Will Robots Eventually Replace Humans As The Dominant Species On Earth?

Humans are already no longer the dominant species on Earth. In 2014, the number of mobile electronic devices surpassed the number of people. If you include computers that are not mobile, the number of internet-connected devices will reach 34 billion by 2020.

But does this really count? After all, most electronic devices are really dumb. Let’s consider only the most “intelligent” species of mobile device – the smartphone, which is basically a handheld computer running (almost exclusively) Android or iOS. Smartphones have come from nothing to near-dominance in a remarkably short time. The number of smartphones is projected to reach 6.1 billion in 2020, and will overtake the human population shortly thereafter.

Smartphones are still pretty dumb for now, but they have high intelligence potential for two reasons:

  • They have sensors (cameras, microphones, accelerometers, GPS, thermometers).
  • They have real-time connections to immensely powerful server farms, which can operate without the battery power restrictions of phones.

Many people living in advanced economies have already basically outsourced their memories and navigation skills to smartphones and cloud servers

The value-add of smartphones has been so great that we have gladly embraced them, despite the need to feed our little phones daily and constantly bathe them in continuous WiFi or 4G access.

So it is clear that we want personal computers that we can carry or wear all of the time. Will the same be true for robots? There are expected to be 31 million domestic robots in 2019, which is already far higher than the 2.6 million industrial robots projected for the same year. The current betting in the industry focuses on three trends, in which consumer growth is far outpacing industrial or military growth:

  • We don’t want to do housework, and would gladly buy any robot that could be as useful as a dishwasher or a washing machine – but also adaptable to general cleaning.
  • Driving is a huge waste of time that robot cars can do better, if we can teach them to do it.
  • We are all living longer, and soon we won’t be able to to look after all of those old people – either financially or in terms of available human labor. Automation of aged care will become crucial.

For the moment, it seems that a logical ceiling for human-computer-robot symbiosis is a few AIs and/or robots per person. Modern office workers already have around 3–5 devices per person. Beyond that, exponential growth in the number of robots might be driven by the need for automated robot cleaning, repair and replacement – robots to fix robots. By that stage, we will be basically onlookers in a robot society. Humans – the original raison d’être for the robots – may be reduced to a fashionable hobby for robots, like a house plant or a pet.