Alec Ross
Innovation and Policy Expert

The Robots of the 2020s Will Be More Like Terminator than C-3PO

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From Icarus to Frankenstein's monster, tales in Western culture warn against outsized ambition and imbuing non-human objects with human qualities. But that skepticism doesn't exist in the East, says innovation and industry expert Alec Ross. It's there that technology companies like Honda and Toyota are creating humanoid robots that do human duties — like caring for the elderly. This sort of soft robotics may reverse our cultural skepticism toward human-like machines. Meanwhile these robots will completely revolutionize industry. Already one of the world's largest manufacturers has declared it will only hire robots in the future, not humans. So the future is a mix of robotic benevolence and very high efficiency, says Ross.

Alec Ross

Alec Ross is one of America’s leading experts on innovation. He served for four years as Senior Advisor for Innovation to the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a role that earned him a Distinguished Honor Award from the State Department. He is currently a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and serves as an advisor to investors, corporations, and government leaders. Ross lives in Baltimore with his wife and their three young children. His book is The Industries of the Future.


Alec Ross: The robots of the cartoons and movies from the 1970s are going to be the reality of the 2020s. And there are two real drivers behind this. First is mapping belief space. Historically it’s been really difficult to be able to instruct robots to do things like grasping. Grasping might seem like a pretty straightforward thing to do, but it’s actually very complex mathematically and algorithmically to be able to instruct robots how to do that. And so what this mathematical breakthrough in mapping belief space has done is it has taken what are historically very complex tasks for robots and made them easier to do. The second thing is cloud robotics. So if C-3PO right now — if he walked over here and interrupted this Big Think interview he would say, “Oh my. Excuse me.” And get out of the frame. And as he did this, there would be a lot of hardware and software whirring in that gold, gleaming body of his. In reality the C-3PO of the 2020s will be a cloud-connected device. And so what he would do if he stumbled into this interview is he would ping the cloud and he would get instructions from the hive mind that is there algorithmically. And he would then know to excuse himself, to do so in English, and to then go clunk away.

So what does this mean? What this means is that the robots of our youths and of our imaginations don’t have to have millions of dollars of incredibly sophisticated hardware and software in them. They can be relatively lightweight, dumb devices so long as they’re connected to the power of the cloud. So what’s the significance? Okay, so they’re cheaper. So what? The big significance here really goes to labor. So let’s think about the difference between humans and robots and their costs. Humans don’t have a lot of cap(ital) ex(penses) but they have a lot of op(erating) ex(penses). So the upfront costs, you know, maybe your employer buys you some business cards. Maybe he gets you a computer for work or something like that. Not a lot of cap ex. Not a lot of upfront costs. But a lot of op ex. Every two weeks you want to get paid, right? A lot of salary. A lot of op ex. Robots come with diametrically opposed cost structure. It’s a lot of cap ex. You’ve got to buy the robot, but then relatively little op ex. You can work them 24 hours a day. They aren’t going to join a union or get sick, and they don’t expect a salary. And so what’s happening right now is we’re seeing new equilibrium points in terms of the trade-off between the relative cost of a cap ex-intense, op ex-light robot and a cap ex-light, op ex-high labor of humans. I saw this, in all places, in East Asia in the football field size factories of Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that makes all of our smartphones. And Terry Gou, the CEO of Foxconn who employs 973,000 people has decided he’s not hiring any more humans. He’s just buying robots. And so I think that this is fascinating stuff as the robots of the cartoons and movies become the reality of the 2020s.

They aren’t going to look like the metallic robots of the cartoons and movies. They’re actually going to look more human because of advances in material sciences from electroactive polymers to silk skin to air muscles and other such things. So the robots of the future may actually look more like Terminator than like Star Wars. What’s also interesting that’s happening right now is, particularly in Japan and South Korea, there are robots being developed the purpose of which is actually to do what we normally think of as the most intimate human tasks. To do things like take care of our aging grandparents. And part of this is flowing from an economic imperative. In Japan, for example, Japan has the world’s oldest population and it’s only growing older. So companies like Toyota and Honda — yup, the ones that make the cars are now making elder care robots because there aren’t enough young Japanese to take care of their grandparents. And so things that we think of as very intimate and very human in the future will be increasingly robotic. It’s not a surprise that this is coming out of Asia. Interestingly in societies like Japan where Shinto is the national religion — in Shinto, for example, they have a belief in animism, that objects can have souls. And so that’s a big difference than Judeo-Christian religions, which think of objects as being soulless. And if you contrast the culture and mythology of a lot of Asian societies, it’s much more embracing of automation and of robotics as opposed to Western societies where from Icarus with his wax wings to Frankenstein and beyond — most of our culture, most of our mythology is rooted in the risks of giving life to those things that perhaps we ought not to. So I don’t think it’s a big surprise that a lot of these innovations are coming from East Asia.