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It's a Brand-New Year -- Why Fear the Future?

Welcome your robot liberators!

Stephen F. Bevacqua/New Scientist

They gathered in the dark night with hatchets, pistols and muskets. It was April 11, 1812, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, and the Luddites were preparing to attack William Cartwright’s Rawfolds Mill in England. Many had lost their jobs to industrialization, man had been replaced by machine and the irate mob was ready for revenge.

Are our livelihoods in danger like the Luddites’ were? Many fear so. Researchers are projecting that roles from chefs to bookkeepers to judges will soon be filled by robot laborers. By 2035, up to 35 percent of jobs could be done by machines. Professions requiring creativity and empathy might seem safe, but even those are up for grabs. Data entry and customer service roles are highly likely to disappear.

Sure, it sounds scary, but is the future really so bleak? Did the world not continue after the Luddites rallied against industrial life? While it’s true that robots and algorithms will eliminate some jobs, that doesn’t mean they’ll replace us.

In fact, this picture is missing a crucial component: The age of automation will bring plenty of new jobs and maximize efficiency for humans in existing roles.

Why do we fear technology?

People have always feared change at the hands of technology. Long before the Luddites was Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher and teacher of Plato, who feared that writing would damage man’s memory.

Technology should never be created without a thought to its consequences, and the benchmark for any new tool should be solving more problems than it creates. To make this sort of determination about automation technology, we ought to engage in an open discussion. Frankly, hysteria about our being replaced by robots is not only unhelpful to this end, but it also could doom real advances in fields from medicine to law to business.

fear of technology

And there’s no denying that the tech boom of the past decades has fueled wide economic inequality, generating fabulous wealth for some while edging others out of jobs. However, as evidenced by 19th-century industrialization and the development of writing in antiquity, technology is also a great equalizer.

The pace of technological development is increasing rapidly, and it can seem like a scary, vicious cycle for those who aren’t involved. This isn’t helped by naive responses like Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary “San Francisco 2.0,” which recently screened on HBO.

Technology won’t eliminate us

Looking at our shared history and abilities, there is one promise I can make: Technology won’t eliminate our economic need for humans. We are tool builders by nature; it’s what separates us from other animals. Our relationship with technology doesn’t exist just because technology is fascinating; it makes our lives easier and enhances the better parts of our humanity.

 Bob, the robot security guard
Bob, the robot security guard

Consider Bob, a robotic security guard built by the University of Birmingham that patrolled the corridors of the G4S offices in Tewkesbury, England. Bob scanned rooms for suspicious activity, comparing what he saw with his last sweep of the building. If something was amiss, Bob alerted his human counterparts; when Bob needed a recharge, he happily returned to his docking station.

Bob cannot, however, tackle an intruder. If he gets stuck, he needs human assistance to free himself. Bob hasn’t replaced traditional security guards — he’s made their lives easier.

Technology works with us

Bob is just one example of how new technology is serving to increase efficiency and speed up routines. But how can robots assist us in skilled labor? At the Los Angeles Times, Ken Schwencke has developed an algorithm called Quakebot.

When an earthquake strikes California, Quakebot pulls U.S. Geological Survey data and inputs it into a prewritten template. The story is then reviewed and published by a human editor. Quakebot might not produce Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism, but that’s not the point; it provides the quickest, easiest way to get information to readers. It’s still up to humans to update the story with context and details.

It’s clear that Quakebot doesn’t threaten journalists’ jobs; it supports them. It can’t sniff out a story or interview eyewitnesses, but it does save journalists time, and allows them to concentrate on more complex stories.

Rethink Robotics/YouTube

In addition to making our lives easier, technologies create jobs — and will continue creating them. Meet Baxter, an industrial robot working alongside humans to assist with fast-paced manufacturing jobs.

While robots like Baxter might replace some roles, they can’t do everything for themselves. Baxter and robots like him will forever need humans to repair them, develop new software, add functionality and train them.

Shedding technophobia

Humans won’t just need to train robots in this new economy — we’ll need to retrain ourselves. In technical revolutions past, vocational and trade schools popped up to teach people new skills for the developing economy. Today is no different, with tech-oriented boot camps springing up to offer such training.

We’re not just talking about computer programming, either. Even fashion designers will need to be technically proficient in the future, and there’s no downside to our acquiring new skills as a society.

As we become more technologically literate, we will overcome our fears and start viewing technology for what it is: A set of useful tools serving as extensions of our physical world. Concerns about the harmful effects of smartphones on our social interactions will be replaced by the realization that some people are just rude, and we will marvel at how our forebears coped without the latest time-saving gadget.

Robots and algorithms may take functions away from us, but they also create new roles. New technologies will continue to make us more efficient and help us find new ways to enjoy our working lives.

As for the Luddites, Cartwright was waiting for them. They broke his door and several windows but were rebuffed by his workers and guards. When the dust cleared, the machinery lay intact. The mill continued to function, and the Luddites were rounded up by police. Instead of fighting technology, they should have learned to work with it.

Tony Scherba is the president and a founding partner of Yeti LLC, a product-focused development and design studio in San Francisco. Scherzo has been building software since his teen years, and he has led development on high-profile projects for global brands such as Google, Britney Spears, JBL, MIT and Linkin Park. He and the Yeti team work to develop game-changing products through innovation, workshopping, and rapid prototyping. Reach him @tonydots.

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