What the Media Gets Wrong about Robots

The media paints a grim picture of an America in which automation is, in the words of a recent New York Times article, “flushing workers without a college degree out of productive industries.” This feeds the overwrought narrative — brought to life vividly by film, television, and even in several commercials that aired during last month’s Super Bowl broadcast — that artificial intelligence, robots and other technologies are the 21st century’s boogeymen.

Through a solely economic lens, technology is, in fact, disrupting the work force in painful ways for many people. The hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs here in the Midwest and the erosion of jobs in other sectors is real.

But automation and robotics is also an on-ramp to higher-level, more engaging and even empowering work. Rather than lamenting a workforce that is beholden to — and even victimized by — emerging technologies, we should be investing in the education and creation of a workforce to complement the technology. In fact, one could argue that we should be working towards an ideal of designing more robots and automation intended to increase the human workforce’s productivity.

Technology has always, in a sense, threatened a previous way of life, and adjusting is not always a smooth or easy process. We would be foolish not to acknowledge a transition, especially one that is already underway. When has the solution ever been to run from impending modernity and hope it goes away? The spoiler is that the future arrives eventually; it’s just a matter of when one decides to embrace it, and whether it’s too late.

By harnessing the promising and positive potential of an innovation, societies have been able to elevate their citizens and usher in new, exciting eras. If we succumb to a regressive view on robots, AI, automation and more, we are not just limiting our contemporary selves, but the future generations — such as our own children — who will have to figure it out eventually. The world is made up of people we educate, and so we must encourage them to think in new ways; they are the entrepreneurs that will make these transformations happen. We cannot overcome the challenge if we bow out before we’ve even really gotten started.

The work I see among my colleagues in robotics, AI and machine learning is dedicated to improving the human experience rather than creating a dystopian world of subservience. This may not fit the worldview of ominous news reports, doom-and-gloom movies and television series or even Super Bowl marketers, but it’s a lot closer to our reality than what these sources would have us believe. We must elect to develop technology that amplifies the human capability rather than tries to replace it. Augmenting humans with technology are a new way to think about technology and we are very early to pass judgments and propagate myths, which the media is good at doing. A pure economic or labor or technology perspective misses the human capital we have in our hands.