When ethical arguments become cliches

Photo by: Zackary Canepari for The New York Times
Photo by: Zackary Canepari for The New York Times

Photo by: Zackary Canepari for The New York Times

This summer NPR’s Fresh Air interviewed John Markoff, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning science writer behind the nonfiction book “Machines of Loving Grace.” It was a comprehensive interview that covered everything from self-driving cars to virtual reality. And like most contemporary authors writing books about robots, Markoff’s commentary on today’s rapidly increasing automation had a liberal dollop of prophetic foreboding. Fear-filled visions of dystopian, robot-run futures are nothing new to anyone who has ever consumed pop culture — and in a world overrun by science fiction cliches, reading yet another piece on why robots are going to steal our jobs can be a little fatiguing.

Part of the problem is that what is happening with technology right now is exciting, fast-paced, and bathed in the icy blue glow of a sci-fi movie poster — yet the ethical arguments surrounding tech are as old as John Henry, and as tired as another Terminator sequel. It’s hard for ethics to compete against the sexiness of a self-driving car.

Markoff’s interview is actually very balanced, covers a lot of ground, and is educational for someone looking to know more about the issue. But of course he is forced to confront the same cliched myths, stereotypes, and fears surrounding robots and masquerading as erudite ethical concerns. So that you never have to look at them again, here is a breakdown of the most cliched, overwrought, eighth-grade-debate-team ethical arguments concerning robots, and why we need to retire them — or rather, change the focus of the conversation.

1. Robots will steal our jobs.
Usually this argument devolves into one of two things: 1) an itemized receipt of the jobs robots are definitely going to (or not going to) steal, or 2) a heated, curmudgeonly defense of jobs that absolutely should require a human touch (grocery store kiosks are featured prominently here).

Here’s why this approach is misguided: although we can predict within reason which jobs will become automated in the next 10 – 20 years (taxi and truck drivers are usually included somewhere on this list), a better question is what we are going to do about it. Framing the concern as an ultimatum — it’s us or the robots — is an explicit attempt to provoke a dramatic reaction: “kill the metal bastards.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way, because as Markoff explains in his interview, there are two types of robots: the ones designed to be just as capable as humans at their jobs (e.g., a self-driving car), and the ones designed to boost our already existing abilities (a car with cruise control). The former are the ones we need to be concerned about, the ones that are already supplanting us in the workplace — but the latter type, what Markfoff calls “IA,” or intelligent augmentation, have the potential to greatly improve our lives. These IA bots are specifically crafted to work collaboratively with humans; robots that supplement our unique specialties and skills. For example, rather than have a robotic arm do all the heavy lifting in a warehouse, instead outfit workers with robotic exoskeletons that allow them to lift objects ten times their weight. These same robotic skeletons have allowed people with spinal cord injuries to walk again, and there are prototypes that could help aging construction workers perform more strenuous physical activity.

Human-integrated robots like these have the potential to reduce danger in the workplace, to make assembly lines more productive, and to help humans perform skilled and unskilled jobs at an even faster rate. Given the boon that these types of robots give to society, our response should not be to get rid of them entirely, but find a way to integrate them with humans.

2. Robots will create jobs.
This is the usual, go-to argument on the other side of the fence, and it can be equally, blandly simple.

Unfortunately, the types of jobs people mean when they say this — robot design, manufacture, and maintenance — are not always available to the workers they displace. These jobs require an education, a financial investment most unskilled workers are unequipped to assume, and years of training. Tony Scalzitti, a man responsible for hiring managers of CNC (computer numerically controlled) machines, aptly summarizes this dilemma in a frank interview with Planet Money: “We could train you for six months and you wouldn’t get it.”

Now, there is nothing wrong with a high-paying, high-skilled, and highly competitive job that requires multiple degrees and years of technical experience. The problem is that these jobs are not available for everyone, and one mechanical engineer does not fill the void left by an entire factory floor of workers.

There is also something bleak about the promise of a future where these are the only job options available to people looking to make a living wage. Here Markoff’s advocacy for IA robots rather than AI robots is especially resonant. Not everyone has an engineering mind, or relishes a career taking care of robots. Supplemental automation — automation used to enhance a person’s existing job, be it unskilled or skilled, creative or analytical — is the alternative we should strive for. Unfortunately, it’s not always the most popular option.

3. Robots will usurp us.
Nope. Not any time soon, at least.

4. Robots will free us up for luxury, and make things cheaper for us to buy.
More robots means less working hours, means more time to spend on products that were made cheaper for us by automation. Sounds simple, right?

It’s true, robots are going to make goods cheaper for us to buy, but for whom? If we continue to make robots that replace workers and only leave room for the select few with the highly specialized skills to program and maintain them, then where does that leave us? Automation will make products cheaper, as it always has, but the massive re-distribution of wealth that comes with that automation will be unlike any other associated with a technological renaissance. It’s difficult to understand that when there has been no other historical precedent, but there are other ways to communicate just how large-scale this is: as part of their multi-part series on robotics, Planet Money released a rather startling “definitive guide” detailing exactly whose jobs are at risk of being automated. In summary, much of it is what you’d expect, with telemarketers having the highest chance of losing their jobs to robots; however, what is most poignant is that the jobs listed in the top ranking are not industrial, but white-collar and administrative. To name a few: bookkeepers, account collectors, postal workers, legal and medical secretaries.

5. Robots will turn us into lazy, gelatinous, tech-dependent, mindless sacks.
Tech cannot be the scapegoat for everything. But because tech has such an incredible power to shape our visible world, people use it to channel their anxieties about changing cityscapes, about a new generation they can no longer relate to, about new forms of media inaccessible without tech, about “new money” tech juggernauts, about childhood obesity, about a failing education system, about grandkids with interests and desires fearfully alien from their own.

It’s easy for the purposes of fiction to villainize robots as metaphorical symbols of oppression, isolation, greed, or slovenly and lazy behavior. However, this simplification disregards underlying societal issues. Robots, like all technology, are tools, and the way they are used reflects back upon us. Robots are not responsible for society’s problems, we are.

What should we focus on?
People like to compare what is happening in robotics today to the industrial revolution (hence the same tired arguments used back then). And to some extent, this comparison is helpful: the industrial revolution did displace a lot of workers, did make products cheaper, and did improve the quality of life in the long-run.

But what makes today different is that a) technology has advanced on a scale history could not have predicted, and b) we are WELL past industrial robots, and deep in the trenches of service and administrative robots. Even the way a robot looks today is different from what we once imagined; the boxy-headed tin men that stomped through the pages of vintage sci-fi comics have been replaced by disembodied, intangible software encoded in our computers.

So yes, we should be concerned about jobs. But in order to engage in any kind of meaningful, educated, or rational discussion on the ethical concerns surrounding robots, we need to first separate the subject from the muse. Cliches are not helpful; fear mongering over the “robot apocalypse” is not helpful. The premise of a serious debate on the ethics of robots should never be whether or not we should eliminate them, but what can be done to address the real consequences of robots that ignore or encroach upon human dignity, life, wellbeing, or livelihood. So please, no more articles on evil robots with a screencap of a Decepticon as the featured image. Surely this topic deserves more nuance, without falling into the trap of personifying robots as malevolent (or charitable), as if they are somehow disconnected from the well-intentioned, greedy, misguided, or self-contradictory and complex humans who make them.

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