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5 January 2006
THINKBOT by David Tossell
The World of Robots
The Future Is Closer Than You Think
I am a physicist developing high-tech robotic equipment. My name is David Tossell. In my new novel Thinkbot I take a satirical look at how robots will affect our future and impinge upon every area of our lives; a time when robots are no longer a science fiction fantasy but part of everyday life. The novel is a futuristic satire that addresses contemporary issues.
As a physicist – I have a PhD and have done post-doctoral research in the UK and the USA - with a special interest in this subject, (I work for a multinational corporation as a chief engineer developing systems for processing semiconductors (silicon wafers) such as robot arms, robotic vacuum plasma chambers and control software), robotics is an area with which I am familiar. I am led to the view that robotics is likely to be the major scientific-ethical issue of the 21st Century. In the 20th century the transistor transformed society through the PC, the Web and the mobile. In the 21st century robots will likewise trigger a major social transformation. For example:-
Global leaders wrestling with uncooperative regimes have limited options: threaten, sanction or invade. With coalition fatalities in Iraq becoming an increasing politically-charged issue, and a rogue regime in Iran developing nuclear weapons, the option of invading with a robotic army will undoubtedly offer an extremely attractive to hard-pressed politicians. Current thinking is that front line robot soldiers could be a reality within 10 years, and fully autonomous military robots by 2025. The US is currently conducting trials for robotic vehicles for use in the Iraqi desert thereby avoiding the impact on human life of roadside bombs.
3600 people a year die on UK roads, The equivalent of a jumbo jet down every month at Heathrow , something terrorists can only dream of. Robotic transport will reduce this death toll to a mere handful a year.
Our bodies will become hosts to micro-robots for surgery, active drug release and early-warning diagnosis. We already send robots to the outer reaches of the solar system so sending them on remote missions inside our bodies is a logical development.
The ‘Lights Out’ factory is almost here already. Raw materials go in; products come out. No humans required.
Robots will increasingly replace skilled and semi-skilled labour and take over dangerous jobs. This has happened in a significant degree in the car industry for example. Many pundits are already anticipating a period of social unrest as employment opportunities are eroded.
Robot development in Japan is already targeted on providing a means to care for their ageing population. Given time this puts the pensions crisis in an entirtely new perspective.
Intelligence agencies will have the ability to monitor everything. This is already well under way especially in the area of crime control through use of street and motorway cameras.
In the past many authors have used fiction as a means of addressing serious contemporary issues. Thinkbot follows in this tradition, whereby what is in many ways an ominous looming reality is depicted in a satirical and engaging way. The book assumes human nature does not change and predicts that the advent of robots will be a double-edged sword. I doubt that robot armies will be a force for global equality, rather just another mechanism for ensuring that the developed world maintains its economic and political interests since they alone have the means to preserve a the technological edge in robotics and thereby subjugate poorer and weaker nations. I fear robots, either directly or indirectly, could simply become advanced instruments of social and political control. Whoever controls the robots will control the world.
And what about ethics? Many fear soldiers commanding remote military robots may not feel any sense of remorse at pulling the trigger to take a life. And many might breathe a huge sigh of relief if the day-to-day care of distant and ageing relatives could be delegated to a robot. A further erosion of the ethic of the family.
One thing’s for sure, mankind will stumble headlong into the robotic era in the usual short-sighted, chaotic manner. Robot technology will provide free-market entrepreneurs with killer applications for the domestic market whilst standardisation, ethical implications and legislation will trail in their wake. And by the time we wake up to what’s happening we’ll be even more locked into robot technology than we are with the PC.
For all these reasons, I chose the medium of a novel rather than non-fiction with the aim of bringing serious ideas and issues to a wider audience in an entertaining and humorous manner. If the style is over the top, that’s because this is an issue whose importance cannot be overstated.