This story appears in the September 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Humankind has a complicated relationship with robots. On one hand, we appreciate how they can do dangerous, repetitive work so we don’t have to. Robots don’t need vacations or medical insurance. And in areas such as agriculture, where farmers can’t find enough people to pick the produce, robots can shoulder (do they have shoulders?) some of those tasks. But polls show that the growing robotization of the planet makes us feel deeply uncomfortable—and threatened.
Pew Research Center surveys after 2017 found that more than 80 percent of Americans believed that by 2050, robots would do much of the work humans now do—and about 75 percent believed that would make economic inequality worse. Across lines of race, age, and education, people who said automation has hurt workers outpaced those who said it’s helped workers by two to one.
Of course, these surveys were taken before COVID-19, when replacing people with robots began to look like a highly practical answer to social distancing, no masks required.
For this month’s cover story, we sent David Berreby around the world to look at the present and future state of robots in society. He found a growing reliance on these intelligent devices.
“Robots now deliver food in Milton Keynes, England, tote supplies in a Dallas hospital, disinfect patients’ rooms in China and Europe, and wander parks in Singapore, nagging pedestrians to maintain social distance,” Berreby writes. He found robots digging holes to install wind turbines in Colorado, cutting lettuce in California, and even reciting religious texts in Japan.
“It’s an inevitable fact that we are going to have machines, artificial creatures, that will be a part of our daily life,” Carnegie Mellon University AI roboticist Manuela Veloso told Berreby. “When you start accepting robots around you, like a third species, along with pets and humans, you want to relate to them.”
A third species? That’s a new idea indeed. But we’re not there yet. So far, Berreby reports, robots can’t equal the human mind’s ability to do a lot of different tasks, especially unexpected ones, and robots haven’t yet mastered common sense—all skills required to be a magazine editor.
But give it a few years. Until then, let me personally thank you for reading National Geographic.