines like the BotBoxer are helping athletes to train more effectively. Whilst not a fully fledged robot boxer a la Real Steel, the BotBoxer is still an ideal sparring partner. Using motion recognition systems to analyse the movements of a boxer’s feet and their body position to determine their stance, it can predict where they’re about to punch, before giving advice on how to improve their technique. Unlike human trainers, the BotBox never suffers from fatigue and is available 24/7, enabling boxers to get all the practice they need before a fight. Similar developments have also been made in golf, whilst machine learning is increasingly influencing sports coaching and scouting as algorithms can scour through data much quicker than humans.
Food & Drink
The food and drink industry has already seen significant upheaval in the last few years, thanks to start-ups like Deliveroo and UberEats revolutionising the humble takeaway. Now these companies are taking their mission statement to “transform the way customers eat” to the next level, by implementing drone delivery.
Food delivery by drone has already been trialled in Iceland, though avoiding the country’s long and treacherous roads was more for the convenience of drivers than consumers. Now, UberEats plan to roll out drone delivery by 2021, with the company’s CEO claiming it is his “personal belief that a key to solving urban mobility is flying burgers”.
But flying burgers and delivery drones you don’t have to tip aren’t the only way that the machines are taking over the world of food and drink. The market for robotics in the food and beverage sector, for example, is predicted to be worth $2.5 billion by 2022, with one study giving the industry an automation potential of 87%. This means only 13% of food and drink jobs couldn’t be completed by a robot.
This not only refers to manufacture, but also how products are served to us as well. From robo-bartenders in Japan to AI drive-thru staff in Canada, the food service industry is already taking steps towards an automated future.
Not only that, but robotics is starting to change the way that food is reaching retailers. In an effort to find a solution to labour shortages and the increasing average age of its population, Japan began introducing a robot-run farm in 2017. Every task, bar the planting of the crops, was automated, and the farm’s intention is to cut labour costs and improve productivity by 1000%, from 50,000 to 500,000 lettuces harvested each day.
Imagine a holiday where a robot carries your luggage, checks you into your hotel, and then becomes your tour guide as you explore a new destination. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Far from being a futuristic fantasy, this is now a reality for some holidaymakers, with robots and machine learning technology infiltrating the travel industry.
Take TravelMate, a robotic suitcase that uses collision detection technology to autonomously follow its owner like some sort of robot puppy, so us lucky humans never have to carry our cases ever again. Meanwhile, at some airports, SITA’s robots Leo and KATE roll up to passengers to take their luggage for them and check them in. No more endless airport check-in queues is the goal.
Robots are being employed in hotels too. The aptly-named delivery attendant Dash brings amenities and room service to hotel guests much more speedily and accurately than humans. Another is Connie, a robot concierge that answers guest queries at various outposts of the prestigious Hilton hotel chain. Queries can be routine questions like directions to an airport or arranging for a taxi, or they can be something a little more personalised like restaurant recommendations – a useful asset for hoteliers when times are busy, leading to fewer complaints.
There are question marks around how robots measure up to humans in other ways too. In a study by Travelzoo, 70% of respondents felt that customer service robots struggle to understand informal language, local dialects, irony, or sarcasm, which may add fuel to fire for travellers already experiencing a frustrating holiday. These sentiments are echoed in a study from SITA Lab which shows that, although humans prefer using automated services for simple steps like check-ins or bag drops, we’d much rather speak to humans to deal with problems relating to our journey or documentation. So, although robots can make travelling easier in certain ways, humans still have the edge for now.
So, who does come out on top?
When it comes to efficiency, we humans are sadly no match for our robot rivals. With speed, skill, and near-perfect accuracy across all sectors, robots don’t make any of the mistakes that make us, well, human.
However, thanks to our distinctly human traits, it’s ultimately mankind who comes out on top. As much as we are lapping up the benefits of the mind-blowing technological advances already available to us, nothing can replace the simple but necessary pleasure of human interaction.
What we lack in efficiency, we make up for in emotion. Would World Cup fever have hit the country last summer if the England football team had been replaced by a bunch of bots? Would you really shed a tear at the sight of your cyborg bride-to-be in a wedding dress?
It’s great we have robots to make all aspects of our lives a little more convenient. But luckily for us, humans appear to be irreplaceable.