Rise of the Robots: Will machines replace humans?

Saturday 19 November, 14.30 - 15.45 , Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, Stockholm Battle of Ideas Europe


This session is one of five debates at a special one-day Battle of Ideas event at Kulturhuset Stadsteatern.

From The Terminator to The Matrix and beyond, dystopian visions of a future where intelligent machines subjugate humanity is a sci-fi staple. But in recent years, with robotic intelligence advancing apace, some are suggesting that these nightmares of human obsolescence may soon become a reality. Some worry that robots could take most blue-collar jobs within a generation, causing mass unemployment. Meanwhile computers are moving ever closer to passing the Turing Test, the point at which computers’ ability to communicate with people becomes indistinguishable from actual human interaction, meaning that many white-collar jobs may go, too.

Isaac Asimov’s famous First Rule of Robotics states that ‘a robot may not injure a human being’ and has long been seen as an ethical necessity for any future smart machinery, yet it is now also being openly transgressed. Militaries around the world are investing heavily in development of Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWs), robots which can engage in combat independent of direct human control. Tech billionaire Elon Musk believes robots may be our ‘greatest existential threat’, while renowned physicist Stephen Hawking warns that advancing robotics could ‘spell the end of the human race’.

Others counter that such warnings are little more than techno-phobic hysteria, and we should be more optimistic about the potential of robotics and AI to liberate us from banal tasks, improve productivity and inform our ability to make choices. Indeed, radical ‘transhumanists’ openly welcome the possibility of technological ‘singularity’, where AI will become so advanced that it can far exceed the limitations of human intelligence and imagination. 

Meanwhile, smart technology is increasingly being used to reduce or eliminate the capacity for human error. Google’s developers note that most of the traffic collisions involving their driverless cars are the fault of human drivers in other vehicles. Global companies such as IBM are involved in designing purpose-built smart cities, such as South Korea’s Songdo, which can manage the climate and water supply or respond to citizens’ movements in real time.

However moral questions abound. By giving robots more autonomy, are we ceding some of own? Regardless of how intelligent machines become, should we ever entrust them to make important ethical decisions, such as in warfare where lives hang in the balance? As robots take on more and more human tasks, can we ensure that this leads to more prosperity and leisure time for workers, rather than large swathes of humanity becoming surplus to requirements? Do fears over the rise of the robots disguise a deeper philosophical crisis about what it means to be human?