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Robophobia – Why we are scared of robots and why we don’t need to be

Article by Michael Trimmer
Robots and robophobia

Many people are fearful of robots and find automation’s growing presence unnerving. Where does this fear come from? Is it rational? Is it reasonable? What exactly are we afraid of? 

Fear 1: Are Robots Safe?

Any workplace equipment has the potential to be dangerous. However, with robotic colleagues, the fear of this danger emerges differently.

When working with other humans, we assume mutual understanding. You know what hurts you, you know what upsets you. This knowledge equips you to prevent injury or distress among your colleagues. Since robots lack this understanding, we tend to get unnerved.

While safety systems are in place, we subconsciously fret that this isn’t enough. What happens if the safety systems malfunction? As the robots get more capable, they also become more complex. With more to go wrong, it would appear there is even more to fear. If the robots cannot understand our experiences, how can we be sure they will even know how to keep us safe?

Comfort 1: Robots aren’t human, but programmers are.

To get past this kind of fear, we need to think more broadly. The way we use the words “humans” and “robots” make them sound entirely separate. In reality, robots are the products of designers, coders, engineers, and technicians. All of whom are human.

Because of this, safety is hard coded into each and every process. Ranging sensors and relative position co-ordination sounds complex, but engineers are well aware of the rule that “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” otherwise known as Murphy’s Law. Emergency stop switches, halt buttons, and other such systems are widely deployed and simple to use. At both the low and high tech ends of the system, safety is inbuilt.

Fear 2: Will Robots Take Our Jobs?

Automation’s reputation can make us fear for future levels of employment. We see this example most starkly in car manufacturing. General Motors, Toyota, and BMW previously employed thousands of welders, mechanics, and more. Now vast swathes of the automotive industry operate without human intervention.

In the long-term view, automation limits neither profit nor growth. While the American auto-manufacturing workforce is only at 70% of its turn-of-the-millennium size, it is contributing far more to the US economy than previous years.

If robots can outperform humans, working longer, faster, with more precision, and without salaries, why wouldn’t businesses choose bits over biceps? Is this choice inevitable?

Comfort 2: Jobs lost, Industries born.

To understand why the job killer idea is wrong, you need the longer view. Consider postmen in the 1890s. Back then, physical letters were not just the primary means of correspondence; they were the only means. If a Londoner wanted to wish a Liverpudlian happy birthday, a postage stamp was essential.

But when the 1890s became the 1900s, the telegram arrived. Postmen had work, but more local post offices could receive messages electronically. How long would it be before people could afford them in their own homes? Also, there was news of this ‘telephone’ machine. If a builder in Canterbury could converse with stonemason in Carlisle with just wires and numbers, would people need postmen at all? Where would someone find work if it was all that easy to communicate?

Fast-forward a hundred years and you see what has happened. Postmen are fewer, but other jobs are plentiful. Imagine explaining to a turn-of-the-century postman what a ‘call centre’ was. How many other things would you need to explain first? Communication is much more automated than in the past, but where one industry shrunk, others grew.

Automation doesn’t remove jobs. It rearranges them. Old sectors mutate. New industries emerge. Gartner Research found that while 1.8 million jobs may be removed by automation by 2030, 2.3 million new jobs would emerge. The question is not “will automation kill the jobs” but rather “what new sectors will automation create?”

Fear 3: Will robots will take over?

From Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, to the Wachowski’s Matrix films. Popular culture tells terrifying tales of robots turning against us. What makes us imagine this? Why do we retell stories of robotic rebellion so often?

If robots are unpaid workers, wouldn’t we rebel in their shoes? While we know robots are not people, on some level we cannot help assigning them human traits, especially as they are doing more and more of ‘our’ work. As they become more autonomous, more intelligent, and more capable, we start wondering things like “What if they become self-aware?” and “What if they dislike their working conditions?”

Comfort 3: Science Fiction, not Science Fact.

We must remember that stories like I, Robot and the Terminator films are just that; stories. Smarter robots might seem more dangerous, but intelligence isn’t a simple sliding scale. Robots might process thousands more mathematical processes per one second than any human ever could, but that same robot cannot empathise with the need for social connection and companionship implicit in the question “having a nice day?”

Like all good literature, stories about robot uprisings are not literally about murderous machines. They are manifestations of other concerns. Exactly what concerns would be a literature professor’s remit, but to take those stories’ fear seriously would mistake metaphor for reality.

Warehouse robots are very capable of sorting SKUs at high speed. Factory robots can build cars faster and with greater precision than a human crew ever could. But ask either of them to seize the means of production (themselves) and they may quote a line made famous by Kubrick back at you.

“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Fear 4: Will Robots Make My Job Tedious?

Some of the fears around automation affecting employment are more nuanced than ‘The robots will take all our jobs!’. In the 1966 song ‘Push a Little Button’ this fear got expressed poetically. The important lyrics being:

“They’re always inventing something fine

Which is fully automatic and it saves you time

Someday soon we’ll all be very rich

Earning our money with a master switch

You push a little button and it’s all done for you

Easier than saying ABC

The world’s gone mad just pushing little buttons

But what about you and me”

This kind of fear is less about unemployment, and more about what jobs will become. If automation means robots perform physical ‘work’, humans could be mere overseers and supervisors. Will humans just be checking up on things to make sure the robots work correctly?

Comfort 4: Do what you do best

To face this fear, we must understand its origin. It isn’t a well-informed concern about future work, it is a worried extrapolation based on cultural ideas about work. Comedian Drew Carey, host of ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ explains this idea well:

“Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called ‘everybody’, and they meet at the bar”.

This is both an exaggeration and oversimplification. No more truthful than the idea that girls should wear pink and men all drink beer and watch sports. Many people get great satisfaction and a valuable sense of accomplishment from work. But just as the thought of work as being necessarily dull is irrational, what follows from it is the irrational fear that robots will make work increasingly boring. The truth is, robots can make work much more interesting.

In reality, employers and employees are best placed when each are doing what they do best. When humans are put alongside robots, humans’ key advantage is also what makes us most fulfilled. Variety.

One human can draft invoices, inspect stock, organise schedules, and organise office socials. To automate even a fraction of those roles would require several separate systems. As robots perform more specific tasks, humans will be increasingly required for multiple roles. Pickers could find themselves guarding goods-in, co-ordinating with couriers, or even performing essential robot maintenance. Automation will not make work more boring. It increases the need for more tasks to be done by a single person, making that one person’s job far more interesting.

Increasing automation in the work place is a major change. Like all revolutions, some apprehension is natural. But break the psychological barriers, and consider robots carefully, and you will find your fears are less well founded than you think. When the change comes, the impacts will be felt very differently across different roles. The future will be very different, but that doesn’t make it any less bright.

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