Are Robots Turning into Us, or Us into Them?
“Thank you very much, Mr. Roboto” —Styx (“Mr. Roboto”)
BACK IN EARLY 1983, that cheesetastic smash hit “Mr. Roboto” hit the airwaves. Concerned with the rise of intrusive technologies that erode privacy, a fear of Japan (generally seen at the time as the bastion of futurism and robotics) taking over the world, and the increasing de-emphasis on humanity, the song was omnipresent for a hot minute. Or maybe just chalk it up to the last-gasp wheeze, synth-heavy bombast of aging ’70s rockers. Whatever the case, by now the song has become a cliched reference, often called forth when someone needs to illustrate the idea of humans displaced by the technology they developed.
That Mr. Roboto-esque idea—soulless, cold, efficient machines superseding warm-blooded and problematic humans—colors much of the discussion of automation, from hard news reporting on robotic mechanization of the factory floor to a bevy of dystopian science fiction TV shows and movies. As a child of the ’70s and ’80s, I was so inculcated with those ideas that I was sure that, as a species, we would already be facing either the problem of excessive leisure time and a dissipated sense of enterprise (the Wall-E view of the future) or of self-aware technology struggling to shake off its human ancestors (either the Terminator or Battlestar Galactica future, depending on how sexy you want your robots).
Well, it turns out that automation’s impact may be much, much more prosaic. Rather than robots becoming more and more like us, automation technologies seem intent on turning us more and more robotic. Rather than a future sprung from the mind of Philip K. Dick or Aldous Huxley, we seem intent on using automation to remake the world-to-come in the mold of Frederick Taylor’s principles of scientific management. Yup, Taylorism’s time and motion studies—the bane of factory workers of the early 20th century—seem to have made a remarkable comeback and are the key to modern automation.
If you manage inside sales teams or customer service agents, you’ve probably been pitched tools that claim to provide either real-time cues to your staff based on empathy or a fully automated score of the interaction’s quality (including empathy). In many cases these tools come off seeming like annoying older men telling young women to smile more. A “robot” has determined that the appropriate way to interact with a customer is to “raise your energy level”—a real prompt from one such tool.
This is just performative empathy, and to customers it comes off like a robot trying to ape human behavior. Hence my claim that this automation approach turns people into quasi-automatons. These conversation intelligence tools are just the tip of the automation iceberg; automated surveillance tools essentially drive remote workers to jiggle their mice to simulate activity rather than measure actual productive work. One could argue that this breed of busy work generation also starts moving workers toward a simulacrum of humanity.
It’s at this point in my tirade that you might expect some softening of tone and an offer of a compromise solution. After all, I am well known for my arguments in favor of augmentation rather than automation. But I fear even that ship has sailed; that effigy has shattered at the feet of late-stage capitalism and techno-utopianism. So, all I’ve got for you is a sincere cry from the heart: Stop telling me to smile! (Oh, and “I’m Kilroy!” of course.)
Ian Jacobs is a vice president and research director at Forrester Research.