THEY listen, they talk and very soon, according to some experts, they will be taking over our homes, our jobs and our lives.
Thousands of us unwrapped voice-activated electronic devices on Christmas Day.
Amazon’s Alexa service, Apple’s Home Pod and Google’s Home speakers were among the best-sellers.
Recognising the human voice, the gadgets can play music, search the web, shop online, check the weather and even switch on the lights or control the central heating.
But while we are getting to grips with our new interactive electronics, a report last week sounded alarm bells over the implications of rapidly improving artificial intelligence.
The study, from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) warns of thousands of jobs being lost to robots – with those on lowest wages likely to be hardest hit.
Around 44% of jobs accounting for about £290 million in wages risk being automated in the coming decades – mostly in low-paid sectors such as call centres, offices and factories.
Mathew Lawrence, a senior researcher at the IPPR, said: “Managed badly, the benefits of automation could be narrowly concentrated, benefiting those who own capital. Inequality would spiral.”
Now the think tank is calling on governments to examine ways of spreading the benefits of automation throughout society.
IPPR research fellow Carys Roberts said: “To avoid inequality rising, the Government should look at ways to spread capital ownership and make sure everyone benefits from increased automation.”
Unite, Britain’s biggest union, said coping with advances in technology was nothing new for workers in the manufacturing sector in particular – but stressed the Government needs to invest in retraining people as automation increases.
They said: “We have seen in previous industrial revolutions, in the likes of the steel and other heavy industries, that whole communities can be left behind by new technology and this cannot happen again.”
Scottish Engineering chief executive Bryan Buchan has a much more positive view of what robots will bring to the workplace.
He said: “The evidence is that automation doesn’t cost jobs but it changes jobs. These things are quite advanced in terms of robotics and they don’t need guards around them so humans can work alongside them.
“They are using ‘cobots’ on the Mini assembly lines now at Oxford. Fundamentally the ‘cobot’ does the horrible, repetitive jobs that humans don’t like doing.”
The UK is one of the best prepared countries in the world to benefit from artificial intelligence, rather than lose out.
This month, the AI Readiness Index – by the Oxford Insights Team – put the UK in top place out of the world’s 35 most advanced countries – beating the US into second spot. But not all human jobs are under immediate threat from robots. Plumbers, electricians and nurses will stay in employment the longest, according to artificial intelligence expert and author Martin Ford.
“One area that is safe for people is the kind of job that requires a lot of dexterity, hand-eye coordination and flexibility,” he said. But will the robots we are creating one day enslave us?
It is a question that increasingly troubles many scientists and tech entrepreneurs.
Oxford professor Michael Woolridge has warned MPs artificial intelligence could go ‘rogue’.
He said the machines might become so complex that the engineers who create them will no longer understand them or be able to predict how they function.
If that sounds far-fetched, consider this: A few weeks ago a robot called AlphaZero taught itself how to play chess in four hours – then it beat a grandmaster with moves never seen in the game’s history.
The robot was given the rules and instructed to learn how to win by playing against itself. In doing so it amassed centuries of chess knowledge and tactics then went on to surpass all previous human ingenuity in the game.
Back in our homes, the computers have already begun their quiet revolution.
Videos have appeared on the internet showing voice activated devices from different manufacturers starting to talk to each other.
Amazon’s Alexa – the voice of its Echo system – asks Apple’s Siri a question. Siri answers and then asks Google’s Home, which answers before addressing Alexa.
And so it goes on in a continuous babbling loop, with little or no human input required.
It’s all a bit of fun… isn’t it?
How rise of the machines has changed our working lives forever
Just as horses were gradually made obsolete by the car, humans’ jobs have also been affected by changing technology throughout modern history.
The Industrial Revolution of the 1700s saw hand production methods replaced by machines and heralded the rise of the factory system.
In recent times, it is the internet which has had the biggest impact on jobs – leading to a sharp decline in retail positions as increasing numbers of people shopped online.
Self-service tills at supermarkets and department stores have also led to a rapid decline in the numbers of shop workers.
Another job we have seen begin to disappear is the bank teller. The arrival of ATM machines in the 1970s signalled the start of the decline. Banks in Scotland have closed more than 140 branches this year at the cost of hundreds of jobs as more people head online to bank.
Other jobs that have largely fallen by the wayside in recent times due to automation and artificial intelligence include petrol pump operators, car park attendants and telephone switchboard operators, plus postal service mail sorters and sewing machine operators. Scientists, including Stephen Hawking, have argued that it may only be a matter of time before artificial intelligence turns on mankind.
Hawking has said he believes development of full artificial intelligence could “spell the end of the human race”.