Robots will replace us. We’re facing an uncertain future of Artificial Intelligence which at best, will render whole swathes of humanity redundant. At worst, AI will subsume our consciousness and make homo sapiens extinct, much as we in turn have consigned earlier species to the dustbin of history. How are we to protect ourselves, and moreover protect our children, from this seemingly ineluctable threat? 

These are the droids you're looking for...

Earlier generations of thinkers were optimistic about the economic possibilities for their grandchildren. Technology would liberate us from hard graft, and usher in an age of the four hour week, with plenty of ‘leisure’ time for self-improvement, for time with friends and family, for hedonism or a higher purpose. The mood of our times sees this as pure fantasy, an almost touching flight of fancy. Life is a zero-sum game, in which we need to compete to survive. Technology and globalisation have trapped us in a real-life rendition of The Hunger Games, where a consumerist ethic will keep us perpetually hungry. In this dog-eat-dog economy, robots threaten to put of humanity into a state permanent unemployment, not for the pursuit of leisure, but as a machine to create losers.

Critics of the sharing economy, the zero marginal cost society, often point to the ‘inevitable’ redundancies that will occur as a result of the adoption of new technologies – taxi drivers, hotel owners, factory workers are all facing extinction. What will we do with all these unhappy, unemployed people? In a zero sum world, we live in a state of permanent and worsening scarcity, and it is hard to imagine that we will escape armageddon. Indeed, it’s easier today for us to imagine the end of the world as we know it, than an alternative to our capitalist system. 

How do we inoculate our children against the future? Skills can guard against getting stuck in McJobs, or ending up as machine-like humans. What’s the safeguard though against technologies we haven’t even imagined yet? Do what you love, and to be ready for anything. That’s a mindset, not a set of skills. Readers of Pirouette will be familiar with the limits of traditional education, the challenges of home schooling or even un-schooling. 

Technology is magic, and can be used to create greater abundance, and change the world for the better. That involves thinking in terms of Zero to One, instead of Zero Sum, substituting a shortage mentality for one of abundance. The arrival of the motorcar made carriage drivers redundant, just as robotic cars will make tomorrow’s taxi drivers redundant. No one misses the horse and buggy, however, and the carriage drivers of yesteryear became the tradesmen of other professions in the generations that followed, most of them unimaginable to their predecessors.  

We will fashion robots in our image. Ultimately, it is up to us what they end up looking like when we hold up the mirror. Competition or collaboration? In a dog-eat-dog economy of mercenary competition, robots may end up being the killer app that hastens our demise. It’s not difficult to imagine a war games scenario where imperial forces compete to see who builds the biggest Death Star. On the other hand, it’s equally easy – and a lot more compelling – to imagine a future of collaboration, in which C3-PO and R2-D2 help us to awaken the forces within. These are the droid we’re looking for.  It’s up to us to give our kids the values that will become hard-wired into the code of tomorrow’s robots.