A reader points me to this chart - I am not able to independently verify the data source.
If the data are to be believed, our robot brethren experienced a significant die-off in 2010, but then overcame that event by more than doubling between 2010 and 2011. I guess this would have to be an effect of a lot of robots being retired as a result of the great recession (either that or the data is lousy).
That aside, the robot population seems to have a doubling time of about 2 1/2 years. If that were to continue, here's the extrapolation (along with the most recent UN projections for the human population):
Needless to say, this extrapolation will prove quantitatively unreliable, but it does serve to illustrate the general timeframe implied by a population of 18m with a doubling time under three years. The curve may slow down if the robotics industry is unable to develop robots fast enough to find new market niches at the same rate in future as it has in the last decade.
I note that Kurzweil's prediction for the singularity is 2045 - this curve seems to be in broad agreement.
I hate thinking about this stuff because it's so painful.
However, in the interests of not being guilty of intellectual cowardice, here's my best current thinking about how this might play out:
- This trend will continue because it's in the short-term interests of societal elites. The median influencer's life can be made better with more robotically produced consumer goods and with service robots to perform tedious chores (or human labor made cheap by competition from robots).
- The creative classes can have fun with new toys and with thinking up new uses for the technology.
- Ever larger numbers of people will continue to be made technologically unemployed by this trend.
- Managing the "class formerly known as working" will become an increasing challenge. More and more of them will present as "criminals", "terrorists", and other undesirable labels since society is not able to provide them with a meaningful way to contribute (and people need meaning).
- The least disruptive approach to managing this is for the underclass to disappear into technologically mediated secondary universes (whatever TV & video games evolve into).
- However, the traditional cultural ethics that despise welfare/dependency etc will prevent easy/full use of this solution, and the alternative is to lock up more and more deviants and use more and more sophisticated technology to find and monitor the deviants - managing the risk that they become organized and attempt to overthrow the existing order.
- Some people will reject the automation trend and there will be an ongoing romantic/back-to-the-land/local food/anti-globalization/anti-technology movement. To the extent it relies on resources not needed by organized global society, and doesn't oppose "progress" violently or too-effectively, it will be tolerated.
- Depending on how good the roboticists get how quickly, there's going to become a point where there really isn't enough in it for a sufficiently large fraction of humanity. I simply see no way this trend can continue without eventually rendering almost all of us irrelevant. People's basic survival instincts will not tolerate that.
- However, by that point, there may very well be no easy way back, and all hell will break loose.
Gloomy as hell I know - but whenever I think about this subject I am simply unable to come up with a narrative convincing to myself in which there are many future generations of tolerably happy humans.