It sounds like the quintessential anti-festive story. An animal welfare charity in San Francisco was accused of using a robot – it looks alarmingly like a giant egg – to clear homeless people off pavements in front of its offices. All was not quite as it seemed.
The sinister egg-bot, supposedly on a mission to socially cleanse the streets of undesirables, turned out to be a robotic crime-buster. And since the robot had been on patrol, break-ins, thefts and assaults had gone down, according to the Silicon Valley firm that made it.
The story illustrates a deep-seated fear about robotics and technology in general, namely that the machines are indifferent to humanity, if not actively malign and liable to run out of control.
Patrol: The security robot used in San Francisco
I became a convert after visiting an Amazon warehouse in Dunstable last December, where I was mesmerised by the stately dance of 2,000 robots weaving around the warehouse picking up items and taking them to be packed.
Amazon says that far from putting people out of a job, the robots have allowed the company to grow faster in the UK, and therefore to expand its human workforce here by several thousand.
Not only retail, but the world of banking and financial services is ripe for infiltration by robots which can easily relieve people of routine tasks. An insurance bot, for instance, could process a claim in seconds, instead of days, while a loan bot could handle a mortgage application far more quickly than a human being.
Robots have obvious attractions for employers: they don’t get sick, they don’t need holidays or maternity leave, they don’t rack up expensive pension costs, they don’t get bolshy and join a union – they don’t get hangovers and they don’t even get tired.
Consumers can benefit from goods that are cheaper and arrive more quickly, and innovations such as driverless cars.
The flip-side is the threat to us as employees. The Royal Society of Arts recently predicted in a major piece of research that robots could commandeer four million private sector jobs in the next ten years – equivalent to 15 per cent of the workforce.
It is not just low-level jobs that could be affected, but ones further up the chain. Quite possibly this column in future could be written by a Ruthbot.
But that is only one side of the story. Counterintuitively, the robot employment boom could be good for the economy overall, if not for some individuals.
Mundane tasks may be taken over by machines but the hope is that, freed of drudgery, humans will be free to undertake more creative endeavours, and add more value to the economy.
Jobs potentially at risk include drivers, who could be replaced by driverless cars and lorries
PricewaterhouseCoopers forecasts that up to 30 per cent of UK jobs could be affected by automation by the early 2030s, but that this will be offset by other types of jobs being created elsewhere.
It argues that the UK economy could expand by around 10.3 per cent, equivalent to an additional £232billion, thanks to automation and artificial intelligence by 2030, mostly due to gains in productivity.
The accountancy firm is devoting huge amounts of intellectual energy to thinking about how the economy and businesses might change, including a team of eight people who spend their working lives thinking about drones, or unmanned planes. This is, of course, in itself an example of roles that wouldn’t have existed ten years ago.
Jobs potentially at risk include drivers, who could be replaced by driverless cars and lorries, checkout staff in shops, cashiers in banks, data processors and call centre staff.
In the past, though, technological change has not resulted in mass unemployment. Between 1900 and 1970 the percentage of people employed in agriculture in the US dropped from 40 per cent to less than two per cent but workers were deployed elsewhere and the American economy continued to grow.
History tells us that robots are more likely to make us richer than to make us redundant.