When Robots Become Co-Workers and Peers – A Conversation with Dr. Karl MacDorman

When I first think of robots in the workforce, I can’t help but mentally form the introductory scene of some future-oriented sitcom, with a silver-plated, two-legged robot coming through the front door, briefcase in hand and shouting in digitized monotones, “Honey, I’m home!”  As silly and culturally-bound as this image may be, the overall picture may not be too far from the scenes most humans form when thinking about intelligent machines actively working alongside humans.  In a recent interview with Dr. Karl MacDorman, we asked about the implications of robots or more human-like androids mixing with society, particularly in the workforce.  His logical response – “We don’t know yet…human beings habituate too many things.”

As a species, we’re so familiar and conditioned to human beings controlling most of the jobs, that the thought of robots or androids taking our place seems foreign.  Dr. MacDorman expounds this idea by discussing his experiences working in a school for the mentally and emotionally disturbed.  “There are people doing very strange things there…but you get used to it.”  At some point, you see past the odd behaviors, able to see each person as an individual and appreciate their human worth.  A similar adaptation from the strange to the routine may occur between humans and androids, or initially robots.

Emotional reactions aside, what might be the economic ramifications of a workforce populated by intelligent ‘bots’?   At its core, Dr. MacDorman makes the point that the idea or “the process of people losing their jobs to some kind of innovation has been going on for thousands of years”.  He refers to the Romans and the building of aqueducts and indoor plumbing, which resulted in taking jobs from water bearers.  This type of shift in the workforce is a long-term process; in Japan, where Dr. MacDorman lived for a period of years, he notes that some manufacturing jobs have been taken over by robots, but that he’s not sure that robotics has been as disruptive as other types of technological innovations or changes.

Yet the eventual “disruption” seems to be inevitable.  In 2011, Chinese companies spent $1.3 billion on industrial robots.  FoxConn, the company that builds iPads for Apple, hopes to have the first fully automated plant within the decade.  In light of such moves, there are several interesting predictions about the outcomes of society driven by an automated workforce.  As is inherent of any intellectual debate, varying projections seem to rest on two fulcrums – societal values and attitude (optimism versus skepticism).  Each argument, of course incorporates, each of these factors to a varying degree.

In an article for Forbes, Tim Worstall brings up an existing argument for a future robot-driven economy, the eventual creation of two classes – a “rentier class” that owns the robots and reaps most of the benefits, and “the rest of us.”  Worstall argues against this perspective.  He makes the case that everything will be much cheaper, one of the reasons being the elimination of unnecessary wages.  If income is relative to purchasing price, won’t the cheap costs and reduced wages to humans result in some for of balanced income equality?  Robert Skidelsky, Professor Emiritus of Political Economy at Warwick University in the U.K., argues machines may “engineer an escape” from poverty; in poor countries, economists use the term “disguised unemployment”, in which laborers find the means to share a limited amount of work.  Perhaps instead of a few very wealthy at the top, a decrease in required human labor will alter and reduce the standard for required human output, creating time for “more leisure.”   This would, he maintains, require a major shift in social thinking of current western values.

In an article from Wired, Author Kevin Kelly writes that the post-industrial economy will keep expanding, even if robots perform most work.  Like MacDorman, he sees the post-industrial revolution as an almost predictable repeat of history.  Just as in the early 19th century, when machinated innovations eventually replaced all but 1 percent of the existing farm jobs (the livelihood of 70% of the workforce 200 years ago), robots will likely do the same to the current workforce before the end of the century.  In the wake of the industrial revolution, a plethora of jobs in completely new fields, ones we had not dreamt of while we were busy plowing the land, were born, ushering in a new era of human cultural and societal structures.  Kelly makes the case that this will be the new reality when robots take the helm.  The human task will be to find, make, and complete new things to do, acting as “robot nannies” in the interim to other robots, and possibly androids, in a repeating cycle of robot takeovers and human creation and innovation.  He suggests the idea of “personal robot automation” for every human being, emphasizing that success will go to those who innovate in the organization, optimization, and customization of process of getting work done with his or her bots.  In Kelly’s eyes, this cycle allows us to become more “human than we already are”, increasingly free to explore the depths of our consciousness and purpose.

Circling back around to the shorter-term future and the beginnings of robot labor integration, Dr. MacDorman thinks service professions might be a good place for bots to start.   He makes the claim that there are some things that other cultures, like the Japanese, do better than we do; for example, service personnel and shop owners don’t talk to each other, but instead focus solely on the customer.  He remarks that while they seem to an empathetic culture in general, this seems to be taken to the extreme in service jobs.   Accordingly, there seems to be more of the opposite experience in the U.S.; especially from the perspective of service personnel, working in the industry can be a negative experience, especially when there are expectations to be the “perfect” service person and to unfalteringly treat the customer as king.   “In general, I don’t think people like to be servants…especially Americans don’t like to be in that kind of role”, MacDorman states.

Robots could be programmed to respond efficiently to humans’ every need, sans moving slowly on account of feeling tired or entering into emotionally-triggered conflicts with customers.  He points out that the U.S. economy has created a numbers of jobs in the low-end service sector, and the economy would need to evolve rather quickly to ensure balance, and enough jobs for those workers who would be temporarily displaced.   And what about when we get to the point where “androids” or a similar intelligence enter reality, which have the capabilities to potentially support social complex interactions?  We can make our predictions, but this is far enough into the future that we still recognize the wisdom in Dr. MacDorman’s initial response – we just don’t know yet.