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Robots have been the stuff of sci-fi for nearly 100 years now. There’s something inherently fascinating about something that moves like a human, or thinks like a human, and isn’t one.

But for the most part robots haven’t had much effect on our daily life. Real-life robots are either boring-looking ones in out-of-the-way places, like robot arms in factories, or cute gimmicks, like the Roomba. (Here’s a Roomba being ridden by four kittens. You’re welcome.)

But in 2014, robots will become a bigger part of our lives, and a much bigger part of the way we think about the world, and about the big changes we’re seeing in the economy.

The rise of the robots won’t take the form of hordes of Terminator-like androids. Modern robots are here to help us, and they’re subtle. Take the self-driving car: a robot for sure, but one that looks like an ordinary car. In the last few months the UK, Japan and Sweden have announced major trials that will put self-driving cars on the road in cities to understand their potential. Or the automated checkouts that are appearing in more and more supermarkets.

There will also be more behind-the-scenes robots. These have long been a mainstay of factories in the rich world, but expect them to go global. Two years ago, the CEO of Chinese technology giant (and Apple’s main assembler) Foxconn caused a stir when he announced that he would be replacing part of his workforce with a million robots. Despite some setbacks at Foxconn, the spread of automated manufacturing to the developing world seems to be coming to pass, with China tipped to become the world’s biggest buyer of industrial robots.

If we think of robots more broadly as technology that replaces human activities, then they need not even involve hardware. Consider something like Featurespace’s Fraud Manager, a sort of software detective that scans thousands of transactions with inhuman tenacity, looking for subtle patterns that reveal dodginess. And there is more on the way. In field like medical diagnostics, translation and legal clerking, artificial intelligence is edging out old-fashioned human brains.

The AI debate

The prediction that there’ll be more robots in 2014 is perhaps unsurprising: they’ve been growing in number for years. But something else significant will happen too: we as a society will realise. In particular, the role of robots and artificial intelligence in doing the jobs that had long been the exclusive preserve of human workers will become a subject of urgent public debate.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, the economic debate has focused on scarcity: the lack of growth, the lack of output, the lack of jobs. When pundits have raised the issue of technology, it has mainly been to worry about whether it was advancing fast enough: think of Tyler Cowen’s Great Stagnation hypothesis or Robert Gordon’s headwinds of growth.

Few people have paused to consider whether our longer-term problem may be not scarcity but abundance: in this case, an abundance of labour-saving technologies. While a world of abundance sounds great, getting there is not a barrel of laughs. As we’ve seen before in sectors from the record business to journalism to steel-making, technological progress is great for consumers, but hugely disruptive to industries and ruinous to the people who make their livings in them.

For decades, we thought the solution to this was education: the jobs of the future would, we were told, be “knowledge jobs”, and so a degree was a good defence against unemployment. Now that robots are taking the roles of paralegals, detectives, and doctors, it’s not so clear that education is a foolproof defence.

Indeed, in a society where it’s very easy to replace workers with machines, we’d expect to see wealth migrating not from the unskilled to the skilled, but from workers to robot-owners. And indeed, this is what we’re seeing in the data, with corporate profits (the returns to capital) at an all-time high as a proportion of the economy and wages at an all-time low.

In 2014, as the economy returns to growth but pay-packets don’t, this debate will come to fore. People will be increasingly aware of the robots among us, and they won’t necessarily like what they see.

*Image courtesy of Kaptain Kobold on Flickr