Robots Scare People, They Shouldn’t

In this photo are three structural nodes, intended to hold cables above a road in The Hague. The difference is the node on the far left was designed by a human, and on the far right by a computer. More importantly, the node on the far right supports the same weight, but weighs 75% less and is 50% smaller.

Last night, my wife and I finally sat down and watched the movie “Ex Machina”. Not exactly your typical Christmastime movie, but whatever.  The movie portrays AI and robots interacting with humans in a fatalistic way.

I don’t think it answers questions, but it certainly brings up a few.

  • Can a human have an intimate relationship with a robot?
  • Can we design “humanity” and “empathy” into robots?
  • If we design robots that can do everything we do today, what the hell are we going to do?

Certainly, it’s pretty easy to run down the rabbit hole of fatalism when you think about technological advances.  When I speak to classes at universities, I always ask them if they think they will be innovated out of the job they are planning on getting after graduation.  Most people that have a higher education don’t think it can happen to them.

It’s not about “if it will happen”, but when.

Because it’s easy to think of the doom and gloom instances of AI and robots, it’s often hard to see the other side.  Because we cannot anticipate the new jobs and functions that might be created, it’s really hard to imagine what humans will do.  Not everyone can survive by making stuff for Etsy and Ebay.  We can’t all be artists and writers!

There is a debate going on about robots and war. What happens when you can field a robot/drone army and attack other countries without worrying about losing human life on your side?  War is the worst thing that can happen in human society, so it’s easy to see why people get a little scared when robots start doing things that we used to do ourselves.

Already, computers are teaching other computers to program.  Humans interact with chat bots.  There are amazing things going on in labs all around the world when it comes to robotics and deep learning.  I know of high frequency trading firms that are successfully using AI and VR to trade all kinds of financial products.  They are on the cutting edge of innovation.  Instead of hiring smart people from finance, they hire PhD physics and engineering people to build models to trade markets.  Heck, there are even people building in algorithms to do venture capital investing which is supposed to be a “soft skill”.

Wherever there are heuristics in human decision making, it seems an algo can find the blind spots and make decision making better.  Michael Lewis talks about this in his most recent book, The Undoing Project.  Behavioral economics seeks to prove that man isn’t rational, but irrational.  It’s a provocative thing to think about.

Imagine an AI that helps you uncover and confront heuristics you use.  You might make better decisions.  Maybe you will have less regrets in life.  People could interact with bots to become more creative.

Living and traveling all over the Rust Belt, I see the destruction that has happened as innovation has displaced people.  I don’t think it’s something to fight or fear, but something to surf on top of.  If automation is a given, then our response to automation isn’t.  I think that the public policies that we have put in place have made the situation worse, not better for the people most affected by innovation.

I also think this is why you see Universal Basic Income entering the debate.  After thinking about the concept, I don’t think UBI is the correct way to administer the policy.  However, I do think we should do something; it just can’t be a government mandated safety net.  Those never work and create economic incentives that are wrong.  A massaging of the EITC policies, or negative income tax is the way to go.  There is dignity in work.  Work gives people a sense of being, belonging, and purpose.

A destiny of menial labor is not where we are headed either.  The Hunger Games is a movie, not the future.  It’s just that as humans, we are uncomfortable with not knowing.  Uncertainty wears on our psyches and puts us in a state of unease.  The longer the condition persists, the more fatalistic we get.

Throughout human history, we have always innovated. The invention of the wheel allowed us to move stuff from here to there.  Can we imagine life without simple things like a washing machine and dryer?  Refrigerator?  Dishwasher?  I think that humans will benefit from AI, VR, robots, and all the other things being worked on.  We just don’t know what it’s going to look like.

It’s easy to see why people are fatalistic.  Even Styx in 1983 had a fatalistic view of robots!

  • Dave Kruse

    Thanks Jeff. Do you know what program/robot was used to design the part on the far right? This tech out of UW Madison optimizes material reduction in parts.

    Also, do you know of any public examples of the trading firms using VR and AI? Sounds interesting.

    • I didn’t know that about UW Madison. Thanks for telling me. Dang, those colleges in fly over country are really behind the curve when it comes to innovation. The HFT firms aren’t public, so I can’t say who they are. But, they are there, and they are in Chicago.

      • Dave Kruse

        I agree. I always appreciate it when you write about the Big Ten schools.

        Makes sense. I’m guessing those HTF haven’t released any white papers or any video or anything? I can imagine what they’re doing. I think it could have applications across analytics, but I’m not sure. Always interested in what people are doing.

  • awaldstein

    I live down the street to one of the best public specialized High Schools in NY that specializes in robotics.

    No fear here.

    The kids are always out raising money on streets with too cool inventions that take over the sidewalks.

    Great stuff.

    Robots are just part of life.

    • Yes, and hopefully they will make our domestic lives a lot easier

      • awaldstein

        and maybe the only answer to the artisanal local food dilemma.

  • Dan Whaley

    For anyone (like myself) for whom the image above simply raised tons of questions, here is the associated paper: