In 2014 he designed the robot barman Makr Shakr. Carlo Ratti, born in Turin, is one of the most famous and influential Italian architects in the world. He teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, USA, where he is Director of the MIT Senseable City Lab. We met him for an early evaluation of that futuristic experience.
How was your artificial barman accepted?
Makr Shakr was conceived in 2014 as an installation for Google I/O, the annual developers’ conference held in San Francisco. The project was instantly the focus of considerable attention and curiosity. During the subsequent months, we received several requests from people who wanted to know whether they could purchase the machine or rent it for a birthday party or a wedding. All this encouraged us to turn Makr Shakr into a start-up that is growing at an astounding pace. The Royal Caribbean was Makr Shakr’s first client. Today these robotised cafés are permanently installed on board all their new cruise liners. Meanwhile, the mobile unit Makr Shakr on the Road has been touring the world without a break for the past thirty years. Last year it was even at one of Rihanna’s concerts. We can say that the project is progressing very well. I would also like to say that if, one the one hand we did not cause any barman to lose his job, on the other hand we have provided employment to about ten young engineers in Turin.
Makr Shakr, my robot-barman, was conceived in 2014. It did not cause the loss of jobs but rather created new ones.
Robots deprive people of jobs, just as automated processes do. This is a common fear. You suggested enforcing a tax on robots as compensation for those who lose their job. How could that be implemented?
Let’s consider, for instance, Italian taxi drivers and self-driving cars. The technology for self-driving cars is almost ready. Taxi drivers will be out of a job in a few years. And, along with them, millions of people in the world who earn a living by driving a car. So what can we do about it? There are two keywords on which we can centre a discussion, precisely “transition” and “redistribution”. “Transition” to manage current day revolutionary technological inventions without being overwhelmed by them. And also to help those who have lost a job today to find another one tomorrow, and to educate the new generations for future professions. “Redistribution”, because it is crucial to understand who will benefit by this new world. Those who have invested capital? Or those who have been left unemployed? A solution could be to make robots or new artificial intelligence devices pay taxes. It simply means taxing the capital and transferring profit to those who have perhaps lost their job. The proposal was unfortunately rejected by the European Parliament a few months ago but it instantly found an unexpected supporter in Bill Gates.
Can we say that the advent of robots will necessarily change the concept of work?
I think so. But this will not necessarily be negative. Let’s consider, for instance, self-driving cars. In the not too distant future, while our car drives us somewhere, we could carry out other activities we have little time to spend on today, such as reading, sleeping, playing, etc. The car becomes an extension of our home, as in Mario Bellini’s visionary project of the ‘70s, Kar-a-sutra.
Does automation risk widening the gap between rich and poor countries? The former could release intelligent devices for progress, and the latter will, instead, be bound to material labour…
Furthermore, suffice to consider the so-called leapfrog phenomenon (a rapid change process, Editor’s Note). Africa is providing several such examples with forward leaps that change the rules of the game. For instance, the use of telephones to make a purchase or to make a money transfer is more common in certain African capital cities than in Europe. Or, the incubators in Nairobi, which have developed around the technological non-profit organisation Ushahidi…