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Saturday, October 22, 2016

So machines are now able to assess a human’s mood. “Emotion detection software” has put robots one step closer to replacing the humans who work — or used to work — in what we in the olden days called “customer relations.”

Assuming that you, dear reader, are a human and not a column-consuming robot, you may be asking the question: What happens to the jobs of humans who were laboring under the impression that they could still do things machines couldn’t?

That’s a good question, says Zeynep Tufekci, an information expert at the University of North Carolina. Robots can now interview people at the border and identify phony documents, she writes. One imagines they can hire other machines.

Robots are getting better at holding conversations, and their voices can now sound as if they are reacting in a heartfelt way to the human’s remarks. More like Candice Bergen, one supposes, and less like ED-209, the robot in RoboCop. (“Please put down your wea-pon. You now have 15 se-conds to com-ply.”)

Marketers may soon use robots to deliver “mood-targeted” advertising. Sales robots are being programmed to assess your level of interest and personality type. They’ve got the algorithms, mined from your digital activities, and may very well know how much buying power is left on your credit card.

Suppose you’re looking at running shoes. What chance do you have against a sales machine programmed to respond to your every gaze and sigh — who knows your shoe size and past purchases of athletic apparel?

What you need is a machine to fight the machine. You need a shopping robot who knows your style, colors, price range, needs, and wants — but whose poker-faced panel reacts to the sales machine’s pitch with supreme indifference. You need a shopping robot who doesn’t gasp with desire and shout “me want” into the sales machine’s audio analyzer. That way, your shopping robot can extract the maximum discount from the sales robot.

It sounds so efficient. Robots make the running shoes, sell the running shoes and buy the running shoes by the most cost-effective means possible.

But there’s a problem. Who’s going to pay for the running shoes? I mean, if a robot can do your job taking drink orders, reading ultrasounds or selling washing machines, how are you going to earn the wherewithal to buy stuff?

“Machines are getting smarter,” Tufekci notes, “and they’re coming for more and more jobs.” Furthermore, the jobs they are coming for are no longer limited to those requiring little in the way of skills.

Human resistance may be futile. Robots don’t sleep, get sick or take vacations. Unless programmed by a criminal, they don’t walk out with the employer’s paper clips or coffee mugs. (And they have sensors in the back of their heads to catch any human trying to do that kind of thing.)

So all you humans working insane hours, taking stimulants to better focus on the job, answering corporate email on the weekends — your efforts may be in vain. A robot can always outpace you.

Humans will be left with a very simple role in future economic transactions: Their function will be to fork over dollars some working person earned back in the 20th century.

Of course, those 20th-century dollars will eventually run out. But technology may eventually be deployed to find something economically useful for humans to do. Have faith in the future. Humans are still the only beings on the planet able to binge shop and make impulse purchases.

But also be on guard. The day you see a robot wearing running shoes, you’ll know you are truly in trouble.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected] To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at 

Photo: Bill Dickinson via Flickr

  • Allan Richardson

    Since the money earned by the robots only goes to the robot’s owners, either corporations or wealthy individuals for the most part, the one essential for people in our economy, working to earn money to spend to live, will eventually be unavailable because robots will be doing it all. This will not happen suddenly, and not for perhaps a century, because human labor will unavoidably become cheaper than robot labor. But humans who still make the decisions (or will the robots, programmed to support the needs of humans, both individually and as a species, make it for us, a la Asimov?) will be forced to change laws to consider a large fraction of the robotic infrastructure which does the work to be the common property of humanity, thus endowing all humans with a share of their ownership sufficient to live a reasonably comfortable life. Possibly the NEWER and MOST IMPROVED robots would remain the property of their developers, ensuring a continuing above average income (possibly WAY above average) for a limited time, before passing into the common heritage of humanity.

    There are two objections to this prediction: (1) “but that’s SOCIALISM!” Giving an idea a dirty-sounding name does not, in itself, prove it false or unwise or immoral. Postal service, fire departments, police departments, and in MOST capitalist nations health care, are “socialist” in that they serve the wealthy and not so wealthy alike, either for a very small fee, or for tax money (imagine reporting a burglary and being told they won’t take the case if you don’t have “police insurance”). These are not evil functions, as long as everyone has an equal opportunity to find ways to earn as much EXTRA income as they can.

    And (2) “but without an incentive, nobody will work and nothing will get done.” In the more distant future, when robots will do ALL the work that is NECESSARY, including repairing one another, leaving humans (working with robots) to develop improvements to the robots, or artistic creations, in order to earn EXTRA (or maybe not even caring about the reward, just enjoying the work), no incentive will be NEEDED. Until then, but to a diminishing degree, a SUBSET of the available population will be NEEDED to do the work which is really necessary, or which someone wants to pay for. But, rather than saying “if your work isn’t needed right now, you cannot obtain the necessities of life, in order to live until your work IS needed, thus you will have to starve,” society would say, “here’s what you need to stay comfortable and healthy until YOUR TURN to work comes up; and here is a list of things you COULD do to keep from being bored,” and human nature being what it is, after a period of idleness, the majority of people would pick up that list of positive accomplishments and do them FOR THEIR OWN SAKE.

    This way, we would not need “eternal growth” in demand in order to hire enough people to give everyone a “job” to meet the “growing demand,” once the actual needs for corrective action (environmental cleanup, medical services, education, spiritual guidance, etc.) have been satisfied. We, or the benevolent robots who care about our needs (due to the First Law, and the Zeroth Law), would have a rotating list of jobs, and for a shrinking percentage of their lifetimes, humans would be required to do a job, temporarily (as we do jury duty now, and once did military service), or suffer the loss of social insurance payments; but when not needed, suffer no penalty for not being needed.

    Unlike “socialism,” this does not depend upon an unrealistic view of human nature; in fact the classical capitalistic view of human nature is not realistic, because people do difficult and unpleasant things (work) for multiple reasons, and only a minority would prefer to remain INDEFINITELY unproductive (considering that there are different kinds of “productive” activity) if they did not need income. Perhaps a vacation, but not permanent idleness. People also work for recognition, love, commitment to a cause, etc. and those who are fortunate enough to do what they love for these reasons AND get well paid (or at least well ENOUGH paid) are currently the happiest. But if “well enough paid” were not a factor, more people could work for these higher reasons. If we were better educated to know about these alternatives, only a small minority would engage in what is called “destructive” forms of idleness as a long term way of life.

    The alternative is an ecological and economic collapse due to overpopulation and overexploitation of natural resources, compounded by social collapse and war, with the survivors living a stone age existence … in a world where the resources which allowed our ancestors to rise above a stone age existence already used up.