Truly, as Bob Dylan famously said, the times, they are a-changin’. From the first days of the Industrial Revolution to today, machines have changed how we work and live; however, though it’s easy to look back and see, comparatively, how much better things are, it’s sometimes hard to see and understand – maybe because we’re in the midst of it – that things aren’t done changing. Among these current and potential future changes is one being put forth by globalisation expert, Richard Baldwin, professor at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Switzerland, called globotics, but, for such a simple-sounding name, it entails the intertwining together of a number of ideas that could have a profound effect on us all.
Before getting into the overall concept, let’s have a look at the word itself. Originating presumably from the title of Mr. Baldwin’s 2019 book, The Globotics Upheaval: Globalisation, Robotics and the Future of Work, the word itself comes from the merging of the words globalisation and robotics. Breaking this down further, the root of the term globalisation, meaning the action or process of making something global, can be found in the Latin globus, meaning ‘sphere or ball’, which was eventually interpreted to mean the Earth; on the other hand, robotics, meaning the technology of designing, constructing, and operating robots, stems from the word robot, which enters English via a translation of the Czech robotnik (“forced worker”), which is itself derived from the Old Church Slavonic rabota, meaning ‘servitude’.
While the word globalisation was first used in a 1930 work entitled Towards New Education by W. Boyd and M. M. Mackenzie, addressing the idea of an “international” education and outlook and stating that: “Wholeness,..integration, globalization..would seem to be the keywords of the new education view of mind: suggesting negatively, antagonism to any conception of human experience which over-emphasizes the constituent atoms, parts, elements, [etc.],” and robotics is originally a product of science fiction, being originally found in the May, 1941 writing of the great Isaac Asimov in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction: “There’s irony in three of the greatest experts in robotics in the world falling into the same elementary trap, isn’t there?”, globotics is purely and obviously a product of 2019.
Combining the ideas of globalisation, robotics, automation, machine-learning/artificial intelligence, and other transformative technologies, Baldwin postulates that, much in the same way that innovative farming machinery changed the way that our food is grown, meaning higher yields and lower labour requirements, and how automation and robotics increased factory productivity and decreased the need for factory labour in the 1970s and 80s, globotics will revolutionize the way that the service and information industry operates. In other words, more industries will be able to utilize technology in order to disrupt the status quo.
Leveraging gains in machine-learning and global communication, the use of “globots” and “telemigration” (i.e. employing talented, low-cost workers sitting abroad to work remotely but in real-time) definitely has the potential to reduce costs. A recent Gartner report had already predicted that, by 2022, 20% of workers engaged in primarily nonroutine tasks will rely on AI.
That being said, according to Baldwin, “while AI-driven white-collar robots are good at repetitive or predictable tasks, they fail at empathy, creativity and making ethical choices,” and, while telemigrants “can mimic administrative work… they cannot do jobs that require us to be in the same room as other humans or machines.” Also, it’s worth noting that the disruptive nature of globotics makes any reliable prediction of an outcome (and the fallout from it) highly speculative, so, at the very least, we’ll end up somewhere in between The Jetsons and a dystopian Terminator/Matrix-esque, AI-ruled future.