Nearly half of Australian workers will find their role filled by a machine in the next 20 years, according to the Government's latest report on the future of the workforce. The battle of man vs. machine may come sooner than we think – with billions of dollars of venture capital being poured into Machine Learning. Rapidly advancing technology is allowing us to make tremendous strides in simulating human thinking, meaning that even jobs that involve complicated decision-making may soon be automated. With evolved smart machines, knowledge workers will soon find their career paths disrupted in the near future. However, this change needn't be seen as a negative.
Intelligence is man's most potent weapon. If not for it, we would have remained just another species. The unique kind of intelligence we possess gives us dominion over everything else. Granted, when Mother Nature shrugs or sighs with an earthquake or a hurricane, man's vulnerability is starkly exposed, but humans negotiate the reality of existence better than other species by learning from experience, solving complex problems, and uncovering patterns that lie deep in nature's womb. From the discovery of fire to the invention of the microprocessor, the spark of human ingenuity has always served to make life safe, productive and convenient.
Beyond traditional industrial automation and advanced robots, new generations of more capable autonomous systems are appearing in environments ranging from autonomous vehicles on roads to automated check-outs in grocery stores. Much of this progress has been driven by improvements in systems and components, including mechanics, sensors and software. AI has made especially large strides in recent years, as machine-learning algorithms have become more sophisticated and made use of huge increases in computing power and of the exponential growth in data available to train them. Spectacular breakthroughs are making headlines, many involving beyond-human capabilities in computer vision, natural language processing, and complex games such as Go. These technologies are already generating value in various products and services, and companies across sectors use them in an array of processes to personalize product recommendations, find anomalies in production, identify fraudulent transactions, and more.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has matured significantly in the last decade. Dubbed by Professor Stephen Hawking as "either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity" there's no denying that AI will have a significant impact on our society. While it is unlikely to be as immediate or spectacular as our imaginations allow us to get carried away with, and unlikely to be like the Terminator, we all have to accept that AI will impact on our society. It is not unusual for developments in technology to lead to major shifts in our society. Just look back and you will see we've gone through this change before.
The origins of robotics go back to the automata invented by ancient civilisations. The word robot entered our vocabulary only in 1920 with Czech writer Karel Čapek's play R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots). Over the past 20 years robots have been developed to work in settings that range from manufacturing industry to space. At Cambridge University, robotics is a rapidly developing field within many departments, from theoretical physics and computing to engineering and medical science. Lord Martin Rees is Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge.