Robots in the Zeitgeist

Did you notice how robots took over the Super Bowl commercials?

By robots, of course, I mean all manner of intelligent assistants, both traditionally robotic and in the cloud.

There was the robotic child who lacked the empathy to be a TurboTax live advisor, the smart speaker that couldn’t enjoy all the flavors of Pringles, the paranoid internet-of-devices approach of Simplisafe, and Amazon’s Alexa-gone-wild spot featuring Harrison Ford’s barking dog ordering pallet-loads of dog food.

There’s a theme here, perhaps best expressed by Michelob Ultra’s robot that can do everything better than we can . . . except enjoy a good time with friends.

Are you afraid of robots?

I’m not afraid of robots. Are you?

Somebody must be, because Madison Avenue has tapped a deep well of fear here.

We’re afraid they’re watching us. We’re afraid they’re better than us. Most of all, we’re afraid they’ll be taking our jobs.

The message of all of these commercials is similar: that while we’re afraid, we’re still better than they are. We can have a beer, eat some chips, and demonstrate the judgment not to let our dogs connect to ecommerce sites. And we’d still rather talk to a person than a robot about our taxes.

So we can relax. Right.

We’re in the middle of this shift, not at the beginning

The first accountant who got an Apple II and VisiCalc software in his office was doing his job with the help of technology. The idea that you’d do accounting on paper now is ludicrous. But nobody is afraid of spreadsheets and accounting software.

In the 2000s, we all got browsers on our desktops and stopped looking things up on paper. In the past decade, we all got mobile phones and started finding answers instantly while we in airports and meetings.

Now we’re asking Google how long it will take to get to the concert and trusting artificial intelligences to spot fraud on our credit cards.

There are moments when I wonder who’s serving who — usually when something goes wrong and I have to function as a network configuration engineer. But all this tech has allowed me to do my job from a sunny room in my home with nothing more than a phone and a MacBook connected to two external monitors.

For every person worried about robots taking over there are a thousand people who won’t give up their Waze intelligent GPS routing or voice-controlled music on Amazon Echo. We like our convenience and mostly, we’re not that worried about our privacy, our data, or our loss of control.

But let’s face facts here. Robots will be taking over parts of your job. They’ll drive trucks, replace cashiers, and write basic news articles. Whatever you are doing that is rote, rule-based, and repeatable, a machine will be able to do it better.

While some analysts say we’ll lose jobs and other say there will be a net gain, no one can deny there will be a shift. Robots will take a lot more jobs than the immigrants Donald Trump is paranoid about.

So if the fear that drove these Super Bowl commercials is stirring in the back of your brain, here’s what to do.

On a personal basis, ask yourself what parts of the things you do require judgment, empathy, and creativity. Concentrate on improving and growing in those areas. If you’re basically there to streamline a process and act as a human connecting processes or technologies, whatever you do is at risk. But we’re along way from robots that can project empathy or create something awesome.

Rather than fear AI, you should get to know more about it. About 80% of the book writing and editing work I do now is on books with an AI connection. This is where change is happening.

On a business basis, I think decision makers need to be wary of allowing machines to make decisions. There are moments when only a person knows best. (Of the three collisions my Tesla warned me to look out for, two were real and one was a false alarm — I’m glad it didn’t automatically brake for that last one.) When algorithms begin to behave in ways that their creators didn’t anticipate — which is practically the definition of AI — people’s judgment becomes increasingly important.

Politically, we need to expect more from our leaders. A job shift of this magnitude requires planning, training, and change management. Should we be taxing automation that reduces employment? What will all the truck drivers and cashiers be doing next? This a huge change and we’re doing virtually nothing to prepare for it.

Go ahead. Have a beer, have some chips, talk to a tax expert, and laugh at Amazon if it makes you feel better. But don’t imagine that the shift is a joke. It’s coming. Advertisers know it, and until businesspeople and politicians recognize it, we won’t really be ready.

One response to “Robots in the Zeitgeist

  1. Josh, I walked in the Giant I usually go to in Horsham tonight and for the first time, they had a robot wandering the floor. The label on him gave him the name Marty and said his job was to look for spills, fallen merchandise in the middle of aisles, and other potential hazards to shoppers. It has several cameras and knows when to turn at the end of an aisle. I held up my half gallon of milk in front of it and it stopped. Seems to be true AI. It looks like we’ll be seeing more Marty’s out and about.

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