My history with robots is informed by pop-culture. Rosie from The Jetsons. Vicki from Small Wonder. All of the Transformers. Dot Matrix from Spaceballs. Johnny 5 from Short Circuit. Despite these mostly cheerful depictions of robots, the idea of robots scares me. I’m not sure where the fear comes from exactly, but I suspect that it’s because I envision little girls with circuit boards on their backs, which is, frankly, horrifying.
While I know that my views on modern technology shouldn’t be based on depictions from the 1980s, the modern pop-culture depictions of robots I’ve seen seem even more frightening. That’s a potential weakness on my part and one I’m trying to overcome.
A few years ago, I was encouraged to have a surgery performed by robotics over one done by my doctor and found myself relieved when that turned out to not be an option. Science, and evidence, is showing that robotics does have a place in the operating room and that, had it been an option for me, I should have seriously considered it. I respond well to evidence.
I also respond well to dramatic examples, of which there are many where robots do great good. The ones that come to mind are how military and police forces are using robots to help diffuse bombs. By making use of technology in this way, you can prevent the loss of human life. That’s hard to argue with, though not immediately relevant to my everyday experiences.
A recent article challenges the way I view robots and, specifically, robots in the workplace. As more and more retail moves online, distribution warehouses are having to ramp up in a big way to keep up. One way these retailers are keeping up with demand is robots. These robots are working alongside human workers.
Reframing robots as partners in progress
In “The Future of Learning: Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out,” one of the trends outlined is the rise of smart machines. In exploring a future scenario in which automation has eliminated some jobs and changed others and new occupations have emerged, the authors state, “Jobs are designed to leverage artificial intelligence systems and robots so as to allow people to maximize their unique contributions.”
When I initially read that, I imagined Vicki from Small Wonder and shuddered a little. At that first reading, I couldn’t embrace the idea of a robot-companion future because I was letting the past dictate too much. It’s important that I gather my evidence from the present and explore signals of the future so that I can be open to changing reality. What companies like Amazon are doing is partnering robots and humans to fulfill customer orders faster, which means more customers and more human workers.
Partnering with robots like this also means developing new skills. The first step, for me at least, is to update my image of robots. But what else is necessary? “The Future of Learning: Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out” shares some work characteristics that will allow people to excel. Among them, we’ll need to make friends with people and machines.