A new system is being tested that can track your progress around a supermarket and make sure that you don’t have to wait in a line at the checkout to pay for it. Amazon are working on something similar, this being the thing that partially influenced the purchase of Whole Foods, whose 365 stores were designed along similar lines, where people could just grab what they wanted and the electronics in the store tracked the activity.

Given how easily devices can be set up to talk to each other, how far away are we from totally eradicating the checkout all together? It would be interesting if they hooked them up to anti-theft drones too, and then you might trigger an impromptu drone strike if you shop-lift something.

It definitely does seem though, that the way the whole AI, whether soft or hard AI, is going to unpack is that it is going to end up hitting at the low paid jobs first – anything that can be automated is going to end up disappearing, because you can shift the whole flow of a place to be efficient and constantly operating. How convenient is it for employers not to have to worry about shift changes, and breaks, and holidays, and sick days? It isn’t like people are particularly going to miss the human touch in some of these stores, and stores are starting to become a little antiquated anyway, aren’t they? When you have picker packer robots and automated cars with delivery boxes in them, and drones, that might have keys to your houses, and maybe a servant robot in the house, and a domestic version of Flippy the burger flipping robot doing the cooking, what are you going to have left to do? Why do you need all that real estate dedicated to the experience of shopping?

Is the future of human work going to be sitting around fixing broken machines? Probably not. There are already such things as rep-rap machines that can churn out new versions of themselves, so how much would it take to tweak them to repair their damaged fellows? Maybe we will be freed into a culture where we can do what we like.

There is a term in the intelligence community: a wilderness of mirrors – where everyone in the room works for some kind of intelligence agency, and there isn’t a single “real person” in the room. What will happen to mankind when most of the energy and action in the world is taken over by robots? Will they be able to coast on the inertia that all the preceding culture and sense of what man is capable of, or are they all going to end up as insecure neurotics tearing out their hair because they are bored and have nothing to do?

It is interesting that Elon Musk and others have expressed concern about a robot apocalypse caused by killer robots, while facilitating a quieter and much more far reaching societal change that is going to impact the workplace, and society, in the form of the worker robot.

AI can write books. Algorithms try to unsuccessfully run your social media. You get Deus Ex Machina rattling through your phone lines a lot, and it takes a second sometimes to realize that you are in the uncanny valley. At some point, with a large enough set of sample data, a lot of the kinks are going to be ironed out to the point where the handover from the human to the robot operator is going to be seamless, and not long after that we will start to question why anything as inefficient as a human being was let anywhere near customer service or business, or a decision making process.

Maybe.

Or maybe we will trundle along with all of it almost working. Society may end up being a layered affair where humans serve other poor humans, and robots work for those that have money. As William Gibson said “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed,” and it is unlikely to change anytime soon. Early adopters have always had a little more cashflow to pick up the newest tech, and a slow flow towards mass production and cheaper versions has followed. There is a certain irony in the notion that low paying jobs may be eradicated long before those replaced will themselves choose to have robots replace a lot of what they do.

It is strange to look at the strange pressures that technology can seem to apply to society – the way in which it can distort relationships, and the odd importances it can place on things that really aren’t that important. I think for humanity to retain that thing which makes it vital, to some degree these attempts at automation or replacement of the human in the equation are always going to fail, because they need to fail. Man needs to have something to do, and one of the things that some men like to do is work. Work doesn’t have to be this horrible demeaning activity, it can actually bring a lot of meaning to your life. It may be that robot workers end up being used in the same way that the internet is used to continue the lifespan of radio or television – they don’t so much kill their predecessor as incorporate it into themselves. For it to really work the robot revolution needs to have a human heart.

AIPoly points the way to more than one kind of future, and which is going to depend on what we buy into.