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Icon 176 – Don’t fear The Robots

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Icon is a monthly magazine focusing on the best, most inspiring buildings, interiors, furnishings and fittings. It also celebrates the design process and the talented designers behind the most innovative work. It can be enjoyed equally by architecture and design professionals, and the design-literate public.
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Icon 176 – Don’t fear The Robots

Icon 176 – In our latest issue, we embrace the automation revolution, look at young designers seeking to tackle pollution, interview Terry Farrell one the pomo renaissance, profile Spanish restoration masters Flores & Prats and investigate OMA’s very Dutch approach to urbanism

Punch the word robots into Google and you will be confronted by a myriad of overwhelmingly negative headlines. Here is a sampler: Robots could take 4 million British jobs (Daily Mail); Rise of the Robots: 600k construction jobs could be lost to automation (Cityam); Will a robot take your job? (BBC); Robots are racist and sexist (The Guardian, obvs). Apart from being a neat little experiment in media bias, there is no disguising the general sense of panic. It is due, in no small part, to the types of job that are now perceived to be under threat.

Once upon a time it was the lower skilled who had the most to fear from automation. I suspect what is prompting much of the current anxiety is that it now appears that middle-class jobs face extinction. But, as this month’s cover story asks, how realistic is this proposition? As with the industrial revolution, technology has brought upheaval before and yet we are all still here.

To take one example, the ratio of humans to robots on Toyota’s factory floor is the same as it was 15 years ago, which suggests the argument is not so clear cut as some would have us believe. In truth, most of us know little about the world of robotics and, in our ignorance, robots have become a cipher on which we place all our fears about economics, societal status quos and the future. As such we tend to grossly underestimate our own unique capacity for intellectual enquiry and invention. And there is no shortage of footage showing robots failing spectacularly at the most mundane tasks. One of my favourite moments of last year was the fate that befell a security robot in a Washington office, which, possibly disillusioned with a life of patrolling bland corporate workspace, simply toppled into a water feature. The images of Knightscope K5’s corpse bobbing about in algae-infested waters, as three human observers glumly looked on, deservedly went viral. Prophetic?

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