Imagine all the people…

Imagine all the people…

Just for fun imagine you live in a country of, say, 50 million people or thereabouts. One day your Prime Minister (or equivalent) decides to admit ten million or more immigrants on grounds of humanitarianism and to have a supply of people to do the lower paid jobs your own countrymen don’t want to do. Every fifth person will then be a newcomer, someone who doesn’t speak your language, isn’t accustomed to your ways, doesn’t fit in with the culture.

What will your reaction be? Gratitude that someone is here to do the dirty work? Resentment that space and resources are being devoted to ‘aliens’? Upset at the way your culture is changing to adapt to the newcomers? Horror at the unfamiliar habits of strangers? Perhaps a little of all of these. Newcomers are always a source of anxiety. We think they will rock the boat; most of us like a smooth passage and a quiet journey.

Almost certainly we will expect them to adapt to our way of life, to learn our language, to behave as we do and to appreciate our sensibilities and foibles. After all, they are the visitors, we are the residents. They are welcome if they obey our laws and make themselves fit into our patterns of living. But what if they don’t? What if they insist on speaking another language and expect us to do so as well? What if their behaviour demands that we conform to them? What if they think they are cleverer than us and want to boss us about?

We would have two possible courses of action. Either we could throw them out, ban them from our country, forbid them our shores. Or we could cooperate, meet them halfway, learn their language, understand their habits and peculiarities. In effect, do what they demand. That might seem pathetic. We could lose control of our lives, our country, our heritage.

Fast forward to tomorrow – or at any rate to within the next five years. We shall then be living with not just one in five but more robots than humans. They will work for us at every turn – in the restaurants, at the dentists, in government offices, at the travel counter. They will come in to cook a meal, make the beds, do the washing. In hospitals they will tend the sick, conduct operations. At the theatre we will see plays enacted entirely by robots. Banquo’s ghost will be robotic. Want to climb Mt Everest? A robot guide will accompany you.

Maybe as much as 80% of our time will be spent interacting with robots, leaving almost no space for a cuddle or a chat over a beer. Family meals, already often dominated by the mobile computer (aka phone), will become ‘hail and farewell’ events consisting of little more than a nod and a smile. On your return from them it will be time to walk the robot dog.

As I said at the outset “just for fun” – but in truth it is for real. The invasion has started. It is gathering pace. You won’t always recognise the robots – they mostly won’t look like humans. Many of them will be invisible just as the bank and retail robots are. They will be cleverer than you, so clever that they can outwit you at every stage of a conversation. They may be benign. They may be malicious. They will certainly be inscrutable.

The only thing we can be certain of is that they will be here. As ‘here’ as computer programming was a generation ago. We failed then because we didn’t learn how to talk to a computer. Result – the geeks took over. Now they control 90% of the net – the “dark” net. All because we didn’t keep up with them. What must we do to avoid a repeat with robots?

We must learn to speak to them, to embrace them, to use them, to control them. It starts with communication. Every child above the age of three should now be receiving lessons in robot-speak. Every adult should have three or four hours a week of robot-learn. We cannot stop the invasion but we can prepare ourselves.

The debate about whether we want this sort of society is over. It is here. We still have the ability to control it. But only if we move fast.

And only if we are determined.