Roppie the robot plays a game of tic-tac-toe with a member of the public at the Taipei International Robot Show, October 19, 2010.
Roppie the robot plays a game of tic-tac-toe with a member of the public at the Taipei International Robot Show, October 19, 2010.
Nicky Loh / Reuters

From the cotton gin and the steam engine to electricity and the transistor, new technologies have been revolutionizing the world for centuries, transforming life and labor and enabling an extraordinary flourishing of human development. Now some argue that advances in automation and artificial intelligence are causing us to take yet another world-historical leap into the unknown.

But is that really the case? Will the rise of the robots threaten our jobs, our purpose, our very self-definition as humans? At Foreign Affairs, we’ve been intrigued by the discussion but not yet convinced, so for the lead package in this issue, we’ve pulled together an all-star team of authors to tell us just what’s going on and what it all means.

Daniela Rus is one of the world’s leading roboticists and director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT. She describes what robots are already doing now and what else they will be doing a few years down the road. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, also at MIT, explore whether automation and robots will progress to the point where humans become as economically obsolete as horses. Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, isn’t worried; he thinks the impact and significance of today’s emerging technologies are vastly overestimated.

Illah Nourbakhsh, director of the Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab (CREATE Lab) at Carnegie Mellon University, explores the regulatory, legal, and existential challenges that an increasing reliance on robots will soon raise. And the European experts Nicolas Colin and Bruno Palier discuss the future of social policy in the digital age, arguing that a shift to the “flexicurity” at the heart of the Nordic model is more necessary than ever before.

Something is clearly happening here, but we don’t know what it means. And by the time we do, authors and editors might well have been replaced by algorithms along with everybody else. Until then, we offer these dispatches from the frontlines of the robotics revolution.

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