Will Robots Rule the World? Find Out at Robo Madness Next Thursday

An influential 1998 paper by Robin Hanson, an economics professor at George Mason University, asked what might happen to jobs and wages in a future with “mature machine intelligence”—computers and robots clever enough to take over most human jobs. The outlook is a little scary.

Hanson calculated that a world where machines could truly substitute for most human labor, would, at first, see unprecedented economic growth, including rising wages. But eventually, as machines became more numerous and more productive, they would push human wages down dramatically, leaving most people without the means to buy the stuff the machines were making. Hanson even threw around words like “Malthusian,” a term once reserved to describe catastrophic population growth and food shortages.

Fortunately, our machines aren’t that smart yet. Even the most optimistic prophets, like Ray Kurzweil, think it could take a few more decades to build true AIs. But that hasn’t stopped people in the present from thinking about the positive and negative effects of advances in robotics on human employment, and what we can do to anticipate and adapt to the coming changes. That’ll be one of the important issues on the table next week at Robo Madness, Xconomy’s third annual Silicon Valley robotics forum, to be held at SRI International next Thursday, April 10, during National Robotics Week.

We announced the event back in January and published the full agenda on March 13. You can register here for an opportunity to hear and meet some of today’s leading roboticists and robotics entrepreneurs—the very people whose inventions could lead us into an era of prosperity and discovery, or potential hardship and struggle, or both at once.

Obviously, most people in robotics feel the work they’re doing will benefit society and create new kinds of jobs that we haven’t even imagined yet, just as with past technological revolutions. A sneak peek:

—Suitable Technologies CEO Scott Hassan will describe how roaming remote presence devices could alter the nature of collaborative work, eliminate costly commutes, and tie together distributed organizations.

—Helen Greiner, one of the co-founders of iRobot, will give us a glimpse inside her new company CyPhy Works, which is building tethered, flying robots for aerial surveillance work.

—A panel of startup founders, led by special guest moderator John Markoff of the New York Times, will talk about how autonomous robots are opening up brand-new markets in areas like logistics, ocean exploration, and public safety.

—The founders of educational-robotics startups like Play-I, Barobo, and Origami Robotics will explain how robots can help introduce kids to crucial concepts in computer programming.

—Investors from top Silicon Valley venture firms will explain why they think robotics companies will achieve high growth and reshape the economy.

—Keynote speakers including Paolo Pirjanian, Brian Gerkey, and Melonee Wise will talk about the future of robots in homes, offices, and hospitals, the importance of open-source operating systems in the robotics industry, and cheaper, smarter robots for manufacturing.

As always, there will be plenty of networking time during and after the talks and panels—the full event schedule is here.

The truth is that if you want to understand what the future will look like and where the biggest economic opportunities and challenges lie, you can’t afford to ignore robotics—any more than you could have ignored the Internet in 1994 or mobile technology in 2007. So sign up for Robo Madness now, and be part of the discussion at SRI next week.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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