Robotic Scapegoating

As a robotics guy, the most common question I get is also one of my least favourite: “Are robots going to take over the world?” I hear it with such frequency that I’ve developed the formulaic response, “only if I tell them to.” While my playful side loves uttering this phrase with a half-maniacal grin, my logical side is also trying to prove a point: robots will do exactly what we tell them to do. They will operate how we design them to operate and they will take over the world if we tell them to take over the world. Yet, increasingly, I see robots becoming the latest scapegoat in a long line of justifications for our economic and social problems.

Every week we see a new headline involving impending job loss through automation and the advancement of robotic capabilities. Truckers, miners, construction workers, cooks, farmers, cashiers, and bank tellers are just a handful of the growing number of jobs that have been put on notice for robotic takeover. Some speculists, such as Kai-Fu Lee of Sinovation Ventures, boldly predict that technologies like AI and robotics could replace 50% of all current jobs within the next decade. When throwing around predictions this frightening, it is no wonder that people are more than a little concerned for their wellbeing, particularly since, to date, few steps have been taken by governments and organizations to safeguard the general population.

A handful of initiatives in Canada, Finland, Kenya, and the Netherlands have started looking at the possibility of guaranteed salaries or “mincome” to ensure that, as individuals are displaced from their jobs, they still have the resources to stay afloat. Just as it did in my mother’s hometown of Dauphin, Manitoba back in the late 70s, guaranteed income does have the potential to help families stay above the poverty line and in good health.

The question of where that money comes from is still to be resolved. Bill Gates’ proposal for robots to pay taxes isn’t the craziest idea I’ve ever heard. However, it does potentially undermine the cost savings of job automation while raising the question of what exactly a robot is. Moreover, even if individuals are given enough to keep their basic necessities in order, what can be said of their sense of purpose and worth when their jobs are taken over by a machine?

None of this is new. Each time a disruptive, efficiency-boosting technology comes along, people lose their jobs and an army of individuals steps forward to decry the dangers of this technology. However, if you believe the more extreme pundits, this is the first time that we have the possibility to take away so much that we leave nothing to go back to.

Ultimately, if this backlash against automation, job loss, and our obsessive pursuit of efficiency seems to be a cyclical problem within society, it begs the question of whether we are missing the issue when we point our fingers and decry yet another new tech. Are robots the problem or are we? Is the robot little more than the latest in a long line of scapegoats for our own unhealthy obsession with optimizing everything in life? Can we genuinely blame a tool for the way in which we misuse it?

Or perhaps, much like gun control, we need to start regulating and licensing the use of a technology we’re obviously too immature to handle. “Want to make a robot, kid? Great. Pass this ethical responsibility test first to make sure you’re not going to screw up society.” I write this with tongue firmly planted in cheek, however, when one considers both the short- and long-term power and potential of robotics, and the idea gets a lot less far-fetched. Robots are being made with increasing levels of power, complexity, and autonomy, but if we trace the decision tree back far enough, we will always find a human waiting on the far end—either embarrassingly guilty or blissfully ignorant of what automated wheels they’ve set in motion.

So stop blaming robots for your problems. It’s short-sighted, uninformed, and makes you sound like an idiot. Let’s all step up, start taking responsibility for our own actions, and realize that if anything goes wrong in the impending robotics boom, we only have ourselves to blame.