A core concept of the world of Isaac's Story: London is the automation of everything. All physical labour is done by machines (except combat) and expert systems are able to do most of the knowledge work as well. By the time of The City (book 3) they're even taking over the creative industries.
Let's start with the physical: Could machines really take over all physical labour?
There is nothing a human can physically do that can't be done by a machine. Today we need specialist machines to complete individual human tasks - one machine that can run, one machine that can throw, one machine that can catch - but that's just engineering.
We are biological machines. We're very complex, but we're still machines. All that running, throwing and catching operates on simple principles that we understand completely, which is why we can replicate it. Better yet, when we replicate it we can make it better, and faster, and cheaper. It'll cost a billion dollars to create the first machine that can approximate the physical functionality of a human. The next model will be half that, then half that again. And they'll get better in the process.
They won't be smart enough to take over from humans on, say, the building of a skyscraper. There are too many dangerous and complex moving parts to that environment. But that isn't the question here. The question is, could they physically do what a person could do, assuming they had a brain? I can't see any reason why not, and I don't think it'll take that long to achieve. We're building them now and we're getting better at it as we go. There are stumbling blocks and difficult steps, but they aren't insurmountable. If it can be done by a squishy meat machine then we can replicate it, we just have to work out how.
They don't have to look like people, they just have to live in our world. They don't have to have hands or faces, just like planes don't have to flap their wings to fly. These are all engineering problems; we'll solve them for the military, or for the aged care industry, or for space exploration. There are pressures to get it right, and we've only got to solve it once. From there it gets easier and cheaper. It becomes unstoppable.
What about our great big brains? Don't we need a full, complex, general purpose AI to do what we do?
Being a chess master today means spending your life practicing, working hard, expanding your problem solving abilities and mastering the nuances of a game, only to be beaten by a mobile phone. We used to think chess mastery would require a complete AI, but it was just a series of problems we could write algorithms to solve. Now we treat it like it isn't a big deal because it no longer is. But once it was seen as impossible.
More impressive is Watson. Until IBM pulled it off, until the moment that show went on the air, nobody thought what Watson did on Jeopardy could be done. It didn't require an AI, just processing power and algorithms. The machine doesn't need to understand what it does, it just needs to be smart enough to do it. It needs an algorithm it applies to input in order to produce the desired output.
Think most knowledge work can't be boiled down to input > algorithm > output? Tell that to the chess guys. IBM are moving Watson into fields more impressive than game shows. Read the Wikipedia article, knowledge workers, and shiver in your boots.
The world of Isaac's Story: London is based on the idea that we'll get machines capable of a full range of human motion, as well as the grandchildren of Watson capable of replicated the knowledge side of things. No need for AI, just complex systems running on powerful hardware.
Our friends from earlier working on that skyscraper? The machines might not be smart enough to deal with the environment, but they don't need to be. Put a brain on the ground and a powerful wireless network to connect it to the robots, and we've replaced the workforce. Those robots provide the input, the brain on the ground handles the algorithms, sending back the output. A building is constructed without a single person.
Agriculture used to tie up half the population; now we manage it on 5%. Those people moved on to factory work and the industrial revolution, and were replaced by assembly line robots. So they moved into the gaps where machines couldn't manage what a person could, or they moved into knowledge work.
In Isaac's Story: London, those gaps have been removed, and the knowledge work has followed. It's a world of 95% unemployment (and higher as the series goes on), but there's no fighting in the streets or widespread starvation. This is thanks to the social and governmental systems that form the final part of the foundation of the world.
But this is already too long so it'll have to wait until my next post. I've got art to do, before the machines are able to do it for me.
Go read a book.