Institute for the Future: Map of the Robot Renaissance

Last week, my colleagues and I at Institute for the Future held our Robot Renaissance conference, where we presented our research on the future of robotics. As part of this year-long project, we developed the above map to summarize our big forecasts and present some striking signals, present-day examples of technologies that we think indicate or embody a future trend. As with much of our work at IFTF, this map, lovingly designed by our creative director Jean Hagan, is available for free under a Creative Commons license. I hope you enjoy it! Klaatu barada nikto! From the introduction to the map:
Nexiiiii After decades of hype, false starts, and few successes, smart machines are finally ready for prime time. In some areas, the robots will replace humans, freeing us up to do the things we are good at and actually enjoy. In other domains, the machines will become our collaborators, augmenting our own skills and abilities. The first robot boom was in the 1950s, when factory workers met the first industrial robots. Films like The Day The Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet packed theaters, and tin toy robots delighted kids. And now, as robots move out of the factories and make real a century of science fiction, we will once again see these machines in a new light, and we will also reconsider how we see ourselves.

Of course, visions of the future of robotics could easily veer into dystopia. Hollywood loves a good cautionary tale of robots turning against humanity, taking over the world, and generally wreaking havoc. But as you delve into the specific domains where robots will likely have the most impact, a much richer canvas of possibilities emerges. That is because machines never replace humans but rather change the nature of what humans can do and establish new expectations and standards of performance. Certainly some routine jobs will be taken over by machines. That has already happened and will continue. But the real power in robotics technologies lies in their ability to augment and extend our own capabilities. Our tools change us in unexpected ways, and the next generation of robotic tools can be no different. We will make new robots, but the robots will also make us.

Explore IFTF's Robot Renaissance: The Future of Human-Machine Interaction Map


  1. People always think I’m mad when I bring this up, but I think we need to start talking about Silicon Rights soon. When the robots get personalities and the AIs are sentient according to Turing’s Law (or whatever) we suddenly have an awful lot of control of their well being – as energy suppliers, as masters of their “off switch”. They will be asked to perform tasks for which they wont get paid, except in “free energy to work”. So despite being sentient, we will be depriving them of freedoms we demand for al other sentient beings. Of course, then there’s the rabbit hole of allowing them to install their own OS of choice on their own hardware (aka “freedom of religion” or “freedom of assembly”) etc etc. Since they have the potential to overtake carbon based life forms in terms of strength and intelligence, we would be doing ourselves a favour to leave good parental impressions on the robotic/AI young.

  2. How is this in any way a map? It doesn’t go anywhere. It’s just a bunch of press blurbs arranged in an infographic.

    1. Pointless infographic – it also doesn’t even mention the biggest challenge in robotics – the vision problem.

      1. We’re well aware of the challenges around computer vision in the context of robotics. In fact, UC Berkeley professor Jitendra Malik, who is a leader in computer vision research, spoke as part of the Robot Renaissance conference. However, this particular map is more about the future social issues and applications of robotics than the underlying technologies. Thanks though!

  3. “the robots will replace humans, freeing us up to do the things we are good at and actually enjoy. ”

    Problem is the things we don’t actually enjoy are often the things others are willing to pay us money to do. If greater automation DOESN’T lead to lower overall employment then you’re doing it wrong. If you’re willing to pay $x for a machine, you no doubt think it will enable you to save more than $x in labor or other costs. And it’s not like those jobs get turned into jobs building/minding the robot, because that would also be economic nonsense. If it costs more than $x times # of sales to build and support the automated solution, then nobody’s going to build it. And so the (usually higher paid) jobs building and supporting the automated solution must by definition replace a higher number of lower paid jobs.

    Haven’t we figured this out yet?

    I think I’m becoming a Luddite.

    1. There’s nothing wrong being a Luddite — its the bosses/capitalists/evil overlords who think there’s something wrong with Luddites. Robots are not our friends.

    2. Nope, that’s not how it works. The value of the labor is not fixed and will respond to the new costs of the robots; the value of the labor which cannot be performed by robots will correspondingly relatively rise. Simultaneously, the total production output will rise, justifying the human labor shift to “less essential” production such as art and leisure services. The share of the essential production (housing, food, medical care) on the total production will drop, increasing the value of free time and allowing for shorter working hours.
      Ultimately, if automation replaces all human labor (which I find highly unlikely), there will be no need to work at all; everybody will then be able to just live off of the generated wealth.

      Now this doesn’t deal with the problems of distribution of the totally automated production nor with any of the AI issues, but the idea that automation will be in and of itself creating permanent unemployment/poverty is simply wrong. Work doesn’t make people wealthy. Production does, no matter who or what is the producer.

      1. Gloster – as an econ major undergrad and MBA (back in the 80s) I used to believe the things you say like religion. But it doesn’t hold water. Ask someone whose Daddy used to build cars in Detroit how that’s working out for them. They’ve got plenty of time to enjoy art and leisure – all the time in the world. They don’t (by and large) get paid for it, but they’ve got the time. And those that can hang on to jobs find themselves working for less and less money because the owners of the capital (machines) don’t need as many people. (caveat – this is based on what I’ve read, not my personal experience)

        Productivity increases reduce prices but unless there’s something else for that labor to do they can afford less and less at any price.

        Productivity increases benefit the owners of capital but unless they are heavily taxed the number of people benefited is increasingly small.

        In the words of (I think) Rita Rudner (also from the 80s) “How much can one of those guys tip, anyway?”

        As I said above, if the result of automation isn’t lower net employment somewhere, you’re doing it wrong.

        1. Ok, but that’s a problem of distribution and inequality, not automation. Look at the numbers – there has been no permanent change in the unemployment rates in the last, say, 70 years. And during that time manufacturing went from literal manufacturing (making things by hand) to nearly total automation in all mayor fields (does any living thing even touch a car nowadays, before it leaves the factory?)
          Sure, the composition of jobs has changed and the middle class jobs are most likely disappearing. But that prompts the question “How do we spread the incomes more fairly?” not “How do we stop the machines?”

          1. Factories in china have gone back work terms that seems more like the industrial revolution then modern automation. This as wages are less expensive up front then then automating the process.

            As for spreading the income more fairly, watch out for anarcho-capitalist libertarian lynch mobs. That there is commie talk, son.

          2. Again, agreed, comrade. This, in fact, supports my point. The Chinese laborers have work, yay! However, their productivity (and hence income) is so miserable that they’d be better off (in the longterm, of course) if they lost their sweatshop jobs to robots (like what happened right next door in Japan) and started doing something more dignified, that can utilize their human potential much more efficiently (they could be doctors, nurses, accountants, ITs, cooks, barbers, actors, salespersons, masseurs, designers, caretakers, psychologists, bloggers, writers, lawyers, photographers, gardeners or researchers, just to name a few professions not likely to be soon – or in some cases ever – overtaken by our silicon offspring).
            I’m not saying it’s all flowers and kittens for the first generation to get fired and replaced. But once the transition phase is over, the society will benefit from this. (Ignoring things like resource caps, pollution, carbon footprint etc., correlated with, but not inextricably linked to robotization.)

          3. except that if one look at USA, there is a strong indication that poverty fosters poverty. That once parents are living of minimums, it will take extraordinary efforts by the children to rise above that.

            That being on top of the issue of “requirement inflation”. I read recently about corporations pushing for higher and higher education levels when looking for workers, so as to shake out the top percentage. So where once high school was enough, it then shifted towards bachelor as the number of high school graduates increased. And now it is starting to rise to doctorate. And this for a “entry level” job.

          4. Gloster, in your reply to Turn_self_off unemployed factory workers could be “doctors, nurses, accountants, ITs, cooks, barbers, actors, salespersons, masseurs, designers, caretakers, psychologists, bloggers, writers, lawyers, photographers, gardeners or researchers, ”
            Some of these such as doctors, psychologists, lawyers – most people don’t have the aptitude, education (or ability to get educated), or other resources for those careers. The jobs that don’t require specialized training or ability don’t pay much. In China, they probably pay less than factory work (guessing). So, yeah, distribution, but you have to sell high taxes for high social welfare which just isn’t going to fly in the US.

          5. Don’t pay much in relation to what? I’d say they pay quite well in China, if you can get the job. Which you can’t, because there is very little demand for those jobs. Why? Because it’s a luxury and majority of the population can’t afford to spend money on luxurious good and services because they have low paying jobs in Dickensian factories. Are the vicious and virtuous cycles making themselves apparent?
            (What are we arguing about here, anyway? My claim was that automation was not causing permanent unemployment, which I think can be demonstrated. And I’ve already acknowledged that the process is changing the job composition, making many middle-class positions obsolete and polarizing the employment spectrum; which may worsen the relative standing of some people, while improving everybody’s economic situation in absolute terms.)

          6. Gloster, not sure I totally buy your stats on no long term dip in unemployment – a lot of that lost manufacturing is absorbed by non productive government spending such as weapons manufacturing, increased prison employment (and incarceration) and non-governmental waste like the absurdly redundant and ineffective medical insurance bureaucracy.

            But I take your point that this is a distribution issue primarily. If the government could be honest about the current redistribution that they do (as above) and shift (and increase) the spending to infrastructure, education, and social welfare, and pay for itself by taxing the beneficiaries of high productivity, we’d have a much healthier economy and people.

  4. “the robots will replace humans, freeing us up to do the things we are good at and actually enjoy.”

    Ya know, like panhandling and dumpster diving.

  5. I remember reading a SF novel (“The Fortunate Fall”, I think it was) where everyone had two kinds of money : “red” money is the one you get when you, personnally, work, and “green” money is the dividend everyone perceives from robo-labor. Of course, some places won’t take green money in order to be more “select” or whatever. It was a clever concept.

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